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Can Putin survive Russia’s losses in Ukraine?

Russia’s defeat is starting to look inevitable. Here’s what that means for Putin and his inner circle.

- November 18, 2022

In November 2022, Russia launched a massive missile and drone attack on Ukrainian cities, focused on knocking out critical electricity infrastructure. The assault included at least 100 cruise missiles and 10 drones and targeted Kyiv and other cities and installations across the country.

A missile landed on Polish territory near the Ukrainian border on Nov. 15, killing two people and sparking concerns about escalation. Subsequent investigations now suggest that this was an errant missile fired by a Ukrainian air defense unit in response to the Russian attack.

Moscow seized on the explosion in Poland to deflect attention from its strikes, accusing the West of being “hysterical” and “Russophobic.” Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyansky, went so far as to suggest that Western powers knew about the Poland explosions a week ago when they requested a meeting of the Security Council for Wednesday, implying that the West had staged the attack.

Exploiting this incident on the Polish border to portray Russia as an innocent victim of an aggressive West suggests the Kremlin’s strategy may have shifted as the war enters a new phase. Russia has now lost more than half the ground it conquered in the first phase of the war. Russian troops have lost the only regional capital they had taken since February. And in the process, the Russian military has been significantly degraded.

Can Russian President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle survive these setbacks and the increasingly real possibility of defeat? Russia’s losses put further pressure on Putin to convince the Russian people that defeat in Ukraine is part of a broader civilizational struggle against the onslaught from an aggressive West. To many analysts, Putin has already lost the war in Ukraine — and may now be gearing up for the fight of his life in Russia.

Why Russia’s defeat now seems inevitable

By some measures, Russia has already lost this war militarily and politically. The Russian strategy of lightning warfare didn’t produce a quick victory months ago. According to Ukrainian defense officials, Russia has lost up to 80,000 troops, representing the best of the Russian army. And Russia has lost 280 aircraft and 2,800 tanks. The Russian Black Sea Fleet has now lost not one but perhaps two flagships to a country without a navy. To compensate, Putin resorted to “partial mobilization,” provoking panic and resentment among many of Russia’s most productive citizens.

Strategists think Russia may try to escalate — but the strategic situation is unlikely to change. The best Putin can hope for, some point out, is to hold today’s front lines in a protracted war. With support from other democracies, Ukraine’s military strength would grow, as Russia’s military continues to be degraded.

Can dictators survive defeat in war?

Given Russia’s failures on the battlefield and the economic destruction caused by the war in Russia itself, will Putin be able to hold on to power? Research suggests that leading a country to defeat in war is politically costly. This is true in democracies, because leaders responsible for military defeat are typically voted out. It’s also true for non-democracies with collective leadership, where defeat can reduce the costs of coordinating against an authoritarian leader.

However, Putin’s power is highly personalistic — power and position in Russia depend almost entirely on relationships with “the body,” as Putin is known in Kremlin security circles. Such leaders, as political scientists Sarah Croco and Jessica Weeks have shown, are far less vulnerable to losing office after a defeat in war. In fact, they usually survive.

Compared to a democratically elected leader, a personalist dictator like Putin who initiated and lost a war is four times less likely to lose office. This is precisely because of the narrow base of power in such regimes. So long as Putin continues to provide sizable personal benefits to his close allies, they are likely to hang together, for fear of hanging separately. As we have seen, despite the military setbacks, key players like Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, spy chief Sergei Naryshkin, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and even former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev remain steadfast in their support for Putin.

Putin also has a battle on the home front

The research suggests military defeat alone is unlikely to unseat Putin. But a military defeat would be accompanied by returning body bags, stories of conscripts being abandoned, and a deepening economic crisis and stagnation. This broader crisis might encourage challengers to mobilize public discontent against Putin.

Will public support for Putin waver? Currently, most surveys by Russian and Western scholars show little movement, with public opinion apparently still behind the war. But the same surveys show that Russians’ anxiety and concern are growing. Moreover, analysis by Elena Koneva and colleagues suggests that the apparent public support may be misleading. Instead, people hold contradictory opinions, lack a clear position and often give what they perceive to be the “safest” answer.

This does not necessarily mean that people are lying to pollsters. Instead, under intense political and, more importantly, social pressure to produce patriotic answers, people express sincere support for the war effort. But research shows that support depends on perceptions of others’ opinions and on what is socially acceptable — and so can change quickly.

This scenario suggests that Putin and his entourage still have a fight on their hands. If they can convince people that the patriotic, socially respectable interpretation of the war is that it is a civilizational struggle for Russia’s very existence and culture, Russia’s leadership may survive even a total defeat in this war. If not, Putin could be scapegoated by new leadership. So far, the Kremlin has had the upper hand in the battle on the home front, but this new phase might prove decisive for Putin and his allies.

Ivan Gomza is head of the Department of Public Governance at the Kyiv School of Economics.

Graeme Robertson is a professor of political science and director of the Authoritarian Politics Lab at the University of North Carolina. Robertson is co-author with Samuel Greene of “Putin vs The People: The Story of Popular Dictator and the Struggle for the Future of Russia” (Yale University Press, 2022).