Staunton, April 23 – In the last few weeks, a large number of commentators have suggested that the Putin regime will be challenged or even overthrown. Many may simply be engaging in wishful thinking; but they highlight an important development: ever more Russians now recognize that the Putin regime is not eternal and could end sooner than anyone imagines.
That does not mean they are right: Vladimir Putin even more than his Chinese comrades is quite prepared to engage in what used to be called “big blood” to maintain himself in power; and he is even more prepared to engage in risky foreign policy actions to shore up his increasingly shaky position with the Russian population.
Indeed, those two possibilities may be the most important reason for paying attention to those who argue that his regime is coming to an end because the way that happens and its immediate aftermath may be extremely dangerous not only for Russia and Russians but for the international community.
Perhaps the most sophisticated and convincing of commentaries predicting the imminent demise of Putin and his regime is offered by Nikolay Petrov, currently a visiting senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, in a new paper entitled simply “Putin’s Downfall” (ecfr.eu/page/-/ECFR_166_PUTINS_DOWNFALL.pdf).
Petrov offers five key judgments:
· “Russia’s political regime is unsustainable. It has no capacity to reform, and faces growing economic woes, crumbling infrastructure, and warring elites.”
· “After widespread protests and ebbing of support, the government began in 2014 to base its legitimacy on winning wars. Putin centralised all power in the presidency, suppressing dissent and weakening institutions in the process.”
· “Now, the regime needs to keep delivering military victories or face a loss of support. Excessive centralisation makes the system unstable and inefficient, focused on survival rather than strategy. As sanctions bite and funds run short, the elites are growing impatient, and the chance of conflict is rising in regions such as the Caucasus.”
· “There are two ways out for the Russian regime: improve its finances by reconciling with the West, or regain legitimacy by replacing the president. Even these will only buy it time, and may not prevent a total collapse.”
· “There is no clear heir to Putin, and collapse could be followed by the redistribution of power to various government bodies, companies, and regions, including Chechnya.”
“Russia’s current regime will not last long,” Petrov writes, because of Putin’s actions in Ukraine. Prior to his Anschluss of Crimea, Putin derived his legitimacy from the ballot box but now he does so only from military actions. Putin is today “more like a tsar than the chair of a board” and his regime “has moved from a hybrid system” to one exclusively dependent on him.
For Putin to remain in power, he must win ever greater and more frequent military victories, Petrov continues, but “this position is unsustainable given shrinking financial resources, the waning patience of elites who don’t want to live in a military camp forever, and Russia’s fast-deteriorating administrative and political systems.”
According to the Russian analyst, there are three scenarios: Russia may undergo regime change with both Putin and his regime disappearing. Putin may survive by changing his regime and reconciling with the West or benefitting from a rise in oil prices. Or Putin may be pushed out and replaced by someone who tries to manage that kind of change.
Petrov argues that “the regime has less than a year: the existential threat it faces is made up of several dynamics, each of which, taken alone, is likely to destroy the regime in less than two years.” But taken together, they are likely to constitute an even more immediate threat to its and his survival.
According to the analyst, there are three “dynamics” in this regard: the over-concentration of power in Putin’s hands, an ever-shortening time horizon in decision making, and the costs of military mobilization, all of which make the taking of necessary decisions more difficult and more dangerous.
After considering the various possibilities, Petrov focuses on the last and perhaps most frightening: the collapse of the Russian state as such. “What would this collapse look like?” he asks. “The decay of the state may be invisible on the surface, but it weakens the state’s immune system: the onset of even a minor ‘infection’ – for instance, the December 2015 protests by truck drivers against a new road tax – could have deadly consequences for the regime.”
“Whatever new regime emerges in the immediate aftermath of a collapse is unlikely to be an improvement, given the lack of strong institutions and the poor conditions of both the elites and Russian society as a whole.” Consequently, Petrov says, “a year from now, the country will look different in many ways,” something that poses “many questions.”
But he concludes by noting that “as the old saying goes, Russia is a country where everything can change in five years, and nothing in 100.”