Putin’s approval falls. Will the regime collapse?

Putin’s 22-year political rule structure has significant flaws. The Kremlin’s decision-making structure, frequently called the “vertical of power,” has been built in a pyramid form, where all lines of authority descend from Putin’s office. That implies that every significant issue must be resolved at the top.

There is a conventional opinion that Putin was humiliated by the aborted rebellion of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. After declaring on television that the “rebels” and “criminals” behind the uprising must be brought to justice, Putin immediately agreed on a deal under which 62-year-old Prigozhin was released and allowed to leave the country.

For an authoritarian leader whose image is based on total control, Putin’s attitude towards Prigozhin appears weak, even though the belligerent magnate has been suspended and exiled to Belarus.

Putin’s centralised system can work well in regular times, but when serious problems quickly appear, the “decision-making centre” becomes overloaded very fast. And that inevitably leads to cascading errors. In wartime, Putin must simultaneously deal with battlefield setbacks in Ukraine, conflicts between elites, severe economic problems due to sanctions and international isolation, social unrest, and societal mobilisation anxiety.

Tatyana Stanova, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Eurasia Centre, claimed that Putin’s inaction “significantly undermines [his] ability to ensure control in the eyes of the political class”. 

“Whereas Putin used to control the players, the power dynamics are changing,” she said. “Given his detachment and distorted vision of reality, the players are beginning to manipulate Putin”, she said. 

Conflicts between Russian elites have started

Putin has not yet lost the war against Ukraine, but it has already spoiled the relations with the politicians from his entourage. Looking for a justification, the Russian president shifted the blame for the failed invasion of Ukraine to the FSB. 

Meanwhile, his close allies, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner private army owner Yevgeny Prigozhin blamed the failures on Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Conflicts between clans and warlords close to Putin intensified.

Possible Putin’s successors 

Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security and politics at University College London, believes that Putin is “secure but fragile” and his ability to respond and survive in the event of another systemic crisis – whether it be illness, economic situation, breakdown, or a complete defeat in the war in Ukraine – is now diminishing.

In this case, Galeotti believes that Putin’s most likely successor will be a technocrat “with whom the security apparatus can live”, such as Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, 57, or a figure who straddles both worlds, such as Alexei Dyumin, 50, governor of the Tula region and a former bodyguard of Putin.

There is no real chance of relatively moderate political forces in the regime. Genuine opposition was eliminated years ago, with opposition leader Boris Nemtsov killed in Moscow. In contrast, puppet opposition parties were never fully independent and would not dare to stage a rebellion against Putin.

Is China looking for Putin’s successor?

With the latest trade agreements, Russia’s dependence on China increased a lot. It boosted Beijing’s political influence over the Kremlin. However, China is steadily distancing itself from Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, although cautiously. 

The Chinese leader has shown dissatisfaction with Putin amidst its war, condemned by almost all states in the UN, and may be looking to Mishustin as a pragmatic option for a change of ruler in the Russian Federation. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping is openly engaging Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin underlines this trend, Anders Aslund writes for Atlantic Council.

When Xi Jinping paid an official three-day visit to Russia in March 2023, it was seen as a major event. Contrary to strict Chinese etiquette, Xi met separately with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.

Then Chinese Prime Minister Li Qiang called upon his Russian counterpart, Mishustin, to Beijing for an official visit in late May. Mishustin is the highest-ranking Russian official to visit China since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022. Xi Jinping greeted Mishustin in the Great Hall of the People, going against Chinese and Russian traditions.

Russian dictator has become toxic. Putin’s approval in the world dropped from 14% in 2022 to 8% in 2023 according to Pew Research Center, Deutsche Welle.

Washington’s readiness for Russia’s collapse

The Pentagon has a plan for all eventualities, including a potential collapse of Putin’s rule. Yuri Rashkin, a US public and political figure of Russian descent, stated this as a deputy from Rock District in Wisconsin.

A regime change can also end Russia’s war in Ukraine. However, the question remains whether Moscow will be ready to withdraw its troops from all occupied territories. According to experts, Washington plans to preserve Western security guarantees for Ukraine. It will build its policy so that the next president of Russia will know that a free Ukraine and a stable Europe are the ultimate prices of the post-Putin world.

Russia’s implosion scenario

If the social tensions mount even more, Vladimir Putin can lose his hold on power, or the Russian Federation can implode as a state. 

Putin’s regime was hit by three major miscalculations: overestimation of the strength of the Russian army, the power of the Ukraine army and the determination of Ukrainians, and the unity of the West in its support of Ukraine.

A failed rebellion by the head of the Wagner PMC, Yevgeny Prigozhin, will weaken Russia, according to the expert. The failed coup has triggered chaotic processes, and their consequences will be felt in the future.

Several analysts have suggested that a coup by the Russian army or security services is probable, but there are too many obstacles for such a scenario. Putin has equipped his system with numerous safeguard measures. Several agencies keep an eye on each other, from the FSB and the GRU military intelligence to the Federal Guard Service and the Russian National Guard.

Lack of a solution from the top, the state can implode from the bottom, with several conflicting leaders, warlords, and tensions in the regions of the federation.

As a result, Russia may lose territories, as some republics may want to secede from the Russian Federation. According to the initiative Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum, the peoples of the Caucasus, Siberia, the Urals, the Kuban, Bashkiria, Yakutia, Tatarstan, Udmurtia, and others have every right to self-determination. They also have the right to secede from the aggressor country and form sovereign and independent states, the leaders in exile claimed.

Russia’s implosion or Putin’s dismissal: what’s more likely? 

Russia’s presidential election is scheduled for 17 March 2024 and would provide an outlet for dissatisfaction. Remembering that Putin could run and remain in power until 2036 is essential.

But public opinion is not an ultimate factor in a Russian autocratic regime where elections are rigged, and political opponents are imprisoned, killed, or discredited by propaganda media.

Nevertheless, Putin’s aura of invincibility has disappeared. Currently, many analysts are exploring possible developments. It may be either Putin stays, leading to a complete defeat and state collapse, or with the backing of China, the regime will change, and Putin will be replaced with an autocratic figure.

With the increased pressure, especially on the frontline from Ukraine, which has received new powerful military aid from Western partners, the internal events in Russia might speed up, and we might see an end to Russia’s and a solution to the crisis this autumn.

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