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Is Putin vulnerable? One autocracy in Russia may lead to another.

Here’s what we know about how autocratic regimes die.

- September 27, 2022

For the first seven months of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin tried to keep the conflict far from the everyday lives of average Russians. Recent polling, in fact, suggested that Russians’ interest in the war was waning. But all that seemed to change after Putin’s Sept. 21 announcement that Russia would be calling up as many as 300,000 reserve forces to supplement its beleaguered troops in Ukraine.

Public backlash against the announcement — a policy decision Putin had long avoided — was immediate. Antiwar demonstrators took to the streets across Russia, and social media platforms displayed scenes of fighting-age men flooding airports, train stations and border crossings to avoid being deployed. Putin also faced critical voices on state-controlled Russian television suggesting that the battle in Ukraine wasn’t going well, as political hawks insisted he needed to do something to turn the tide.

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What does research on how autocracies die tell us about what’s happening in Russia — and the prospects of Putin being overthrown? Here’s how the war has undercut the myth of competency that has underpinned Putin’s support for two decades.

Ukraine is testing Russians’ faith in Putin

Putin’s legitimacy has rested on the myth that he is omni-competent. Government control of the media — including social media, increasingly — ensures that he is seen capably steering the Russian ship of state. He is presented as the defender of the Russian nation against an aggressive, malevolent West. And public opinion polls appear to support this perception. No other political figure in Russia (free or in jail) comes close to Putin’s 83 percent approval rating as of last month.

Personalist autocracies, those centered on a single leader, have certain strengths but also weaknesses. Putin has, until now, successfully tamed any challenges to his leadership. But Russian political institutions have been hollowed out to such a dramatic extent that they do not really constrain his decision-making, either. The Russian legislature (the Duma) offers a rubber stamp on Putin’s policies, and it does not provide a brake on his decisions.

But this also highlights one of Putin’s vulnerabilities: A lack of institutionalization means that personalist autocracies are not set up to execute policy successfully. In part, this dynamic helps explain Russia’s anemic military performance in Ukraine. The corruption and dysfunction that affects the rest of Russian bureaucracy also has afflicted the military.

Putin’s Russia, after an expensive and expansive military modernization effort over the last decade, appears to have impressive technical capability and weaponry on paper. The capacity to use it effectively, however, is hampered by corruption and poor organization, formulation and execution of policy. The poor showing of the Russian military in Ukraine and especially its losses during Ukraine’s recent counteroffensive threaten the myth of competency that has helped sustain Putin in office.

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What are the three pathways from Putinism?

How do autocracies die? There are three basic paths: 1) democratic transition — the autocrat is ousted and democratically elected leaders are swept in by popular demand; 2) regime perpetuation — the autocrat is ousted by elites around him (or dies in office), and one of them replaces him; or 3) a new form of autocracy arises — the autocrat and those closest to him are replaced by a new set of autocratic elites.

It’s rare to see modern autocracies follow the first path and produce a liberal democracy through social revolution. Barbara Geddes, for example, shows that since World War II, less than 25 percent of autocratic breakdowns have led to democratic transitions, with 75 percent leading to the perpetuation of the autocracy under a new leader (think Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela after the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013), or the replacement of one form of autocracy with another (Iran after the fall of the Shah in 1979 and the rise of the Islamic Republic).

One autocratic government may lead to another in Russia

Despite a sudden increase in protests against the war, a popular uprising isn’t likely to end autocracy in Russia anytime soon. A perpetuated autocracy — essentially, Putinism without Putin at the helm — could become more repressive domestically and more aggressive in pressing the war in Ukraine.

One distinct possibility, should Putin die in office — he is rumored to have cancer or Parkinson’s — is that the group of elites thought to be closest to him would rule as a junta. This means Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Security Council; Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russian foreign intelligence; and Aleksandr Bortnikov, the head of the Federal Security Service, would continue the core of Putin’s policies.

The challenge, however, is that none in this trio would seem to be able to carry Putin’s personal authority. So while they would be the real power behind the throne, they might rely on a more crowd-friendly frontman, someone like the mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin. The autocratic regime would essentially continue, however, with few changes to Putin-era policies — including the war in Ukraine.

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Comparative studies on the end of autocracies also tell us that the other most likely possibility for a Russia after Putin is simply a different, possibly milder, form of autocracy led by another group of elites. This would be a group not tainted by Putin’s failures in Ukraine. It might consist of disgruntled oligarchs, perhaps more interested in ending the war effort by settlement to get access to the properties and assets they acquired over the past two decades that are now under sanction. But there is little reason to think that such a group would be inclined toward giving up the privileges they enjoyed under Putin’s autocracy in favor of a more equitable liberal democracy. The best case under this scenario would be a less oppressive form of autocracy and perhaps a faster settlement to the Ukrainian conflict.

The research, then, suggests that the odds are 3-to-1 in favor of Russia’s personalist autocracy being replaced by another autocracy — just without Putin. That’s the most likely scenario, despite the recent uptick in social protests against the mobilization of reserve forces to fight the war in Ukraine.

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Kathryn Stoner is the Mosbacher Director of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, and a political scientist at Stanford University. Her most recent book is “Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order” (Oxford University Press, 2021). Follow her on Twitter @kath_stoner.