Wartime leaders change commanders when they lose, not when they win. On 11 January, Putin announced that Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov was to replace Sergei Surovikin, who had been appointed just months earlier in October, as Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine. The only reasonable conclusion is that Putin understands that Russia is losing in Ukraine.
This shake-up at the top of the military is not the only sign that Putin is admitting that he has failed. He canceled his annual year-end press conference, apparently unwilling to answer questions from his largely loyal and controlled press corps. At the Kremlin’s Annunciation Cathedral on Orthodox Christmas, he looked sad and lonely.
His campaigners don’t seem happy either. In particular, one of them, Sergei Markov, summed up the past year bluntly by stating: “America was the biggest winner in 2022. Especially Biden.” Newspaper reporter Maxim Usin recently said on a talk show that Russia’s “special military operation” has not achieved any of its original goals. Former Putin adviser Sergei Glazyev has publicly lamented that Russia lacks a clear end goal, sound ideology or resources to win a war against the collective West.
But even if Putin suddenly has a white streak, he will never be able to restore the reputation of an omnipotent and omniscient leader that he once enjoyed among his subjects. Putin will not recover from the devastating war in Ukraine.
First, a major Russian victory on the battlefield is unlikely, so Putin is unlikely to regain his prestige by winning military glory. The Russian military has neither the ability nor the desire to take all four Ukrainian regions that Putin annexed on paper last fall. The chances of a successful Ukrainian retaliatory strike are high, especially if President Volodymyr Zelensky receives the offensive weapons – tanks, long-range missiles and jet fighters – that he has requested from the US and NATO. The oligarchs in Moscow, Communist leaders in Beijing and Russian nationalist bloggers on Telegram understand it all.
Second, Putin’s savage invasion of Ukraine resulted in the most extensive sanctions ever imposed on a single country, marking twenty years of Russia’s integration into the global economy. This isolation will continue as long as Putin is in power. The ban “stick” for a long time. They will gradually begin to be canceled only when new leaders come to power, less aggressive and authoritarian.
Meanwhile, the Russians are faced with economic problems and stagnation – the elite already understands this and naturally gets upset. Tens of thousands of the best and brightest left for Russia; Thousands of others are trying to do it. Putin won’t be able to garner respect from Russian private business either.
Third, public support for Putin is weak and declining. Opinion polls show that he still enjoys the confidence of the population. But Russia has a high percentage of refusals in these surveys, which is not surprising in a country where “public dissemination of knowingly false information about the activities of the Russian Armed Forces” can lead to 15 years in prison. A minority of participants in these polls support the regime, but the majority who choose not to answer are likely to have other views.
And even these polls show declining support for the war, with solid majorities willing to back Putin only if he stops the invasion. Russia’s concern about the war is increasing. And the demographic component of support for the regime is clear: Older, less educated and poorer Russians tend to have more faith in Putin than younger, better educated and wealthier Russians. Putin is losing his future.
Furthermore, in the past year there have been no mass movements in support of Russian imperialism, but there have been anti-war protests. Before the start of the war, Putin arrested Alexei Navalny, the most popular leader of the Russian opposition, who continues to denounce the war from his prison cell. Since Putin invaded Ukraine, nearly 20,000 people have been detained and arrested for opposing the war, including most recently opposition leaders Aleksey Goryunov and Ilya Yashin, who spoke out against Russian military atrocities in Ukraine. received seven and eight years, respectively, for telling the truth. ,
If the war was indeed popular, why would the Putin regime arrest these so-called fringe, unpopular critics? Or shut down independent media channels, including Dozhd and Radio Ekho Moskvy, and ban Twitter and Facebook?
Despite the restrictions, audiences for Russian state-controlled media are shrinking, while more and more people are reading and watching independent media operating in exile. The viewership of Navalny’s YouTube channels skyrocketed in 2022, especially after Putin announced his mobilization in September.
Revolutions are hard to predict, but Putin is still in danger of being overthrown by a palace coup or a popular uprising. During his two decades in power, he built a highly repressive dictatorship; His inner circle is afraid of him, and his main critics are in jail.
And in the unlikely event that one of its hawks takes power, such a regime would not last long, as none of these militant nationalists enjoy popular support.
The most likely scenario is that Putin will remain in power for some time to come, albeit discredited and weakened.
However, it is difficult to shake the feeling that the best days of Putin and his ideas are over. Like Leonid Brezhnev in Afghanistan, Putin overstepped it in Ukraine. He and his regime will never recover, and Putin’s colossal failure in Ukraine could be the beginning of the end for Putinism. The behavior of the Russian President shows that he too is beginning to take note of this fact.
The content was first published in The Washington Post.