Putin’s regime may fall – but what would come next?

<span>Photograph: Laurent Gilliéron/EPA</span>
Photograph: Laurent Gilliéron/EPA

President Putin’s declaration of partial mobilisation is a sign of the utter failure of Russia’s Ukraine strategy since February’s invasion. That Putin waited so long before declaring mobilisation is partly because it involves an implicit recognition of this failure, and of the fact that the “special military operation” is in fact a full-scale war, which Russia seems to be losing. It is also because he feared – rightly – a backlash from the Russian public. His regime is now in serious danger. Another major defeat would most probably bring it down.

What could be much more dangerous than the mobilisation itself is the combination of this announcement with the decision to hold referendums in the eastern Donbas (recognised as independent by Russia in February), and the other territories occupied by Russian forces during the invasion.

The key question is not the results of the “votes” on joining Russia themselves, which are a foregone conclusion, but whether the Russian government and parliament move immediately to annex these territories. If they do, it will be a sign that Moscow has given up any hope of peace and is ready to fight on indefinitely; for this annexation could never be accepted by Ukraine or the west and be part of any agreed settlement. The very best that could be hoped for in Ukraine will then be a series of unstable ceasefires punctuated by war, as has been the case in Kashmir for the past 75 years.

It will become apparent within the next week whether this is in fact Moscow’s intention, or whether the referendums are instead a move to create bargaining chips for future negotiation. It should be remembered that the Donbas separatist republics declared independence from Ukraine in 2014, but it was only eight years later, on the eve of war this February, that Moscow officially recognised their independence. In the meantime, Moscow negotiated with Ukraine and the west on the return of these territories to Ukraine with guarantees of full autonomy, under the Minsk II agreement of 2015.

This time, too, the referendums may be a threat to annex if the west does not seek a compromise, rather than a prelude to immediate annexation. Some hope that this may be the case was given by Putin’s approving reference in his speech last week to Ukraine’s peace offer of March, which included a treaty of neutrality and a shelving of the territorial disputes for future negotiation. The reasons for the collapse of those peace negotiations are highly disputed, but in Russia’s version of events it was the west that blocked them and Ukraine that abandoned them.

The reasons why Moscow might want a ceasefire are obvious. Putin’s original plan, to capture Kyiv and turn Ukraine into a client state, failed utterly. The fall-back plan, to capture the Russian-speaking areas of the east and south, was fought to a standstill far short of many of its key goals, and is now in serious danger of being rolled back by Ukrainian counteroffensives. Putin’s regime has been badly shaken by its defeat in Kharkiv province. If Ukraine were to drive Russia from Kherson or large parts of the Donbas, Putin’s survival in power would be in question.

If there is no ceasefire or peace negotiations, Russia does have means of serious escalation. It could defend the remaining occupied territories, while vastly intensifying attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure that have already begun. If Russia does annex the occupied territories, then it is possible that Putin may threaten nuclear strikes to defend what Moscow would then define as Russian sovereign territory. As the Biden administration makes it increasingly obvious that it is changing the US One China policy, Russia can also hope that in response China will greatly increase military and financial aid.

In the meantime, as we are already seeing, unrest in Russian society is bound to grow. This discontent is compounded by a mixture – often present at the same time in the minds of Russians – of opposition to the war itself and fury at the incompetence of its conduct by Putin and his entourage.

If this continues, then a coup against Putin will become a real possibility. This would not necessarily be violent, and might indeed not appear publicly at all. Instead, a delegation of establishment figures would go to Putin and tell him that, to preserve the regime itself, it is necessary for him (and a few other top figures implicated in military failure, such as the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu) to step down, in return for guarantees of immunity from prosecution and security of property. Something not unlike this happened when Yeltsin handed over power to Putin in 1999.

Members of the Russian establishment who took such a step would be running grave risks: for themselves personally if the move failed, but also for the Russian establishment and Russia itself, if a change of leadership led to a split in the elite, political chaos and a radical weakening of the central state.

They would therefore most probably need some assurance that if Putin could be removed, the west would be prepared to offer his successor a deal that would allow the new government to claim some measure of Russian success. Otherwise, ruling over a weakened state and military, and faced with what Russians would view as western demands for unconditional surrender, the new government would assume the catastrophic burden of Weimar German democracy after the first world war, permanently branded as the regime of surrender and national humiliation.

Looking at this prospect, a successor to Putin would very likely blame him personally for everything that has gone wrong in Ukraine, while answering growing calls by Russian hardliners to declare complete national mobilisation and greatly intensify the war. This could spread the war beyond Ukraine’s borders. If we wish to avoid this prospect, there is still time for the west to take up Putin’s implicit offer of talks; but not much time.

  • Anatol Lieven is director of the Eurasia programme at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft