Can Putin Survive?
Holding onto power is what Putin does
Authoritarian leaders—particularly leaders of personalist regimes like Vladimir Putin—are rarely removed from power. Putin has focused throughout his career on destroying and dividing opposition to his regime, at the expense of other governance goals. He is not immune to a coup or to protests calling for his overthrow, but his hold on power probably remains strong. The military, political, and economic disaster of the invasion of Ukraine makes it more likely that Putin will be removed from power, but the chance is still fairly low.
There’s a rule of thumb I use when forecasting whether leaders will be removed from power. It’s that they will probably not be removed from power. If they are sick or old, they might die or step down. If there’s a fair election scheduled, they might lose and leave office. But out of all the leaders whose tenure I’ve been asked to forecast—a group that includes leaders like Assad and Maduro who faced serious challenges—none have left power for any other reason. It’s hard to force leaders to give up power who don’t want to give it up.
Vladimir Putin has a lot of power. He has spent his whole career systematically destroying any person and weakening any institution that could possibly oppose him. He owes his position not to his ability to govern well, but to his ability to keep opposition to his regime weak and divided. As Zack Beauchamp explains in an excellent article in Vox, Putin has worked hard to “coup-proof” his government by making it hard for anyone who wants to remove him to secretly coordinate action against him. There is no reason to believe that anyone will be allowed a real opportunity to challenge him even when he is up for election in 2024.
At 69 years old, Putin is approaching the life expectancy of a Russian man. With his access to first-rate medical care, it’s probably safe to assume that his life expectancy is substantially longer, although it can be difficult for authoritarian leaders like Putin to trust doctors with their health—if you’re worried you could be assassinated, you’re probably reluctant to go under general anesthesia. There are plausible rumors that Putin has cancer or Parkinson’s, but there would probably be rumors about his health even if he were in good health. On an actuarial basis, there’s probably something like a 2-3% chance Putin dies of natural causes this year.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is one of the few things that could jeopardize his hold on power. This is one of the reasons that so many good forecasters were skeptical he would attempt a full-scale invasion. While many Russians would support liberating Ukraine from an oppressive government, few want to fight and kill Ukrainian civilians. As the Russian economy collapses and Russian soldiers—including conscripts—die in battle, his popularity will wane. Putin may have invaded Ukraine in part because he felt he needed to boost his popularity, but it seems likely to have the opposite effect. Thousands of Russians have already been arrested for protesting the war. Some prominent Russians—including a couple of oligarchs—have spoken out against the war even though they could be in serious legal jeopardy for doing so.
Putin is taking the opposition seriously. Independent media operations have been shut down. New laws make it illegal to criticize the conduct of the war or even to call the war a “war”. Protestors are being arrested simply for holding up blank signs. There are reports that the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s internal security agency, has been detained and is being blamed for providing poor intelligence.
Nevertheless, leaders are rarely forced from power. Nikita Khrushchev was successfully removed from power by legal means in 1964. The attempt to remove Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 failed, although Gorbachev didn’t remain in power long afterward. A costly military debacle and an economic crisis presumably increase the chance of a coup—particularly by military leaders who are in danger of taking the fall and being purged—but coups are less common in countries with personalist, firmly authoritarian rulers. Putin might be in greater danger from a popular “Color Revolution” like the ones that occurred in Georgia and Ukraine. But Erica Chenoweth has found it takes about 3.5% of a population—in Russia, that would be about 5 million people—to actively participate in non-violent protests for it to be likely the government will be overthrown. There aren’t close to that many Russians in the streets now.
I’m not saying it’s impossible. When the Berlin Wall fell and the communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe collapsed in 1989 I was in my sophomore year of college. After Czechoslovakia’s President Gustáv Husák resigned in early December, Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu was the only communist dictator still in power in Europe. One of my roommates wrote a term paper for a history class he was taking making the case that Ceaușescu would probably be able to remain in power. My roommate might have been right about the odds, but it was an unusual time. Ceaușescu and his wife were arrested and shot a few days after the end of the semester. My roommate’s paper was titled “Ceaușescu's Romania in 1989: Can it Withstand the Winds of Change?” Below the title, my roommate’s TA wrote, “Apparently not: B-.”
Metaculus forecasters currently estimate there’s a 16% chance that Putin will no longer be president by February 2023. The Good Judgment superforecaster aggregate forecast is not currently public, but the regular forecasters participating in the Good Judgment Open estimate there’s a 12% chance Putin will no longer be president by January 2023.
• 6% Putin ceases to be President of Russia before January 2023
UPDATE: This post has been updated to correct the title of my college roommate’s paper on Romania and the grade he received, which were wrong in the original version.
Scott Eastman and I recently interviewed Milo Jones about intelligence analysis on the NonProphets podcast. Milo is a Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Changing Character of War Programme, a Visiting Professor at the IE Business School in Madrid, and the author (with Philippe Silberzahn) of Constructing Cassandra: Reframing Intelligence Failure at the CIA, 1947-2001. If you enjoyed this newsletter, please consider sharing it with others.