The looming threat of a full-scale Russian attack on Ukraine kept the world on edge for much of 2021, and for good reason — an attack of this magnitude would arguably be the most significant invasion of a European country by a more powerful neighbor since Adolf Hitler’s assault on Poland in 1939.
But what purpose would this move serve? As Russia’s preparations and threatening rhetoric have mounted, analysts have pointed out that another invasion of Ukraine would make little sense from a foreign and security policy standpoint.
The dominant foreign policy argument is that Russia is threatening war to extract concessions from Ukraine and the West. But Moscow’s demands, which appear clearly designed to be rejected, undercut this rationale.
The alternative explanation — that Russia seeks to reverse Ukraine’s pro-Western drift — assumes this is possible if Moscow doubles down on its ongoing, lower-grade aggression. Yet this approach seems to be alienating Ukrainians, not bringing them back to Russia’s fold. A December survey even suggests that a quarter of the traditionally pro-Russian population in Eastern Ukraine, which has suffered the most from the current “frozen” conflict, would take up arms against another Russian invasion.
And it is not clear Russians would agree with an attack on Ukraine. Surveys by the independent Levada Center show 62 percent of Russians fear a global conflict, while only about 15 to 20 percent support the unification of Russia and Ukraine. These attitudes have raised doubts that another war would rally Russians behind Putin’s leadership.
Popular discontent has risen sharply
Putin, however, may need a conflict not to rally but to restrain his population. In recent years, public support for Putin’s rule has fallen to new lows, while popular discontent has reached record heights. According to state-owned Russian pollster WCIOM, at the end of 2021, just 25 percent of Russians trusted Putin to resolve their problems. Based on Levada Center data, a mere 32 percent would vote for Putin. Those figures are about half the confidence and support levels Russia’s leader enjoyed until 2018.
And 20 to 25 percent of Russians indicated they would participate in protests with political and economic demands. The signs of public unrest — and the sharp uptick of labor protests in 2021 — had not been seen since the 1990s. Adding to these concerns, popular revolts have pushed neighboring dictatorships in Belarus and Kazakhstan to the brink of collapse, threatening to motivate Russians to do the same.
Comparative evidence shows that even unpopular conflicts, initiated by autocracies similar to Russia’s, effectively defused mass discontent of this sort. When, for instance, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic incited successive conflicts to “protect” his co-ethnics across the former Yugoslavia, overwhelming majorities of Serbs opposed the wars. Nevertheless, these highly unpopular conflicts enabled Milosevic to survive repeated mass revolts by creating social pressures to conform, dividing the opposition and justifying internal repression.
Russia’s experience is similar. A recent landmark study by political scientist Henry Hale finds that three-quarters of those who rallied in support of Putin after the 2014 Crimea annexation actually faked their newfound approval for Russia’s leader — out of fear of social censure by a Russian majority that appeared to become more militantly patriotic. But this faked rally behind Putin’s leadership had a real effect on popular dissent. His ratings stayed high and protests largely ceased for over four years.
Would Putin fight abroad to survive at home?
Going forward, the Russian regime may struggle to stem this current without another conflict, for at least two reasons. First, the Kremlin will have a hard time justifying the current campaign of internal repression and censorship with no compelling external threat — the sort observed in wartime. Lacking this, the domestic political crackdown may backfire; By early 2022, Russians had expressed record-high concerns about government arbitrariness and repression.
The second, deeper motive for invading Ukraine lies in Putin’s shrinking appeal. A 2021 Levada survey suggests that Russians are most likely to name only pacifying Chechnya, increasing Russia’s military prowess and enhancing its international stature as Putin’s successes over his 22-year reign.
At the same time, Russians are nearly twice as likely to cite Putin’s efforts to improve living standards as a failure than a success. This severely limits Putin’s options for justifying his rule, especially given Russia’s bleak economic prospects. In this context, a conflict in Ukraine could, paradoxically, prove a safer bet for defusing the mounting discontent and for preserving Putin’s regime.
This response would align well with the nature of the Putin regime. As my forthcoming book explains, electoral autocracies in the mold of Putin’s Russia attract genuine majority support by promising efficient, strong-armed rule in societies traumatized by crises and instability. However, elected strongmen become redundant in the eyes of their populations not only when they fail, but also when they succeed in restoring stability. To justify their rule, they must maintain or manufacture crises.
Elected autocrats, in other words, rely on crises and conflicts to establish and sustain their appeal. Putin rose to power thanks to the stage-managed invasion of Chechnya in 1999, which allowed him to project an image of a capable strongman who could “raise Russia from its knees” after the cataclysmic post-Soviet decline.
And when “strongman fatigue” turned Russians against his regime in 2011 and 2012, Putinism was resuscitated by another conflict. As the chart below shows, by 2013, more Russians wanted Putin to leave office than stay for another term. But Putin’s annexation of Crimea completely reversed this trend. With Putin appearing as Russia’s indispensable protector, the conflict in Ukraine paved his way to another easy reelection in 2018.
Support for Putin to continue as president at the end of his current term
As Russians grow increasingly weary of Putin again, Levada surveys show the number of Russians who want him out of office after his current term in once more about to surpass the number who would like him to stay on as president. And in 2024, Russia’s leader faces his most controversial reelection yet, enabled by constitutional changes that would allow him to rule Russia for life. Against this backdrop, the temptation to instigate another conflict in Ukraine may become overpowering.
Aleksandar Matovski is an assistant professor in the department of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and the author of “Popular Dictatorships: Crises, Mass Opinion, and the Rise of Electoral Authoritarianism” (Cambridge University Press, 2022). The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government, the Defense Department or the Navy.