Has Russian President Vladimir Putin decided on a “catastrophic” war, as President Biden announced Friday? Media reports in recent weeks have focused on the possible impact of war on the government and people of Ukraine. Analysts warn of horrific consequences, with thousands of casualties, a monumental refugee crisis and the installation of a puppet government in Kyiv.
But what would a Russian invasion of Ukraine mean for Russia itself? War inevitably affects domestic politics — and our research suggests that a war in Ukraine could change the nature of Russia’s authoritarian system.
In a recent working paper, we examine the relationship among various tools of autocratic survival. If possible, autocrats aim to avoid repression, which is costly and may not work. Yet the alternative means of retaining control — manipulating public opinion by suppressing outside information — may deprive authoritarian leaders themselves of information they need to survive.
Our research shows that autocrats resolve this trade-off by balancing the use of information manipulation and repression: censorship first, but if that approach fails, repression. How this plays out depends on public sentiment. When citizens are inclined to oppose the government’s policy, censorship doesn’t help much, and the likelihood of repression is high.
Russians show little support for a long war with Ukraine
So what does this mean for the Putin regime, and how are Russians likely to react to a war in Ukraine? For the Kremlin, the most optimistic outcome is that a war would be rapid and decisive, leading the Russian population to rally around the flag, as was the case after Putin seized Crimea in 2014. In this scenario, Putin’s approval ratings, under pressure from years of economic stagnation and an ineffective response to the pandemic, would climb again.
Such a scenario isn’t impossible, but it is not likely. A 2022 invasion of Ukraine would look nothing like the lightning strike on Crimea in 2014, or even like the grinding conflict in the Donbas that followed. Ukraine isn’t likely to be able to stop a full-scale assault, but it can inflict substantial casualties. With help from the West, Ukrainian insurgents would continue to send Russian soldiers home in body bags, making a prolonged conflict likely.
And Putin has done little to prepare the Russian public for such losses. Russians reportedly have little appetite for a war with Ukraine, in what would be Russia’s largest military conflict since the Cold War. Opinion surveys show declining support for the conflict in Eastern Ukraine that will soon enter its ninth year, with less than 10 percent of the Russian population in support of open conflict with Ukrainian troops.
If the war is long, Putin will try to censor outside information
To forestall the loss of popular support, the Kremlin’s spin doctors would no doubt construct a narrative that justifies the war — that Russian troops are providing protection to an ethnic Russian minority at risk of genocide, say, much like the story to justify Russian intervention in Georgia on behalf of South Ossetians in 2008. Yet such propaganda is unlikely to succeed without unprecedented censorship of outside information. Russia’s few remaining independent media outlets would therefore be unlikely to survive a prolonged conflict.
There would, of course, be other voices attempting to bring news to the Russian public, including through social media. To prevent this, the government would probably close down YouTube and other channels where such voices have been communicating their views. Those who nonetheless publicize news of Russian casualties would face physical reprisal, as happened during the early days of the Donbas War.
If censorship doesn’t work, repression will rise
Yet even such extreme measures may fail, as information about Russian losses and Ukrainian opposition trickle in. If that’s the case, Putin would turn to the dictator’s last resort: overt repression. Having failed to maintain popular support for the war, and with his own presidency at risk, Putin would impose further restrictions to hang onto power, much as his neighbor Alexander Lukashenko has done in Belarus. The end result? We might see a Russia that’s far more autocratic than at any point in the post-Soviet era.
Russian security forces would no doubt suppress any street protests against the war in Ukraine, and imprison Russians who speak out against the regime. Activists already in prison — most especially Alexei Navalny — would be at greater risk of torture and death. Russia’s opposition parties — which the Kremlin has until now tolerated, managed and even created to maintain a pretense of political competition — might find that they’ve outlived their usefulness. The FSB, the security agency that’s already more powerful than any institution save the presidency itself, would grow more powerful yet.
Having embarked on this path, it would be difficult for Putin to turn back. Any hope of a more open regime would necessarily await Putin's removal from power, or a natural death in office.
Putin is gambling his future — and Russia’s
It could be that Putin is gambling on the first, optimistic scenario above — that a quick Russian victory yields increased popular support. Alternatively, he might be betting that he can manipulate public opinion even in the face of significant battle losses. Last, he may be wagering that repression would work with minimal cost. What happens to Russia’s political system depends on which of these gambles is correct.
Another Russian invasion would be terrible for Ukraine. It could also be terrible for Russia, whose population could suffer the loss of whatever political freedoms and civil liberties remain after two decades of Putin’s rule. The stakes of the current crisis extend far beyond the boundaries of Ukraine — those working to avert conflict are fighting for Russia’s future as well as Ukraine’s.
Scott Gehlbach is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.
Zhaotian Luo is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago.