Is this the beginning of the end for Vladimir Putin?
by Vladimir Putin bizarre ceremonies the formalization of Russia’s annexation of some 15% of Ukraine has once again revealed the gaping chasm between the Kremlin’s triumphalism and reality.
Never mind the Russian forces did not even fully control the territories that Putin placed under the Russian flag. Never mind that Russia’s ‘referendums’ were a blatant fabrication – with votes often held at gunpoint. It doesn’t matter that now more people have fled from Russia than the additional 300,000 troops who will be “partially mobilized” to support Putin’s waning war effort. And never mind that Russian forces are retreating to many of their newly acquired lands, with the key city of Lyman released by Ukraine less than 24 hours after the announcement of its annexation.
Putin’s vitriolic rantings before a decidedly low-key audience provided plenty of nasty sound bites. He mentioned the West as Satanists of “diverse genders”, calling for the holy war against western transgender bogeymen. His characterization of Americans as neo-colonialists was ridiculously hypocritical since Putin was literally announcing the re-creation of an empire.
He referred to Catherine the Great, asserted that southern Ukraine had always been Russian, and generously invoked the imperial term “Novorossiya.” NATO enlargement, supposedly the trigger for Russia’s existential security crisis that left it with no choice but to invade its neighbour, was barely mentioned in the tsunami of xenophobic bile from Cheese fries.
But the real story of Putin’s latest melodrama is that he unequivocally bet his political survival on “victory” over Ukraine and the West.
Crucially, there are now clear signs that his grip on power is beginning to crumble, although Putin’s demise may still be a long way off.
Existential crises breed internal crises
Dictators often get their way through unwitting excesses. Similarly, Putin’s new fragility stems from his own choices. Obsessed with recreating an imprint on what he believes to be the historic lands of Russia, and determined to blame the West as the global embodiment of moral decay, Putin has created his own existential threat.
Yet his invasion of Ukraine was a total disaster. Its conventional forces have proven to be a chimera: ill-trained, ill-led, hopelessly corrupt and often ill-equipped.
It now becomes an insider threat that his home messaging struggles to explain.
What were sold as glorious Russian victories were pushed back, bogged down and then became embarrassing retreats, forcing Kremlin propagandists simultaneously try to put out several spot fires. But turning defeats into temporary setbacks can only work for so long. And finding other people to blame, from bogus conspiracies about NATO forces fighting alongside the Ukrainians, to criticism from commanders on the ground for failing Russia, is also a temporary fix.
Eventually, it will become glaringly clear that the one man who has no right to be criticized – Vladimir Putin – is ultimately responsible for the mess.
Implicitly, this is already happening. Margaret SimonianPutin’s main cheerleader in the tightly controlled Russian media landscape, has suddenly disassociated herself from politics, plaintively claiming she has no political authority.
When loyal spokespersons start trying to appear impartial, it’s time for dictators to get worried.
Putin was forced to abandon the political center
The enigma of Putin and Putinism is that he never really offered a guiding vision for Russia, despite being effectively the longest-serving Kremlin leader since Stalin. He has tended to avoid identifying with any particular ideological position and is not even a member of United Russia, the party invented to represent his interests in the Russian parliament.
Instead, Putin presided over a centralized authoritarian government, playing divide and rule with various Kremlin cliques, and raising friends and cronies while occasionally purge them. Indeed, Russia has a system of bureaucratic haggling between ministries of power and powerful individuals which is not completely unrelated to what we see in the West.
But in Putin’s Russia, the strength of vertical lines of authority means that major contests around politics are not mediated by discussion, debate or other expressions of preference. On the contrary, they are decided by the will of an individual.
This has served Putin well in the past, allowing him to present the face of a political “centrist” whose choices soften the extremism of ultranationalists and communists, and keep him out of petty politics. But battlefield failures have now forced him to veer to the extreme right. This side of Russian politics has never fully backed Putin, though it remains indebted to him for retaining its political clout. It also has weak popular support, and many of its leaders are figures of ridicule.
Putin is therefore betting on his ability to carry popular sentiment with him. It is true that Russia’s fake democracy guarantees that he will not be returned to the polls, and the appetite for public protest remains weak. But he will now be expected to take even more unpopular steps than his botched partial mobilizationwhich was abruptly pushed back.
His detractors, like the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, have already called on Putin to announce martial law in Russia’s border regions and to use tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine. This will not only hasten Russia’s military defeat, but will further weaken Putin domestically.
The scapegoat is delicate in the face of collective failure
In the past, Putin has been able to purge with impunity. The military, the security services and various oligarchs who displeased him all at some point felt Putin’s wrath.
But Russia’s failures in Ukraine cannot be isolated to a few bad generals or bad information from Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR. They are systemic and reveal flaws in Russian strategic thinking, military planning, economic management, intelligence analysis and political leadership.
The more failures accumulate, the less tenable Putin’s selective scapegoating becomes. He replaced military leaders quickly, and would now be transmitting orders directly to commanders on the ground, including refusing to allow them to withdraw and regroup.
Intelligence assessments confidently asserting that Ukrainians would welcome Russian invaders were based on Putin’s own reading of the situation, published in a 2021 screed which portray Ukrainians as capricious Russians. Moscow’s overconfidence in its sovereign wealth fund has been insufficient to protect vital parts of the Russian economy from Western sanctions.
And Putin’s belief that the West would bow to arms Russian energy seems to have only strengthened his resolve.
Read more: Russia is fighting three undeclared wars. His fourth – an internal struggle for Russia itself – may be looming
Of course, none of this means that Putin will be overthrown tomorrow. He retains broad and deep control over the Russian population and the elites he allows to serve him. But his serious force projections belie his growing vulnerability. By mobilizing his population to fight in Ukraine, Putin broke his pact with the people. And by attempting to blame the failure on his subordinates, he has, for the first time, incited the elites to unite against him.
For a stark indication of the magnitude of Putin’s change in political fortunes, one need only look at Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s new found confidence. After surviving a Russian beheading attempt in February, Zelenskyy is now openly calling for diet change in Russia.
Responding to Putin’s demand that Ukraine return to the negotiating table, Zelenskyy observed that he “will not hold any negotiations with Russia as long as Putin is the president of the Russian Federation. We will negotiate with the new president”.
The end of Vladimir Putin? It could happen sooner than you think.