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Predictions of Putin’s Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated

The Russian autocrat’s end has been predicted, wrongly, for two decades.

By , a professor of political science at Villanova University.
Russian President Vladimir Putin hosts a national youth environmental forum in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Russia, on Sept. 5.
Russian President Vladimir Putin hosts a national youth environmental forum in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Russia, on Sept. 5.
Russian President Vladimir Putin hosts a national youth environmental forum in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Russia, on Sept. 5. Alexey Kudenko/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

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There is a growing cottage industry among Russia watchers and international relations experts focused on the political demise of Russian President Vladimir Putin. It’s an understandable wish—but one that so far is rooted more in optimism about karmic justice than in reality. Virtually every Kremlin setback gets framed as “the beginning of the end of Putin” and his regime. The Russian Armed Forces’ recent disorganized retreat and “regrouping” in the face of a dramatic Ukrainian offensive have unleashed yet another wave of premature speculation about Putin’s impending doom, unbalanced by any consideration of the sources of his political resilience and stability, which have kept him in power through one political crisis after another.

The end-of-Putin genre is nothing new and includes (ultimately false) prognostications by all manner of respected journalists, academics, Russian opposition politicians, and even Western leaders. The predictions of Putin’s imminent demise have been around for almost the entirety of his rule.

After succeeding Boris Yeltsin as president in 2000, Putin’s popularity was bolstered by the dramatic growth of the Russian economy—an average of 7 percent per year for nearly a decade—but the tragically bungled government responses to both the 2002 Moscow theater siege and the 2004 Beslan school attack led to premature political eulogies for Putin.

There is a growing cottage industry among Russia watchers and international relations experts focused on the political demise of Russian President Vladimir Putin. It’s an understandable wish—but one that so far is rooted more in optimism about karmic justice than in reality. Virtually every Kremlin setback gets framed as “the beginning of the end of Putin” and his regime. The Russian Armed Forces’ recent disorganized retreat and “regrouping” in the face of a dramatic Ukrainian offensive have unleashed yet another wave of premature speculation about Putin’s impending doom, unbalanced by any consideration of the sources of his political resilience and stability, which have kept him in power through one political crisis after another.

The end-of-Putin genre is nothing new and includes (ultimately false) prognostications by all manner of respected journalists, academics, Russian opposition politicians, and even Western leaders. The predictions of Putin’s imminent demise have been around for almost the entirety of his rule.

After succeeding Boris Yeltsin as president in 2000, Putin’s popularity was bolstered by the dramatic growth of the Russian economy—an average of 7 percent per year for nearly a decade—but the tragically bungled government responses to both the 2002 Moscow theater siege and the 2004 Beslan school attack led to premature political eulogies for Putin.

Everything changed in 2008, when Putin’s invasion of Georgia, the global financial crisis, and the collapse in world oil prices wiped out $1 trillion in Russian stocks and led to an 8 percent contraction in GDP. More political obituaries heralded “the end of the Putin era”: Now that the dynamic Russian economy on which Putin’s legitimacy was based was dead and buried, surely his political career would be next. Yet thanks to sound economic policymaking, the Kremlin withstood the storm.

Still emerging from the Great Recession in 2011-12, the pro forma reelection of Putin and his United Russia party was rocked by anti-corruption protests in Moscow and across Russia. Billed as the greatest threat to Putin’s power to that point, experts, opposition politicians, and foreign leaders yet again united in dubbing itthe beginning of the end of Putin.” Using a combination of carrots and sticks—electoral transparency measures and selective repression—the furor subsided, and Putin endured.

The rhetoric ratcheted up once again in response to Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution in 2013-14, as Putin’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and proxy war in the Donbas would surely be “the end of Vladimir Putin.” Or Western economic sanctions and Russia’s crumbling economy would be his undoing. But on the contrary, Putin’s nationalist turn toward legitimacy through identity rather than economic performance seems to have solidified his rule even more.

When that furor subsided, it was the rising challenge of the anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny that prompted prognostications of the end of Putin in 2017. By 2018, pension reform would be the “beginning of [the] end of Putin’s regime.” In 2019, it was the election of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that “may be Vladimir’s downfall.” By 2020, both Russia’s dissatisfied youth and the Kremlin’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic were on deck to “topple Vladimir Putin.”

Putin’s escalation into a full-scale war of aggression in Ukraine this February unleashed an absolute tidal wave of end-of-Putin prognostications, most notably when—in his Warsaw speech in March meant to galvanize European unity—U.S. President Joe Biden ad-libbed: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” Perhaps it was a gaffe saying the quiet part out loud, but Western leaders, experts, and Russian dissidents largely agreed: The invasion would be Putin’s undoing. Or maybe it would be the war crimes and atrocities in Bucha that would end Putin.

Add to that a telling flurry of claims that Putin was sick or dyingnot based on any actual intelligence but long-distance diagnosis-by-photo. This was the ultimate form of punditry as karmic hope: a wish that the universe itself was punishing the Russian leader for his sins.

So it is not at all surprising that—as news of the haphazard retreat of Russian forces from the Kharkiv front pours in—we’re seeing ever more installments in the end-of-Putin literature. Foremost among them is a recent piece in the Atlantic by the acclaimed journalist and historian Anne Applebaum: “It’s Time to Prepare for a Ukrainian Victory.”

While the piece begins with a levelheaded and persuasive consideration of the scale of Ukrainian advances and the surprising lack of fight in the retreating Russians, it veers into the end-of-Putin genre by surmising that Russia’s lackluster performance on the battlefield will topple Putin, somehow. The problem here is the same as it is for every article in this literature: The absence of causal mechanisms—the whos, whys, and hows of revolution—is ignored in favor of handwaving and passive voice. A Ukrainian victory is certainly possible. But that alone won’t spell Putin’s end. After all, plenty of dictators, from Saddam Hussein after the Iran-Iraq conflict and the first Gulf War to Vladimir Lenin after Russia’s botched invasion of a newly independent Poland, have survived losing wars they started.

Applebaum argues that Putin has gone all in on his so-called special military operation as the basis for his ruling legitimacy. “And when Russian elites finally realize that Putin’s imperial project was not just a failure for Putin personally but also a moral, political, and economic disaster for the entire country, themselves included, then his claim to be the legitimate ruler of Russia melts away. … We must expect that a Ukrainian victory, and certainly a victory in Ukraine’s understanding of the term, also brings about the end of Putin’s regime.”

She adds: “To be clear: This is not a prediction; it’s a warning.”

Is this the thing that truly, finally dooms Putin? Only time will tell. But 20 years’ worth of Putin outliving his supposed demise should give us pause. He has survived economic depression, international isolation, mismanagement of a deadly pandemic, botched terrorist responses, and an intelligence fiasco that led Russia into a bungled war—and he’s still here.

The lynchpin in most end-of-Putin arguments is the famously nebulous concept of “legitimacy.” As Applebaum writes: “It is inconceivable that [Putin] can continue to rule if the centerpiece of his claim to legitimacy—his promise to put the Soviet Union back together again—proves not just impossible but laughable.”

During the first decade of Putinism, it was Russia’s stellar economic performance that gave Putin popular legitimacy. But once growth gave way to stagnation with the global economic crisis and ensuing Western sanctions, we were told that his position was tenuous due to a lack of legitimacy. So Putin pivoted to nationalism and legitimacy through identity—maintaining popular support as defender of the Russian nation—an image that endures despite an increasingly disastrous political and economic track record.

As a concept, ruling legitimacy rests on the fundamental premise of Western democracy that sovereignty ultimately lies with the people, as expressed through elections. A democratic leader without popular support is of questionable legitimacy and likely faces perilous future political prospects. Yet both in theory and practice, simply applying “legitimacy” as it applies in democracies to nondemocratic contexts such as Putin’s Russia has been a recipe for disaster.

While popular legitimacy can indeed bolster an autocratic regime, autocrats have other mechanisms of control that democratic leaders do not: They can repress the opposition, co-opt dissent, and monopolize the media landscape to maintain power. Yet a common pathology of the end-of-Putin literature is that a disproportionate focus on popular legitimacy marginalizes consideration of the repression, co-option, and media control that modern autocracies are increasingly built on.

So even beyond the question of whether Putin is considered “legitimate” by his own people— and whether his sky-high approval ratings are indicative of such legitimacy—there’s no mechanism by which a loss of legitimacy offers a clean end to his power. Indeed, both Russian history and global history are full of autocrats of questionable legitimacy who endured for decades because they could rely on repression, co-optation of rival elites, and propaganda and control of information to bolster their rule.

The first Soviet dictator, Lenin, had a keen eye for regime weakness—not least because he was a former revolutionary. Both in Russia under the tsars and across Europe, he’d seen enough windows for political change open and then close again to realistically recognize that “a revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation … [but] it is not every revolutionary situation that leads to revolution.” For Lenin (unlike Karl Marx), revolutions didn’t just happen spontaneously; they had to be made. Whether for communist revolutions or any political change, human agency is necessary—the whos, whys, and hows—regardless of ruling legitimacy or other constructs.

The end-of-Putin genre is notoriously lax about how exactly political change happens and what role human agency plays in it. Pundits assume economic sanctions necessarily weaken the regime. Historians assume revolutions and coups in Russia’s past will repeat, that it is just a matter of which one. Security scholars point out that bad things have historically happened to dictators whose wars turn out badly, but again they are mum on specific causes.

Since Putin’s declaration of war, Western pundits have fantasized about the Russian people rising up en masse and overthrowing Putin. But the flurry of anti-war protests in February and March were crushed, protest criminalized, and opposition leaders have largely been imprisoned or have fled abroad, making scenarios of mass revolution against a leader still enjoying approval ratings above 80 percent seem awfully farfetched.

Another favored Western scenario for the end of Putin is a palace coup by Kremlin insiders, unnamed “elites,” or the military (despite the efforts of both Ukrainian and Russian experts in downplaying such expectations). But rather than rising up against Putin over the last six months of war, Russian elites have fallen into line. Instead of dreaming of greener pastures in the West, Russia’s oligarchs and political elites are increasingly resigned to the fact that their fates are tied to Putin and his regime: As one source at a sanctioned Russian state company told journalist Farida Rustamova, “They will not overthrow anyone, but will build their lives here.”

Nevertheless, this is Applebaum’s prognostication, too: “Russian soldiers are running away, ditching their equipment, asking to surrender. How long do we have to wait until the men in Putin’s inner circle do the same?” Anything is, of course, possible. But based on current evidence, or the lack of it, Westerners hoping for unnamed loyalists to plot to overthrow Putin will likely be waiting quite a while indeed.

In the end, trying to predict events of world-historical significance is a tough business, for pundits, politicians, intelligence analysts, and even well-read experts such as Applebaum. We’re all making causal inferences about an inherently unknowable future based on a necessarily incomplete reading of the past, all overlaid with our own cognitive biases. Even among experts in their fields, successful predictions are rare and failures far more numerous, as we’ve seen regarding the forever-impending political demise of Putin.

Then we add to that our own confirmation and hindsight biases, which color our predictions based more on what we want to see happen in a supposedly just world than on what is more likely to happen in an inherently unjust one. When it comes to foretelling the end of Putin, that would require tempering our hopes for comeuppance for the atrocities and injustices he has visited on Ukraine, with a broader consideration of the sources of autocratic stability—repression, co-optation, and media control—which are not reliant on our Western conceptions of legitimacy.

In confronting the repeated failures of the end-of-Putin literature, I’m reminded of the wisdom of the foremost demographer of Russia and the old Soviet Union, Murray Feshbach, who was both a mentor and a true friend. Relying on the old adage that “demography is destiny,” all manner of journalists asked him to foretell what the future held for Russia.

Yet he always demurred, noting that in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno there’s a special place in the eighth circle of hell reserved for sorcerers, seers, and prognosticators, with their heads wrenched around backward, forever looking back on their false prophecies. It’s a type of damnation we would all do well to avoid.

Mark Lawrence Schrad is a professor of political science and the director of Russian area studies at Villanova University. He is author of Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State and Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition Twitter: @VodkaPolitics

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