Why Putin Probably Won’t Give Up Anytime Soon

History—and Putin’s penchant for risk—suggest he’s likely to dig in his heels.

By , a senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, and , an associate professor in political science at Michigan State University.
Putin sits at the end of a long table with a flag behind him.
Putin sits at the end of a long table with a flag behind him.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Russian government via teleconference in Moscow on March 10. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

We’re now three weeks into Russia’s war with Ukraine. As casualties and destruction mount, many are left wondering how it might end.

Anticipating the war’s trajectory is difficult, not least because decisions about its future reside almost entirely with one man: Russian President Vladimir Putin. With no one in the Russian system to check or constrain him, Russian policy and Putin’s whims are one in the same. This is the reality with personalist authoritarians like Putin: The only thing predictable about them is their unpredictability.

Just as Putin’s decision to wage war surprised many, so too will his decisions in the days and weeks to come. It is possible that amid rising discontent with a war showing limited gains on the battlefield, Putin will lessen his demands to facilitate an end to the destruction. Because there is no politburo or political party to navigate or any coherent ideology to conform to, Putin has the latitude to change course.

We’re now three weeks into Russia’s war with Ukraine. As casualties and destruction mount, many are left wondering how it might end.

Anticipating the war’s trajectory is difficult, not least because decisions about its future reside almost entirely with one man: Russian President Vladimir Putin. With no one in the Russian system to check or constrain him, Russian policy and Putin’s whims are one in the same. This is the reality with personalist authoritarians like Putin: The only thing predictable about them is their unpredictability.

Just as Putin’s decision to wage war surprised many, so too will his decisions in the days and weeks to come. It is possible that amid rising discontent with a war showing limited gains on the battlefield, Putin will lessen his demands to facilitate an end to the destruction. Because there is no politburo or political party to navigate or any coherent ideology to conform to, Putin has the latitude to change course.

The Kremlin’s control over Russia’s information space, which has only grown since the war began, means Putin could sell a settlement to his public. Putin has said he seeks to ensure Ukraine’s neutrality and demilitarization, acceptance of Russian control over Crimea, and independence for the regions in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region. Putin already appears to have moved away from his objective of regime change in Kyiv and could move to accept creative solutions on issues like demilitarization.

International sanctions will still hurt the average Russian, but Putin could judge that lowering his aims to end the war sooner rather than letting Russian casualties mount provides him the best chance of staying in power—his No. 1 priority.

That’s possible. But Putin’s own penchant for risk and the patterns evident in other authoritarian regimes suggest that doubling down to secure his maximalist aims in Ukraine is the more likely outcome. As U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines put it, this is a war Putin knows “he cannot afford to lose.”

That judgment stems from two interrelated dynamics. First, a Russian military defeat, or even a long grind that undermines perceptions of Putin’s competence, would weaken his hold on power. Second, and just as critical, is the fate that Putin expects awaits him should he lose power. If Putin is ousted, similar leaders’ track records suggest Putin stands a high likelihood of being jailed, exiled, or killed.

This makes Putin likely to fight intently—more intently than other leaders who expect a quiet retirement might—to preclude such an outcome. In Ukraine, Putin will dig in to avoid any perception of loss and compel Ukrainians to bend to his will.

Russia’s own history underscores the precarious position Putin is in now. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Leon Aron aptly noted, a number of past Russian leaders have been punished for military defeat: “The Crimean War (1853-1856) precipitated Emperor Alexander II’s liberal revolution from above. The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) brought about the First Russian Revolution. The catastrophe of World War I resulted in Emperor Nicholas II’s abdication and the Bolshevik Revolution. And the war in Afghanistan became a key factor in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms.”

Even outside Russia’s own past, other longtime personalist leaders like Putin lost power on account of interstate conflicts, including former President Mobutu Sese Seko of then-Zaire, former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

There are already signs that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has weakened his hold on power. Before, all signs pointed to Putin governing for many years to come and eventually dying of natural causes while in office. This is the most common way longtime personalist leaders typically leave power, as was the case in nearby Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan with the deaths of Islam Karimov in 2016 and Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006, respectively, and farther afield in countries such as Syria, Ethiopia, Cuba, Guinea, and Togo.

But the decision to wage war changed Putin’s baseline probabilities. Economic disruption and the increasingly evident signs of public and elite dissatisfaction about the war and its repercussions suggest Putin’s grip has grown more tenuous.

This leads to the second consideration: If he is ousted, what is the chance that Putin will transition safely into retirement? Putin is certainly thinking of the fate of leaders such as Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi. Putin is said to have repeatedly watched the leader’s death on video. He almost certainly recalls the images of Saddam taken in the moments before his hanging.

Even beyond these vivid anecdotes, the history of personalist authoritarian leaders should give Putin a lot to worry about. When authoritarians are forced out of power, they are often exiled, imprisoned, or killed. Importantly, of all types of authoritarian leaders, personalists fare the worst: Since World War II, 69 percent of personalist leaders faced a harsh fate after their ousting.

For Putin, the risk of being tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC) reinforces this calculus. If Putin can expect to be tried for war crimes, it will strengthen his resolve to remain in power. Research shows that the risk of facing international justice has led to a significant decrease in authoritarians resorting to exile when they’re culpable for atrocities.

Although international justice has led to the arrest and/or extradition of a number of oppressive leaders, including Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, it has also deterred their peers from negotiating conflicts and seeking exile. Observers note that in Qaddafi’s case, for example, ICC arrest warrants meant “he was bound to dig in his heels” in his country’s civil war.

Holding leaders such as Putin and his commanders on the battlefield accountable for their horrific crimes is important, but it will also shape how intently Putin fights to maintain power.

Eventually, the horrors in Ukraine will end at the negotiating table. But Putin’s calculus about his own vulnerability and the fate that awaits him if he loses power mean he will pursue increasingly horrific and risky actions to compel Ukraine to accept his terms.

Worse yet, if Putin feels he is losing ground and risks a military defeat, he will have an even greater incentive to up the ante, including by using a tactical nuclear weapon to avoid defeat. The same logic will shape his actions inside Russia, where Putin is likely to respond to significant opposition with violence.

Already Putin is ramping up repression, but if met with widespread protests, he will likely order the use of violence to quell it. The question then becomes will his men be willing to deploy it on his behalf.

Russia’s security services appear loyal and remained so during previous periods of protest like in 2011 and 2012, but they have not really been tested. Moreover, Putin lacks familial or kinship ties between him and his security service elite—a factor research shows is important in determining which regimes will carry out orders to open fire on protesters.

The United States and its allies and partners have charted an effective course in supporting Ukraine and its ability to defend itself as well as in imposing steep costs on Putin. These efforts must continue. If Putin does indeed double down, forcing Kyiv to make difficult choices to end the death and destruction in Ukraine, then the United States and its allies and partners must be prepared to sustain a prolonged period of confrontation with Putin and his regime.

Yet while Washington applies that persistent pressure, so too must it plan for how to improve relations with Russia once Putin departs the scene—a reality that seems closer now than it did before the war began.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Twitter: @AKendallTaylor

Erica Frantz is an associate professor in political science at Michigan State University.

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