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Analysis | Can Putin survive Russia’s losses in Ukraine?

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On Tuesday, Russia launched a massive missile and drone strike against Ukrainian cities, aimed at knocking out critical electricity infrastructure. The attack involved at least 100 cruise missiles and 10 drones and targeted Kiev and other cities and installations across the country.

A missile landed on Polish territory near the Ukrainian border that day, killing two people and raising concerns of escalation. Subsequent investigations now suggest that this was an errant missile fired by a Ukrainian air defense unit in response to the Russian attack.

Moscow used the explosion in Poland to divert attention from its attacks, accusing the West of being “hysterical” and “Russophobic”. Russia’s Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Dmitry Polyansky went so far as to suggest that the Western powers knew about the explosions in Poland a week ago when they called for a Security Council meeting for Wednesday , suggesting that the West staged the attack.

Russia is now saying it must “de-Satanize” Ukraine. What?

Exploiting this week’s incident at the Polish border to portray Russia as an innocent victim of an aggressive West suggests that the Kremlin’s strategy may have changed as the war enters a new phase. Russia has now lost more than half of the ground it gained in the first phase of the war. Russian troops have lost the only regional capital they had taken since February. And in doing so, the Russian army has been significantly downgraded.

Can Vladimir Putin and those close to him survive these setbacks and the increasingly real possibility of defeat? Russia’s losses put further pressure on Putin to convince the Russian people that defeat in Ukraine is part of a wider civilizing struggle against the onslaught of an aggressive West. According to many analysts, Putin has already lost the war in Ukraine – and may now be preparing for the fight of a lifetime in Russia.

Why Russia’s defeat now seems inevitable

By some measures, Russia has already lost this war militarily and politically. The Russian strategy of lightning warfare failed to yield a quick victory months ago. According to Ukrainian defense officials, Russia has lost so far 80,000 troops, representing the best of the Russian army. And Russia has lost 280 planes and 2,800 tanks. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has now lost not one but perhaps two flagships to a nation with no navy. To compensate, Putin resorted to “partial mobilization,” sparking panic and resentment among many of Russia’s most prolific citizens.

Strategists think Russia will try to escalate, but the strategic situation is unlikely to change. According to some, the best Putin can hope for is to maintain today’s front lines in a protracted war. With support from other democracies, Ukraine’s military strength would increase as Russia’s military continues to be relegated.

Can dictators survive defeat in war?

Given Russia’s failures on the battlefield and the economic devastation caused by the war in Russia itself, will Putin be able to stay in power? Research indicates that it is politically costly to lead a country to defeat in a war. This is true in democracies, as leaders responsible for military defeat are typically voted out. It also applies to non-democracies with collective leadership, where defeat can lower the cost of coordination against an authoritarian leader.

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However, Putin’s power is deeply personal – power and position in Russia depend almost entirely on relations with “the body,” as Putin is referred to in Kremlin security circles. Such leaders, as political scientists Sarah Croco and Jessica Weeks have shown, are much less vulnerable to losing office after defeat in war. In fact, they usually survive.

Compared to a democratically elected leader, a personalistic dictator like Putin who started a war and lost is four times less likely to lose office. Precisely because of the narrow power base in such regimes. As long as Putin continues to provide significant personal benefits to his close allies, they are likely to stick together, for fear of hanging separately. As we have seen, key players such as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, spy chief Sergei Naryshkin, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and even former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev remain steadfast in their support for Putin despite the military setbacks.

Putin also has a battle on the home front

The research suggests that military defeat alone is unlikely to unseat Putin. But military defeat would bring returning body bags, stories of conscripts being abandoned, and a deepening economic crisis and stagnation. This broader crisis could encourage challengers to mobilize public discontent against Putin.

Why Russian propaganda isn’t as convincing as you might think

Will public support for Putin waver? Currently, most studies by Russian and Western scientists show little movement, while public opinion still seems to support the war. But the same surveys show that Russians’ fear and anxiety are on the rise. In addition, analysis by Elena Koneva and colleagues suggests that the apparent public support may be misleading. Instead, people have conflicting opinions, don’t have a clear point of view, and often give what they consider to be the “safest” answer.

This does not necessarily mean that people are lying to pollsters. Instead, under intense political and, more importantly, social pressure to provide patriotic answers, people express their sincere support for the war effort. But research shows that support depends on perceptions of others’ opinions and what is socially acceptable – and so can change quickly.

This scenario suggests that Putin and his entourage are still fighting. If they can convince people that the patriotic, socially respectable interpretation of the war is that it is a civilizing struggle for the existence and culture of Russia, the Russian leadership can even survive a total defeat in this war. If not, Putin could be made a scapegoat by new leadership. Until now, the Kremlin has had the upper hand in the battle on the home front, but this new phase could prove decisive for Putin and his allies.

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Ivan Gomza is head of the Public Administration Department at the Kyiv School of Economics.

Graeme Robertson is one professor of political science and director of the Authoritarian Politics Lab at the University of North Carolina. Graeme co-authored with Samuel Greene of “Putin vs. the People: The Story of the Popular Dictator and the Struggle for Russia’s Future(Yale University Press, 2022).

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