Foreign Policy

Putin Likely Isn’t Going Anywhere, Even if Russia Loses His War in Ukraine

Putin sits hunched with an opened bottle of bottled water in front of him.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with China’s President on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation leaders’ summit in Samarkand on September 15, 2022. Alexandr Demyanchuk/Getty Images

After a dramatic Ukrainian offensive brought news over the weekend of a haphazard retreat of Russian forces from the Kharkiv front, pundits, politicians, intelligence analysts, and even well-read experts began speculating anew that Vladimir Putin’s days as Russian autocrat may soon be numbered.

In an assessment in Foreign Policy, Mark Lawrence Schrad pours some cold water on these optimistic takes. He writes:

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.


Schrad continues:

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.

Read the whole analysis over at Foreign Policy.