A new political reality is emerging in Russia as the result of internal disruption caused by the war against Ukraine. This isn’t the first bifurcation point in the Putin regime: other examples include the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2020. The difference is that the regime had incubated previous landmark decisions within itself, and moved toward them gradually as they germinated. The war, in contrast, caught the Russian elites unawares, and Putin’s inability to bring it to a swift and victorious end is radically changing the nature and prospects of internal political processes.

For the first time in his reign of nearly a quarter of a century, the president has made a radical strategic decision almost entirely on his own. No matter how loyal the Russian elites may be, no matter how ready they may have been to share Putin’s logic, or at least to resign themselves to it, that doesn’t alter the fact that the war was thrust upon them without any discussion or preparations. 

Now, having recovered from the initial shock, the Russian elite is gradually starting to accept the new reality, to adapt to it, and to wake up to the sheer hopelessness of the long-term situation. The original upswing in support for Putin, partly caused by a sense of acute grievance against the West and by the unexpected resilience of the Russian financial system, is giving way to despondency and incomprehension over how the country will ever be able to get back on track. The way in which a truly momentous decision was taken—quite obviously based on miscalculations and errors—hasn’t just shaken Putin’s authority; it has prompted profound concerns over how the president will cope in the future.

By unleashing a war and then being unable to win it in the first few weeks, Putin has disappointed both those who saw the war as a grave mistake and those who believe the regime is not tough or decisive enough. There is now an unspoken consensus that either the war should have been won immediately using all available means, or not started in the first place. 

Today, it seems to many within the power vertical that Putin bit off more than he could chew, and then wasn’t resolute enough to see it through. The president is caught between a rock and a hard place: ending the war is not an option (it would be seen as a defeat for Russia), but nor can he bring himself to finish it once and for all.

It’s up for debate, of course, how capable Russia really is of finishing the war, going by the resources available and its military capability, but our focus here is the mood within the elite, and from the viewpoint of the hawks, Putin looks weak. This strains any inter-elite solidarity with the president and makes his support base increasingly fragile.

That doesn’t yet mean that the foundations for a hypothetical coup are forming within the Russian elite, or that anyone from Putin’s entourage will be prepared to make a stand against the president. The chances of that happening are extremely low, because those same feelings of futility and despondency go hand in hand with a state of political paralysis: even if someone has their own interests and an alternative view of the situation (whether in favor of peace or more warlike), they remain politically impotent because any mechanisms for taking political action have been destroyed.

The Russian elite is atomized. Every individual is frightened for their future, and lives in permanent fear of being denounced. Putin’s function as an arbitrator is diminishing, but he remains the only “guarantor of stability”—even though any stability is long gone—purely because no other mechanisms for resolving inter-elite conflicts in Russia have emerged.

The siloviki, or security services, fear revenge by the liberals; the technocrats fear a tidal wave of repression; and big business fears the re-Sovietization of the economy. Many people still believe that only Putin can protect them from those risks. His value in this respect is not even as a physical figure, but as a selection of ideologies that make it possible to stitch the system into something whole, avoiding social unrest or ruinous internal divides.

This political paralysis cannot be cured by widespread anger, nor by Western sanctions, nor by a financial and economic crisis. It is the direct result of banning the elites, who are too dependent on Putin, from getting involved in politics.

And yet the degradation of Putin’s political leadership means that the Russian elite will have to change. The president’s misjudgment of the risks to Russian industry, banking, and energy, and incompetence in financial and economic affairs multiplied by a lack of trust in those around him and in experts will lead to belated and unsound decisions.

Recently, the president lambasted the governor of the Kaliningrad region, Anton Alikhanov, for complaining that the “special military operation,” as Russia terms the war in Ukraine, had created logistics problems in the construction industry. Putin’s emotional response was that the war has nothing to do with that and should not be used to justify failings in other areas. This approach means that the elites are left to deal with any problems on their own, and also strengthens the conviction that the country’s leadership is incapable of properly evaluating the consequences of the war and managing the risks effectively.

Putin has created a situation for which he was not prepared and which he doesn’t know how to deal with, while the Russian power system that he himself built is constructed in such a way as to prevent effective decisions from being made collectively and in a balanced way. This is the main threat to the Putin regime. To survive, the Russian elites will have to move faster and more actively than the president, minimizing his onerous involvement in the decisionmaking process.

The Russian elites are learning to live in a new way without fully understanding the nature of this new reality, while actively—and often intuitively—helping to write the new rules. The transformation will take months: the increasing fragility of Putin’s leadership will cause the number of inter-elite conflicts to grow, along with the autonomy of the elites themselves. That’s not to say that Russia will see an anti-Putin coup; just that the elites will be prepared to be more assertive in defending their interests, without constantly looking over their shoulders at an overly isolated Putin.

An unspoken demand is forming within the system for a different Putin: one that could be described as decorative, whether it’s Putin himself or his successor. The regime must learn to survive as its formerly strong leader decays. The political arena has been purged, and searching for a successor is a taboo, so a convenient leader would be one who would perform Putin’s social role (mobilizing the population around the regime and cultivating Putinism as an ideology, thereby cementing stability), while at the same time remaining on the sidelines of the everyday running of the country.

What this means in practical terms is that the elites will have less need of Putin, will appeal to him less often, and will not particularly count on him to function as an arbitrator or protector. If Putin were to drop dead tomorrow, the strong conservation of Putinism as an ideology under a weak successor could prove far from the worst scenario for the majority of elite groups.

The inevitable outcome of all of this is that in his current form, Putin is becoming more of a burden to the system than its salvation. The system will search for ways to minimize his role in state decisionmaking while guaranteeing its own continuation. That is the only way to prevent society from descending into unrest amid the worsening economic crisis.

By:
  • Tatiana Stanovaya