The War in Ukraine Won’t Overthrow Vladimir Putin

The War in Ukraine Won’t Overthrow Vladimir Putin

The collapse of Putin’s regime is wishful thinking. In fact, Putin may use the war to strengthen his grip on power.

 

As the war in Ukraine continues to drag on with no end in sight, a legitimate question has been raised—will the conflict result in the downfall of Russian president Vladimir Putin? It is a reasonable question to ponder, considering that the Russian "special military operation" in Ukraine is not going to plan, while the Russian economy is taking a significant hit due to Western sanctions. Several officials in the West have made it publicly known that the end goal is for Putin's regime to crumble. 

On February 27, James Heappey, the United Kingdom's minister for the armed forces, wrote: "In showing the Russian people how little he cases for them, Putin's days as President will surely be numbered … He'll lose power and he won't get to choose his successor." On March 1, British prime minister Boris Johnson's spokesperson said the sanctions on Russia "...are to bring down the Putin regime." But the collapse of Putin's regime is wishful thinking. In fact, Putin may use the war to strengthen his grip on power.

 

Firstly, the war has significantly increased Putin's popularity among the majority of Russians. At the end of March, the Levada Centre, an independent Russian polling agency, published a survey that showed that 83 percent of the population approve of Putin and 81 percent support what Russian troops are doing in Ukraine. In their opinion, Putin is acting "in the interests of Russia, and is giving a worthy response to NATO." Such approval ratings are similar to previous Russian military ventures. When Russia went to war with Georgia in 2008, and when Crimea was annexed in 2014, Putin's domestic popularity rating was at 88 to 89 percent.

It is an unfortunate fact that patriotism remains a powerful potion in Russia. The elevated feeling of national pride during conflicts is a result of Russia's previous historical wars, most notably the Red Army's battle against Nazi Germany. The victory in World War II is one of the most noteworthy moments in Russia's history, celebrated every year on May 9 with an illustrious military parade in Moscow. Fast forward seventy-seven years since the end of World War II and the current war in Ukraine is also being sold to Russians as a noble cause—to defend and protect the Russian world and its people. It is not a coincidence that the Kremlin is propagating the claim that Russia is fighting neo-Nazis in Ukraine, which is an emotional reminder of the Great Patriotic War. Russians also believe that by acting in defiance of the whole world, as the Soviet Union did, Russia is acting like a great power once again. The war in Ukraine is an opportunity to put behind the shame of losing the Cold War, the humiliating 1990s, and stick a finger in the West's eye. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the war in Ukraine has resulted in high popularity ratings for Putin among Russians.

Perhaps this popularity will diminish the longer the war continues. Over time, Russians will expect some kind of a victory and a positive conclusion to their military operation. Yet Putin's reputation is unlikely to sour even if the war persists for longer than many Russians hope. The reason for this is a powerful narrative that the Kremlin is feeding to its population—that this is an existential war for Russia's very survival. Prior to and during the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has continued to accuse NATO of threatening "Russia's historic future as a nation," claiming that NATO countries wanted to bring war to Crimea. He has lately accused NATO of using Ukraine to wage a proxy war against Russia.

While this narrative may seem preposterous to the West, it is working inside Russia; Most Russians view NATO with distrust. In Putin's eyes, the West promised back in 1990 that NATO would expand "not an inch to the east," but reneged on its promise. He has frequently claimed that Russia was cheated by the West, and a majority of Russians agree with him. As a result, selling the idea that NATO is set to annihilate Russia is relatively easy. The fact that Finland and Sweden are planning to join NATO only strengthens Russia's concerns that NATO is trying to surround their country.

Recent comments by Western leaders have also reinforced Moscow's narrative that NATO is aiming to destabilise Russia. President Joe Biden's declaration on March 26 in Warsaw that Putin "cannot remain in power" was viewed as a public admission that the United States wants to carry out regime change. U.S. defence secretary Lloyd Austin's declaration that Washington wants to see Russia "weakened militarily and unable to recover quickly" is further proof of this in Russia's eyes.

Using this narrative, Putin will be able to solidify his position by arguing that only he can protect Russia against perceived Western aggression and attempts to destroy the country. Making Russia a pariah state can, therefore, play into Putin's hands.

Critics of the Kremlin regime are hoping that unprecedented Western sanctions will lead to Putin's downfall. But the Russian economy has defied predictions of collapse. Thanks to capital controls and high-interest rates, the ruble is now as valuable as it was before the war. Russia is keeping up with payments of its foreign-currency bonds. Of course, problems remain; the Russian central bank expects inflation to average between 18 percent and 23 percent this year, with the economy shrinking by up to 10 percent. But as long as Russia is able to continue to sell its oil and gas, which seems likely for the foreseeable future, the state budget will have a lifeline. It's also worth noting that Russia is a vast country that is relatively self-sufficient in many essentials, including food and energy. While sanctions will bite hard, they will not be the nail in the coffin for the Russian economy.

Russia has also been sidelined diplomatically, but it is far from isolated. The regimes in North Korea, Syria, and Iran have managed just fine despite having few friends, particularly in the West. Russia is in a better position than all of them combined. Moscow has plenty of economic powerhouse countries that are willing to conduct business as usual, including China, India, South Africa, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia, to name just a few.

Finally, those hedging their bets on the opposition in Russia will be left disappointed. Alexei Navalny, the main thorn in Kremlin's side, is in jail, while his movement has been banned. Many opposition figures are in exile. During the initial weeks of the invasion, hundreds of thousands of Russians left the country, the majority of whom are against the war and Putin's policies. They will have little influence on Russia from abroad.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been catastrophic for Russia and its people. There has been nothing to gain and a lot to lose. Yet despite this fact, the majority of Russians support the war and Putin. The combination of patriotism, anti-Western sentiment, a perceived struggle for the very existence of Russia, a resilient economy, a plethora of international trade partners, and a weakened political opposition means that the Russian leader will be able to keep his grip on power for the foreseeable future. If regime change in Russia is indeed the end goal of certain Western countries, they will be left frustrated. 

Alexander Clackson is the founder of Global Political Insight think tank in London, and a researcher on Russia. He is Russian by birth and has covered the country for the past decade. He is currently conducting research on the political views of ethnic minorities in Russia. 

Image: Reuters