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Is This the Beginning of the End of Vladimir Putin?

A girl holds a placard depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin at a protest against the Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 5, 2022.
A girl holds a placard depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin at a protest against the Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 5, 2022.

Thirteen days into a brutal war in Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin has failed to subjugate Ukraine. He appears no nearer to replacing its defiant government with a puppet regime.

An out-gunned Ukraine has defied widespread pre-war predictions that it wouldn’t be able to hold out for long against superior Russian forces, and the Kremlin now faces the prospects of a prolonged battle that’s sparking a debate among Western officials and independent analysts about whether the invasion of Ukraine may mark the beginning of the end of Vladimir Putin.

At first glance, opinion polls suggest Putin still has majority backing for what the Kremlin dubs a “special military operation” in Ukraine.

More than 60% of Russians support it, according to recent surveys by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center and the Public Opinion Fund, both Kremlin controlled. But some pollsters suggest the polls are skewed and that the support being recorded would be much reduced, if the polling firms had asked respondents whether they agree with the invasion of Ukraine as opposed to a “special military operation.”

But how long will the majority of Russians back even a “special military operation” as Western economic sanctions bite and more Western brands, businesses and investors exit Russia? Western sanctions have already led to closed borders, food rationing and the collapse in the value of the ruble, which dropped by as much as 30% against the dollar, an all-time low.

Troubled economy

With a banking system collapse increasingly likely within days, Russians are being restricted in what they can withdraw from ATMs to the equivalent of around $5. Russia’s central bank has more than doubled its key interest rate from 9.5% to 20% in a bid to stabilize the ruble.

The impact of all of this is being felt most severely by ordinary Russians, who have seen the value of their savings and salaries plunge since Russian forces invaded Ukraine and were already struggling with rising prices thanks to disruptions in the global supply chains triggered by the pandemic.

Russia’s economy could shrink by as much as 10% this year, says some economists, pushing the country into its deepest recession since the 1990s when Russians were plunged into penury as the Soviet Union collapsed. In the first days of the war Russians flocked to ATMs and banks to withdraw as much of their money as they could and those who could splashed out to buy Western-made consumer goods, fearing they would be unavailable soon.

But the long-term economic prospects for Russians look increasingly grim and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled former oil tycoon who emerged as a prominent critic of Putin after a 10-year spell in a Russian jail, says the war has “significantly reduced” the chances of Putin remaining in power. “I'm convinced that Putin hasn't got much time left. Maybe a year, maybe three,” he told CNN during an interview.

Those who predict this is the beginning of the end for Putin say the worsening economic crisis may trigger his downfall. Putin’s major political selling point has been his promise that Russians will never again experience the poverty and chaos they endured in the 1990s. A key Kremlin narrative throughout Putin’s years in power has been that he offers economic stability, and it is one that even his opponents acknowledge resonates with older Russians, who fear re-living the first post-Soviet decade.

They acknowledge that their protest movements in the past — notably between 2011 to 2013 and during 2017 and 2018 — failed to galvanize the broader middle-class and lower-classes, many of whom are dependent on state jobs, to side with them against the Kremlin. That remains a problem for Russia’s opposition leaders, especially in the wake of an intensifying crackdown on dissent, closing of even more independent news outlets as well as a broadening censorship of social media platforms, which not only silences critical voices but also hampers the opposition to organize anti-war protests.

Domestic backlash

But cracks are appearing, and disquiet is emerging even among the offspring of the Russian elite. The daughters of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and former President Boris Yeltsin have openly denounced the invasion on social media. The daughter of oligarch Roman Abramovich has said the “biggest and most successful lie of the Kremlin’s propaganda” is to suggest that a majority of Russians back the invasion. And the board of Russian oil giant Lukoil has called for an end to the war, saying diplomatic means should be pursued.

Nonetheless the loyalty of Putin’s inner circle appears to be firm, and Tatiana Stanovaya, a founder of R. Politik, an independent analysis platform, says predictions that Russia’s business and security elites will turn on Putin are flawed as they rely on him for their wealth and power. Others say it will take time for the broader mass of Russians to start questioning Putin's rule because of the economic difficulties they suffer.

“The prevailing wisdom holds that Putin will be able to survive any domestic backlash. That is most likely true,” say Andrea Kendall-Taylor, former deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the US National Intelligence Council and Erica Frantz, a political scientist at Michigan State University. In a commentary for Foreign Affairs magazine this week, they note: “In personalist authoritarian regimes—where power is concentrated in the hands of an individual rather than shared by a party, military junta, or royal family—the leader is rarely driven from office by wars, even when they experience defeat.”

That’s often because the elites aren’t strong enough to hold the dictator to account and ordinary people have little opportunity to do so either. But, Kendall-Taylor notes, “the thing about repressive regimes like Putin’s Russia is that they often look stable right up to the point that they are not.”