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Opinion Are we seeing the beginning of the end of Putinism?

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends an Orthodox Christmas mass in Moscow on Jan. 6. (This image is distributed by the Russian state agency Sputnik; Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

Wartime leaders change generals when they’re losing, not winning. On Jan. 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, was to replace Sergei Surovikin, who was appointed just a few months earlier in October, as his new overall commander of Russian military forces in Ukraine. The only reasonable conclusion: Putin understands that Russia is losing in Ukraine.

This shake-up at the top of the military is not the only sign of Putin’s recognition of failure. He canceled his annual end-of-year news conference, evidently reluctant to take questions even from a mostly loyal and controlled press corps. His solitary and subdued appearance at the Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin on Orthodox Christmas communicated little confidence.

His propagandists sound depressed. Strikingly, one of them, Sergei Markov, summed up the previous year by stating bluntly, “The USA was the main winner of 2022. Especially Biden.” Newspaper reporter Maksim Yusin recently said on a talk show that Russia’s “special military operation” had achieved none of its original goals. Former Putin adviser Sergei Glazyev lamented in public that Russia does not have a clear end objective, a sound ideology or the resources to win the war against the collective West.

Putin plans to reverse 2022’s Russian losses by launching a spring offensive after drafting several hundred thousand more soldiers. But even with incremental successes, he will never be able to restore the reputation he once enjoyed among his subjects as an all-powerful and all-knowing leader. Putin will not recover from his disastrous war in Ukraine.

First, major Russian victories on the battlefield are unlikely. Russia’s armed forces have neither the capabilities nor the will to capture all four Ukrainian regions that Putin annexed on paper last fall. Successful Ukrainian counteroffensives are more likely, especially if President Volodymyr Zelensky receives the offensive weapons — tanks, longer range missiles and jet fighters — he requested from the United States and NATO. Putin is very unlikely to resurrect his reputation by achieving military glory. Oligarchs in Moscow, communist leaders in Beijing and Russian nationalist bloggers on Telegram all seem to understand this.

Second, Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine triggered the most comprehensive sanctions we’ve seen imposed against a single country, ending two decades of Russian integration into the global economy. This isolation will continue for as long as Putin is in power. Sanctions are sticky. They will begin to unwind only when new leaders who are less aggressive and autocratic come to power. In the meantime, Russians will face economic malaise and stagnation, a fact the economic elite already understands and laments. Tens of thousands of Russia’s best and brightest have left; thousands more are trying to do so. Putin won’t regain respect from Russia’s private business sector.

Third, Putin’s societal support is soft and declining. Public opinion polls show he still enjoys popular support. But these polls in Russia have high refusal rates, which should not be surprising in a country where you can go to jail for 15 years for “public dissemination of deliberate false information about the use of Russian Armed Forces.” The minority responding to these polls supports the regime, but the majority who choose not to respond likely do not. And even these highly flawed polls show little enthusiasm and declining support for the war, and a solid majority ready to support Putin if he ends the invasion. Anxiety about the conflict is growing. And the demographics of his support are clear: The older, more rural, less educated and poorer support Putin in greater numbers than the younger, more urban, more educated, wealthier Russians. Putin is losing the future.

Other indicators look equally grim for Putin. Organic mass movements in support of Russian imperialism have not emerged over the past year, but antiwar protests have. Before the war began, Putin arrested Russia’s most popular opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who continues to denounce the war from his jail cell. Since Putin invaded Ukraine, almost 20,000 people have been detained and arrested for protesting the war, including most recently opposition leaders Alexei Gorinov and Ilya Yashin, who received seven- and eight-year sentences respectively for telling the truth about Russian war atrocities in Ukraine. If the war was truly popular, why would Putin’s regime need to arrest these allegedly marginal, unpopular critics?

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Likewise, a paranoid Putin felt compelled to shut down many independent media channels — including TV Rain and Echo of Moscow radio — and ban Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Yet viewership of Russian state-controlled media outlets is declining while audiences increasingly consume independent media operating from exile. Viewership of Navalny’s YouTube channels, operated by his team in exile, jumped dramatically in 2022, especially after Putin announced a new draft in September. (Only a week after the order was issued, as many men or more fled Russia than enlisted.)

Revolutions are hard to predict, but Putin remains in little danger of being overthrown through a palace coup or a popular revolt. Over two decades in power, he has constructed a highly repressive dictatorship; his inner circle fears him, while his main critics sit in prison. And in the unlikely event that one of his hawkish critics were to seize power, such a regime would not last long, since none of these militant nationalists enjoy mass followings or ideological appeal. The most likely scenario is Putin will remain in control for the near future, albeit discredited and diminished.

It is hard to escape the sense though that the best days for Putin and his ideas are behind him. Like Leonid Brezhnev in Afghanistan, Putin has overreached in Ukraine. He and his regime will never recover. Even if the process of unwinding begins in earnest only once he is out of power, Putin’s colossal failure in Ukraine could well be the beginning of the end of Putinism. The Russian president’s recent behavior suggests that even he might understand this fact.