There’s a “growing cottage industry” predicting the end of Vladimir Putin’s regime, says Mark Lawrence Schrad in Foreign Policy, particularly since the Russian retreat in Kharkiv. Writing in The Atlantic last week, for example, historian Anne Applebaum predicted that Russia’s lacklustre battlefield performance could “bring down” Putin. Yet prophecies of his imminent demise have been around for most of his 22-year rule: the 2002 Moscow terrorist attacks, the 2008 financial crisis, anti-corruption protests and even Russian pension reform have all been heralded as the beginning of the end. But Putin has bounced back every time.
Part of the problem is that Western commentators assess his rule through the “famously nebulous” concept of “legitimacy”. Putin used to have popular legitimacy through strong economic growth, the argument goes, and when that dried up, he had to rely on aggressive nationalism instead. By this logic, if the Ukrainians drive him out, he’s toast. But dictators have a host of other ways to retain power as well, like repression and propaganda. History – in Russia and everywhere else – is full of “autocrats of questionable legitimacy” who endured for decades; many, like Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Lenin, “survived losing wars they started”. Putin has crushed anti-war protests and brought Russian elites to heel – even if he loses in Ukraine, he’ll probably cling on at home.