A perfect storm must come together of deepening troubles on the battlefield in Ukraine, Kremlin insiders turning on Putin, popular opposition and (not least of all) ideas for what comes after. More and more signs of all these factors are starting to show up.
White House officials were quick to clarify that Joe Biden’s words were not, in fact, exactly what they sounded like. “For God’s sake,” the U.S. President said of Russia's Vladimir Putin, "this man cannot remain in power." No, the apparently ad-libbed line in a momentous speech in Warsaw on Saturday was not a call for regime change, but rather a message that Putin “cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region.”
Of course, most of those neighbors in the region, along with much of the international community would like to see someone else take power in Moscow — starting with Ukrainians who are suffering one month into Putin’s unprovoked invasion.
Yet, experts agree, it is only Russians who would have the power to remove the strongman from power.
Regime change in the short-term is still considered unlikely, with Putin exercising a 22-year grip on Russia’s administrative and military power. Yet the military’s failure to obtain a swift victory in Ukraine and growing domestic popular opposition to the invasion — both street protests and denunciation by many prominent business, cultural and intellectual figures — could loosen Putin’s grip.
Military and Kremlin inner circle
Ultimately, any potential scenario for Putin’s fall would need to include the military and state security apparatus turning on him, and would probably need support from at least a part of his own Kremlin inner circle.
We are projecting our hopes
"We have a tendency to think that the inner circle of authoritarian leaders contains someone interested in knocking off that leader," cautioned Vanderbilt University History Professor Tom Schwartz, in a recent interview with Newsweek. "We simply are projecting our hopes into a situation in which it is very unlikely."
Still, Fiona Hill, a former top U.S. government expert on Russia, said if the stalemate deepens in Ukraine: "you might then start to get a backlash from those people who are thinking this has not gone as they intended."
A common enemy
Meanwhile, more and more people, including prominent public figures, are gathering momentum to push for the end to Putin’s autocratic regime.
In a video posted on Wednesday, eight notable opposition figures - including former oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Alexei Navalny ally Lyubov Sobol and former chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov — called on Russians to resist Kremlin propaganda and push back against the war on Ukraine.
Though not the first example of opposition to Putin and the war from prominent Russians, this new video represents a growing anti-Putin unity from the Russian political opposition that just a year ago was disjointed and squabbling amongst itself.
Now, politics has been pushed aside. They are no longer fighting for votes, but for democracy itself. “We all represent different political movements. But we have merged into one anti-war committee, because we believe that our country does not need this war,” said Khodorkovsky.
Although Putin had hoped to stamp out political antagonism by condemning vociferous critic Alexei Navalny to another nine years of high-security imprisonment on Tuesday, faith in Putin’s government may be wavering. ‘We are united so that the voices of Russians who are resisting this war could be heard all around the world,’ said former lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov.
Rewind the clocks and we discover that the current situation stems from a deep-rooted ideology that has been brewing within the Kremlin’s walls for years.
The Kremlin elite not externally, but internally, has been united not by fear, but by faith
Writing for Novaya Gazeta, Vladimir Pastukhov, Doctor of Political Sciences at the University College of London, describes how the Kremlin is possessed by its own ‘Russian religion’: ‘The ideology of Russian hyper-nationalism was able to unite the Kremlin elite not externally, but internally, not by fear, but by faith. I believe that a significant part of the president's entourage is really affected by this virus, and what we are seeing is not pretense, not cynicism, but a kind of collective ecstasy of members of a semi-religious order.’
The policy of perestroika in 1991 was seen as a positive for the Russian Westernizers as it finally saw the country’s opening up after its isolation during the Soviet Union. Combine this with Putin’s overtures about joining NATO, and there was definite hope for the Kremlin on the global stage. But even then, when Putin was told by George Robertson, NATO General Secretary 1999-2003, that countries must apply to join NATO, they are not invited, a hint of inveterate pride creeped into Putin’s reply: ‘Well, we’re not standing in line with a lot of countries that don’t matter.’ Putin revealed his own tendency, even then, for hyper-nationalism.
Standing guard in Kyiv
A Ukrainian soldier standing guard in Kyiv
Daniel Ceng Shou-Yi/ZUMA
Avoiding North Korea's fate
After rejection from the West, and its perceived expansion eastward into Russia’s zone of influence, Putin has turned isolation into an aggressive stance of "denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine." Andrey Kolesnikov, in the New Times, said that “The more isolated from the world ordinary Russians feel, the more they feel hostage to the ‘island of Russia.’”
Russia is now faced with the political and economic suicide of the Putin regime, isolating Russia to the same level as North Korea or the USSR.
Some political commentators and politicians have made suggestions that a regime change is coming. What this may look like, though, remains unclear. But in a time where Putinism is becoming ever more aggressive, it is important to remember that beyond bad people, it was bad ideas widely shared that drove Russia to its current state. If Russia is to change, it will need more than just a united opposition. It needs a new way of thinking.