Regime Change, But for Whom
By Philip Wasielewski
Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine is now three weeks old. President Putin’s goals for this euphemistically named “special military operation” are the [sic] denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine. “Denazification” is short hand for removing a constitutionally elected government and replacing it with a puppet one. Demilitarization means imposing conditions that will make Ukraine perpetually weak and subservient to Moscow. For Putin, this is a war of regime change to make Ukraine a vassal of Russia.
With enough time and blood, Russia might occupy Ukraine up to the Dnepr River and points beyond. However, no matter what amount of Ukrainian territory Russia occupies, it cannot achieve its war aims. Even if Russian forces capture or kill President Zelensky, take Kyiv, and install a puppet government, they will never be able to leave because any government installed by Russian bayonets will only survive with the constant presence of Russian bayonets. This means a permanent Russian occupation, suppression of resistance, and repression of Ukrainian nationalism. The Kremlin probably understands by now that such a “victory” would mean the end of the Russian economy and near total international isolation. In order to find a face-saving exit from this war, they will actually need the Zelensky government to negotiate with for a cease fire and peace agreement.
Therefore, while it is hard to foresee Russia’s war causing regime change in Ukraine, it is not impossible to consider this same war causing regime change in Russia. President Putin’s decision to go to war has made him vulnerable to both popular and elite discontent in Russia. Public discontent will be fueled by nationwide economic deprivation and the individual personal tragedies of high casualties from a needless war. Elite discontent will be fueled by resentment of the cavalier and incompetent way that Putin led the nation into war and fears that popular unrest will jeopardize the political system, which is best described as “La Cosa Nostra”, from which they receive their power and money.
Putin’s downfall has been predicted before. However, a combination of factors has sustained his hold on power for over two decades including the Kremlin’s control of the mass media; its natural state monopoly of force via the judiciary, police, paramilitary forces, and the armed forces; and the historic Russian fear of anarchy especially of the type experienced between 1991-1998. In that period, Russia’s GDP fell approximately 40% while the average Russian endured currency devaluations, drastic loss of real income, high inflation, and other economic shocks but little therapy culminating in the financial crisis of 1998 when the government devalued the ruble and defaulted on its debts. Despite the past nine years of a declining economy, Russian citizens could console themselves that they have survived worse and have generally accepted their political and economic situation.
However, sanctions related to the Ukrainian war are predicted to impact the Russian economy to the same extent or even worse than in the 1990s. In less than three weeks since Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine, the ruble has fallen sharply against the dollar (on February 23, 2022 the ruble traded at 84.05 to one U.S. dollar, on March 10, 2022 the ruble traded at 126.50 to the dollar) and fears of bank runs are rising, as the depreciation threatens to stoke inflation, which some estimate could now be running as high as 70%. On February 28, Russia’s central bank doubled its benchmark interest rate to 20%, to stem the ruble’s fall. Russia has banned foreigners from selling local securities and ordered domestic exporters to sell most of their foreign-currency holdings. The Moscow stock market is still closed while Fitch Ratings has downgraded Russia’s credit to “C”, or junk bond status. The Bank of Russia estimates that GDP in 2022 will shrink by 8% while JP Morgan estimates it will fall by 11% due to sanctions this year (in 1998 it fell 5.3%). The ability of Russia to weather this storm by drawing from its sovereign wealth funds is partly negated by the fact that nearly half of the country’s $640 billion in foreign exchange reserves is frozen due to sanctions. During the week of March 14, 2022, the Russian government must pay $117 million on two of its dollar-denominated bonds. Russia’s finance minister is threatening to pay that debt in rubles, which would mean a default of government debt. What took years to happen to the Russian economy from the collapse of the Soviet Union in the winter of 1991 to the default in the summer of 1998 may now be repeated in just months thanks to Putin’s attack on Ukraine.
How will Russians react if they see a return to the economic ruin of the 1991-1998 era or even worse? A combination of a ruined economy, anger over Putin’s war in Ukraine, continuing fallout from the poor handling of the COVID-19 epidemic, the loss of opportunities for international travel, and other economic and social problems could provide a catalyst for new nationwide street protests. What then?
Putin is certainly willing to give orders to crush dissent and the “guardians of order” will likely carry them out. Following such orders would not just be mere loyalty to Putin but also in the best self-interest of most security officers to maintain their lucrative business interests and to not face some future “truth commission” for their activities of the past two decades. Events in Belarus in 2020 demonstrated that if the security forces stand firm, a dictator can survive long-term popular unrest. For further confirmation of this, it is not too far a look over the shoulder from the Kremlin’s Red Square to Tiananmen Square.
Should there ever be the use of large-scale deadly force against the general public, the correlation of forces and loyalty of the security services may win the day, but also lose forever Putin’s connection with Russian society. A modern-day Bloody Sunday and follow-on unrest paralleling the 1905 Revolution would have consequences. Bloody Sunday, the January 1905 massacre of a march in St. Petersburg to petition the Tsar over economic conditions, took place in the middle of the unpopular Russo-Japanese war. The war had exposed Russia’s weak military and inept civil administration, but this had also happened in the Crimean War, and that time led to beneficial reforms. What made Bloody Sunday a pivotal event in Russian history and compounded the effects of a losing war in the Far East was that it’s violence against loyal subjects in the shadow of the Tsar’s Winter Palace broke the social contract between Nicholas II and the nation that accepted autocratic rule. Until then, most Russians blamed their problems on government officials and not the Tsar whom they believed ruled by divine right and was genuinely concerned with their well-being. After Bloody Sunday the myth of the Good Tsar ended and Russian society now personally identified Russia’s problems with the Tsar. The resulting waves of strikes and violence known as the 1905 Revolution forced Nicholas II to accept the first limits ever on Tsarist power. A similar combination of internal unrest and military defeats in February 1917 culminated in his abdication and later the murder of his entire family after the Bolshevik revolution.
This history may not repeat itself today but is very close to rhyming with an autocratic ruler being personally identified with an unpopular war and growing economic distress. Russia’s modern social contract wherein the Kremlin provides the people with good economic conditions in exchange for noninterference in politics is severely strained. It could shatter if lethal force is applied widespread against society instead of just against a few politically active citizens. There is too much baggage in modern Russian history for major bloodletting to not have an impact on today’s ruled and their approach to their rulers. It could lead to the very cycle of demonstrations that so unnerved the Kremlin during the Bolotnaya Square movement of 2011-2013 and later the nationwide protests supporting Alexei Navalny. If protests against Putin, the war, and the economy become nationwide in location and society-wide in participation, then events could develop their own unforeseen momentum as happened in Iran during the anti-Shah demonstrations in 1978.
Therefore, if the first rule of politics is “Thou shalt stay in power,” how might Russia’s political elites react to nationwide protests in order to survive? Russia has a Soviet past but is not the old Soviet Union. The ideology and mechanisms needed to control an entire population in a totalitarian fashion cannot be refashioned. For those who are part of the ruling regime this could become a true existential threat. To prevent popular unrest from forcing a total change of the ruling system, regime elites would need to make major changes, possibly starting at the top.
If history informs Russian leaders to fear the wrath of the masses, it should also warn that as many Kremlin leaders have been deposed by forces from within its walls as from without. Tsars Peter III (1728-1762) and Paul I (1754-1801) were murdered during palace revolutions and Nikita Khrushchev was unseated by an internal Kremlin cabal in 1964. Unsuccessful military coups also came close to unseating Tsar Nicholas I in 1825 and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. This may be why Putin decided to split Rosgvardia paramilitary units from the MVD, put them under the ultra-loyal Zolotov, and have him report directly to the Kremlin as a counterbalance to any palace intrigue from the FSB and MVD. However, there are many levels of loyalty and those who are in the Kremlin inner circle have their own economic and personal security interests to consider. If it comes to losing the boss or losing their positions, power, and assets; the inner circle may give up the boss. An internal coup to appease massive social disorder could remove Putin from power. In other words, popular unrest does not need to break through the gates of the Kremlin to succeed; it only needs to break through the sense of security within Putin’s inner circle.
Putin himself has helped undermine that sense of security amongst Russia’s elites. Throughout his career, from the sinking of the Kursk to the Beslan and Nord-Ost theater terror attacks, he has been a poor crisis manager. For COVID-19, Putin put the responsibility for the pandemic response on the shoulders of others while remaining isolated from the Russian public and most of his own government.
Now he has begun a war that has the hallmarks of turning into a disaster no matter how much territory Russian forces occupy. Even before the war there were signals that the Russian military may not have been in total agreement of the necessity for invading Ukraine. Since the war has exposed Russian military deficiencies and caused high casualties amongst its most elite units (and Rosgvardia units too), it would not be unusual for the military to react against the political leadership that ordered the war.
Others elements of the government may also react negatively to an unwanted war. A close review of the February 21, 2022, national security meeting shows subtle indications that not everyone in the inner circle supported Putin’s plans. While his innermost circle of advisors, Secretary of the Security Council Patrushev, FSB Director Bortnikov and Defense Minister Shoigu, expressed strong support for war, Foreign Minister Lavrov and Prime Minister Mishustin both avoided giving straight answers till pressed. The same applied to Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Kozak, who holds the Ukraine portfolio in Russia’s national security system, and who had to be pressed to admit that Kyiv would not accept Russia’s ultimatums. When Kozak later tried to speak again at the meeting, Putin cut him off twice and Putin later humiliated his foreign intelligence chief, Sergei Naryshkin, about whether he would support recognition of the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics – all of which was later broadcast unedited to the nation. Since that meeting, Putin has also reportedly lashed out Russia’s national security elites firing army generals and arresting senior FSB officers as a result of the disastrous conduct of the war to date.
Putin may later rue his humiliation of key government and security figures. No dictator ever rules alone but instead as head of a system and that system, whatever it is, has as much reason to protect itself as its leader does. Russia’s elites may soon face popular unrest over an unpopular war as well as direct threats to their personal wealth at home and abroad from international sanctions and increased international vigilance of money laundering and hidden foreign bank accounts. In addition, Putin’s recent announcement that he has raised the nuclear alert level may unnerve those around him as much as it has caused concern in the West. Russia’s security and economic elites may soon have to decide how far towards disaster they will allow Putin to lead them before taking control of the wheel of a car that may be heading towards a cliff.
Time may not be on Putin’s side and the events of the next several weeks and months will be crucial for Russia’s future. How events eventually unfold cannot be clearly foreseen; this article posits one possible scenario. The United States and its allies and partners should take time now to consider the policy implications and contingency plans for such an event. Those plans should also take into account that the shock waves from the fall of Vladimir Putin could also finally topple Alexander Lukashenko, now a partner in crime against Ukraine, as well. This is not to say that changes in regime leadership will also mean changes in the basic political form of the regimes ruling Russia and Belarus. A democratic revolution would be welcome but one motivation for an internal coup in the Kremlin would be to preempt a popular mass upheaval. The successors of Putin and Lukashenko could be drawn from the same well as their predecessors. But by virtue of being their replacements, they will be expected by those who put them in power to make changes that their predecessors were unable or unwilling to make. The West should not be caught unawares, such events may happen quickly, and therefore be prepared to deal with new leaders and new circumstances to help end this war, repair the damage done to Ukraine, and prevent it from happening again.
 Foreign Policy, Russia is in agony but Putin’s is going down, Jonathan Tepperman, 26 January 2021; Foreign Policy, Time to think of a world without Putin, Jeff Hawn and Sim Tack, 10 February 2021; The Harvard Gazette, Is this a tipping point for Putin?, Christina Pazzanese, 05 February 2021; U.S. News and World Report, U.S. ‘very concerned’ Putin will provoke foreign crisis to quell pro-Navalny protest, Paul Shinkman, 03 February 2021.
 Harvard Institute of Economic Research, Discussion Paper Number 2019: A Normal Country, by Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman, October 2003.
 New York Times, How Economic Warfare Is Battering Russia, by Andrew Sorkin, et al., February 28, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/28/business/dealbook/russia-ukraine-sanctions.html.
 Jacob Bogage and Adela Suliman, Russia’s “imminent’ default will have harsh ripple effects. Here’s why., Washington Post, March 9, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2022/03/09/fitch-ratings-russia-default-ukraine-sanctions/; Shalini Nagarajan, Russia’s stock market to close for a third week, while the clock ticks down to a key debt payment deadline, Business Insider, March 14, 2022, https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/russia-stock-market-closed-bonds-default-sovereign-debt-deadline-2022-3.; Jason Lalljee, Russia’s economy could suffer a ‘deep’ recession that cuts GDP by 11% as sanctions sharpen, JPMorgan says, Business Insider, March 4, 2022, https://www.businessinsider.com/russia-economy-recession-sanctions-nato-swift-putin-ukraine-biden-debt-2022-3#:~:text=1%20JP%20Morgan%20researchers%20predict%20that%20Russia%27s%20GDP,despite%20despite%20the%20protective%20measures%20Putin%20put%20in%20place.; Petr Mironenko, Первые прогнозы падения ВВП и роста инфлации, что будет со ставкой ЦБ и эффект американского нефтяного эмбарго [First estimates of the fall of GDP and the rise of inflation, what will happen to the Central Bank rate and the effect of the American oil embargo], The Bell, March 10, 2022, https://thebell.io/pervye-prognozy-padeniya-vvp-i-rosta-inflatsyii-chto-budet-so-stavkoj-tsb-i-effekt-amerkanskogo-neftyanogo-embargo.
 Belton, Catherine; Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 2020, pages 489-500 for a summary of the control of the “Siloviki” and their families into the Russian economy. For two other, out of many, examples see Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, The Great Russian Oil Heist by Sergei Khazov-Cassia, 22 March 2021 and Bloomberg, When Russian Officials Nightmare Your Business, You Can Lose Everything – Even Your Life by Leonid Ragozin, 29 January 2018.
 Seee Zygar, Mikhail, All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin, Public Affairs, New York, 2016.
 Moscow Times, Putin keeps self-isolating despite vaccination – reports, 10 May 2021.
 See Paul Goble, “Russian Security Experts Say Any Russian Invasion of Ukraine Will Not Be a Cake Walk,” Jamestown Foundation, Eurasia Daily Monitor 19, no. 15, February 8, 2022, https://jamestown.org/program/moscow-security-experts-say-any-russian-invasion-of-ukraine-will-not-be-a-cake-walk/; Anders Åslund, “Retired Russian Generals Criticize Putin Over Ukraine, Renew Calls for His Resignation, Just Security, February 9, 2022, https://www.justsecurity.org/80149/retired-russian-generals-criticize-putin-over-ukraine-renew-call-for-his-resignation/; Mikhail Khodarenok, Прогнозы кровожадных политологов [Forecasts of Bloody Political Scientists], Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, February 3, 2022, https://nvo.ng.ru/realty/2022-02-03/3_1175_donbass.html; Leonid Ivashov, Обращение председателя ООС [Appeal of the Chairman of the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly], January 31, 2022, https://ooc.su/news/obrashhenie_obshherossijskogo_oficerskogo_sobranija_k_prezidentu_i_grazhdanam_rossijskoj_federacii/2022-01-31-79; Alexander Zhelenin, Атака на Украину: логика и иррациональност Кремля[The Attack on Ukraine: The Logic and Irrationality of the Kremlin], Rosbalt, December 1, 2021, https://www.rosbalt.ru/russia/2021/12/01/1933466.html.
 Mark Galeotti, The Personal Politics of Putin’s Security Council Meeting, Moscow Times, February 22, 2022, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/02/22/the-personal-politics-of-putins-security-council-meeting-a76522.
 Chris King, Vladimir Putin reportedly fires eight generals, EuroWeekly, March 11, 2022, https://euroweeklynews.com/2022/03/11/vladimir-putin-reportedly-fires-eight-generals/.