The False Promise of Regime Change in Russia
Claims that Vladimir Putin’s removal would end the war in Ukraine represent a misunderstanding of the Russian power structure and ignore the key interests of the political factions that operate in his shadow.
While Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine nearly one year ago was undoubtedly motivated by his desire to leave a mark on history, the risk of a humiliating defeat has united Russian elites in support of the war, regardless of their ideological convictions. Russia’s hawks consider this war as part of a wider conflict against NATO and they fear that a military defeat would not only severely weaken Moscow’s influence around the world but could also risk destabilizing Russia. Although most members of the liberal bloc might not share these security concerns, they understand that in order to negotiate the removal of sanctions, Russia needs to be in a position of strength.
We’re often presented with the claim that if Putin were removed from power, either because of a coup or illness, the war in Ukraine would end. However, this represents a misunderstanding of the Russian power structure and ignores the key interests of the political factions that operate in Putin’s shadow. While there are two main ideological camps, the liberals and the hawks, there exist numerous clans vying for political influence and financial gains. Ties between members of the elite are formed through family relations, business interests, personal friendships, and shared rivalries.
We can divide the Russian elite into three categories based on their roles and responsibilities: siloviki, technocrats, and oligarchs. The siloviki represent law enforcement and security agencies. Although they tend to share similar world views and their collective influence has grown significantly under Putin’s rule, there is intense competition amongst them. The siloviki monitor, investigate, and prosecute members of rival clans while protecting their allies. Technocrats provide bureaucratic influence and can help secure state contracts and subsidies. In order for them to advance in their careers, they must be cleared by the security apparatus. Oligarchs ensure the financial interests of their allies by providing bribes or company shares. Many prominent oligarchs used to work in the security services, such as Igor Sechin, president of Rosneft, and Sergei Chemezov, CEO of defense conglomerate Rostec.
Clans continuously engage in minor power struggles in an environment where surveillance and corruption are rampant. Putin exploits the competitive and ruthless nature of Russian politics to maintain a balance of power and prevent any faction from becoming too powerful. For example, in 2016, he created the National Guard (Rosgvardiya), headed by his former bodyguard, Viktor Zolotov, as a counterweight to the Ministry of Interior. They have overlapping roles, but the Rosgvardiya reports directly to Putin, granting him greater control over how protests and dissent are suppressed. Since the start of the invasion, there have been similar maneuvers to keep factions in check. In the recent military reshuffle, Colonel-General Aleksandr Lapin was appointed chief of the General Staff of the Ground Forces, and General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, replaced General Sergei Surovikin as commander of the “special military operation.” This served to reassert the Ministry of Defence’s control over the war effort and curtail the growing influence of Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner Group, and Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader.
Members of Putin’s inner circle do not form a unified bloc but they have a shared interest in maintaining the status quo in order to safeguard their economic interests and political survival. The few members of the elite who spoke out against the war, such as Mikhail Fridman and Oleg Deripaska, have lost influence in Russia and are sanctioned by the West. Furthermore, the conditions for a coup to be successful are currently highly unfavorable. Rival factions, eager to prove their loyalty, monitor each other while also being monitored by the Federal Protective Service (FSO), a security agency tasked with protecting the Russian president. A coup would also trigger an intense power struggle between clans, which would lead to political instability that could weaken Russia’s war effort. Despite their petty rivalries, the siloviki view a military defeat in Ukraine as an existential threat and continue to support Putin. Even if Putin were removed, his successor would most likely be a technocrat with close ties to the siloviki, such as Sergei Kiriyenko, first deputy chief of staff, or Sergei Sobyanin, mayor of Moscow. While a change in leadership might facilitate peace negotiations, it will not fundamentally change how the Russian system operates, at least not in the short run, nor will it lead to a drastic change in strategy regarding Ukraine.
A military defeat would be a humiliation domestically and on the international stage. Russia would emerge as a regional player with diminished influence and the state would lose credibility given the high casualties and economic loss that it would incur. This could lead to increased protests and secessionist movements that would destabilize Russia, and perhaps even lead to territorial disintegration.
For Russia’s hawks, this conflict is part of a larger hybrid war against the U.S.-led West. Many of them started their careers in the KGB and view NATO expansion as a continuation of the Cold War and a direct threat to Russian security. They blame the United States for fueling anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine by supporting the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution and the 2013-2014 Maidan Uprising, which they consider to be a U.S.-backed coup. Although there was evidence of American interference, the U.S. role was greatly exaggerated in the minds of the siloviki, who remain paranoid of the prospect of a U.S.-instigated “color revolution” in Russia. Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, arguably the second most powerful figure in Russia, has stated that the war in Ukraine is a military confrontation against NATO and that the United States wants to weaken and destroy Russia.
Even though members of the liberal bloc might privately oppose the war, they have limited influence on foreign policy or national security as their role is to manage the economy. Prominent figures include Elvira Nabiullina (chairwoman of the Bank of Russia), Anton Siluanov (minister of finance), Herman Gref (chairman and CEO of Sberbank), and Andrey Kostin (chairman of VTB). They have successfully minimized the impact of sanctions: the International Monetary Fund announced that the economy contracted by 2.2 percent (instead of 8.5 percent projected in April) and is projected to grow by 0.3 percent in 2023 and 2.1 percent in 2024. The Russian economy has been damaged by sanctions, but it is far from imminent collapse. Moreover, the liberal bloc understands that relations with the West have reached a point of no return, and certain sanctions will likely remain even after the war. There simply is no economic incentive for Russia to withdraw its troops without a peace settlement that would guarantee a path to sanctions relief.
Capitulation is not an option for either Ukraine or Russia, which means this war will likely continue for several years. Moscow is slowly gaining ground in Donetsk and is preparing a large-scale offensive with 200,000 fresh troops. Even if the offensive fails, Russia still has enough resources to maintain control over certain pockets, which would prevent Ukraine from joining NATO or the European Union. With neither side capable of securing a complete military victory, this war will either end in a frozen conflict or through a political settlement after a prolonged stalemate.
Kelly Alkhouli is a political consultant and director of international relations at the Center of Political and Foreign Affairs (CPFA). Follow her on Twitter @KellyAlkhouli.
Image: ID1974 / Shutterstock.com.