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Why Vladimir Putin’s Luck Ran Out

For twenty years, the Russian autocrat enjoyed a string of good fortune in coming to power and cementing his rule. He had raised Russia’s standing in the world. Then he invaded Ukraine.

By Michael McFaul

February 2023

Vladimir Putin was very lucky early in his political career. In a matter of months and with barely any political experience, he went from being an unknown, midlevel Kremlin official to president of the largest country on the world map. Putin would like the world to believe that there was a groundswell of popular support for his presidency, his ideas, and his way of ruling Russia. But in reality, Russian president Boris Yeltsin and his inner circle plucked Putin from obscurity in 1999 and presented him to voters, who ratified Yeltsin’s choice in the 2000 election. Putin was simply at the right place at the right time.

Putin initially did little to change Yeltsin’s pro-market, pro-Western course. That came later. But from the outset, some observers of Russian politics, including myself, were nervous about his antidemocratic and anti-Western proclivities. The Washington Post published my first article about Putin — “Indifferent to Democracy” — on 3 March 2000, a few weeks before he was elected on March 26.  Over time, Putin’s initial moves against democratic institutions mutated into an extremely repressive dictatorship. Yet even longtime critics like me have to acknowledge that Putin’s regime was resilient, neutralizing critical voices and nurturing popular support just enough to remain intact for more than two decades.

Putin’s luck ran out in 2022. By launching a full-scale, barbaric invasion of Ukraine one year ago, Putin has caused horrific bloodshed and suffering in Ukraine, hurting the very “brothers and sisters” he supposedly seeks to “protect” while also failing to achieve most of his war aims. But Putin’s war in Ukraine has also triggered deep damage to his own country, especially to Russia’s armed forces, the economy, society, and, in the long run, to his own regime. Ironically, Putin’s destruction of democracy in Russia decades ago created the conditions for this disastrous decision in 2022 — a decision that may eventually unravel the very autocracy that he constructed and has been consolidating for so long.

Putin the Lucky

 As the USSR began to unravel in the early 1990s, Putin did not join the Communists and nationalists who were fighting to preserve the Soviet empire. Instead, like many other opportunists from the KGB at that time, he joined the democrats who were trying to accelerate its destruction. In his first government job after returning from spy work in East Germany, Putin handled foreign relations for the prodemocratic, Western-leaning mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak. When Sobchak was voted out of office in a relatively free and fair election in 1996 — yes, they had those in Russia in the 1990s — Putin called on his St. Petersburg liberal economic reformer friends working for Yeltsin to seek employment in the Kremlin. Putin held a series of midlevel positions in the Yeltsin administration, eventually moving up to become head of the FSB, the KGB’s main successor organization. At the time, Putin was a bureaucrat. He was neither a political figure nor a revolutionary.

A series of unexpected events radically altered his career path. As Yeltsin served out his second term, he initially chose as his successor the charismatic, principled, and effective politician Boris Nemtsov — not Putin. Nemtsov was a popular and successful governor of Nizhny Novgorod, who had won reelection in 1995 during a time of deep economic depression in the region. In 1997, Yeltsin invited Nemtsov to serve as first deputy prime minister, a stepping stone to becoming the Kremlin-backed candidate in the 2000 presidential race. But a global financial crisis hit Russia hard in August 1998, forcing out Nemtsov and his government. Again, Russia was functioning as a democracy at that time, and the parliament compelled Yeltsin to appoint the Communist-backed Yevgeny Primakov as prime minister. Overnight, Primakov became a strong presidential contender, to the horror of Yeltsin and his entourage. So they devised an elaborate plan to replace Primakov with Putin as prime minister in August 1999, make Putin acting president in January 2000, and have him elected president in March 2000. Some have argued that this plan was turbocharged by a series of terrorist attacks, blamed on Chechens but allegedly carried out secretly by the Kremlin, followed by the second invasion of Chechnya, which Putin oversaw. This was Putin’s first lucky chapter.

His second lucky chapter started with his ascension to the presidency in the spring of 2000. By that time, three extremely painful transitions taking place in the 1990s were finally ending — from the Soviet empire to the Russian Federation, from a command economy to a market economy, and from a dictatorship to democracy. As I wrote in a 2001 book, it was the democratic transition that seemed most fragile and incomplete when Putin took over. But the hard stuff on all three fronts of change seemed over, allowing a fresh start for Putin. Most importantly, Russia’s decade-long economic depression — an economic downturn that all postcommunist countries, not just Russia, endured to varying degrees in the 1990s — was coming to an end, and Russia’s economy was starting to grow.

Shortly after Putin came to power, energy prices began to soar — his third lucky break. Putin had nothing to do with rising global prices for oil and gas, or Yeltsin’s market reforms in the 1990s for that matter, but he most certainly benefited from both. During Putin’s first two terms in office, the Russian economy took off, growing at an average of 7 percent a year from 1999 to 2008 — “the most outstanding decade in modern Russian economic history,” according to the Russian economist Sergei Guriev.

These lucky circumstances made Putin popular. Economic growth in particular gave Putin the power and legitimacy to undermine democratic institutions constraining executive power. He first seized control of Russia’s major television networks. After a horrendous terrorist attack in Beslan in September 2004, Putin rolled back the power of governors, dramatically weakening federalism. Over time, he also limited the autonomous power of political parties, civil society, and business elites — arresting Russia’s richest person, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in 2003, as a signal to other oligarchs to stay out of politics. The strengthening of autocratic rule did not cause Russia’s economic growth. On the contrary, a more open political system might have produced even higher rates of economic growth. But Putin made sure that such counterfactual analysis got no play in Russian society. Instead, his propogandists trumpeted Putin’s strong hand as the cause of Russia’s renewal.

By 2008, Putin was so confident in the stability and performance of his regime that he allowed his aide, Dmitri Medvedev, to replace him as president, so as not to violate the then still-existing presidential term limits. Voters ratified this decision in the presidential election that year, and Putin then assumed the position of prime minister. Medvedev aspired to be a political liberalizer at home and respected leader in the West. During his tenure as president, there was a slight opening of civic space — allowing, for instance, the independent television network TV Rain (Dozhd TV) to launch, and Alexei Navalny to found his Anti-Corruption Organization (FBK). Medvedev also cooperated with U.S. president Barack Obama on several issues, some of which Putin supported, such as the New START Treaty, and others for which he showed less enthusiasm, such as joining the World Trade Organization. In spring 2011, Medvedev crossed a red line of Putin’s by agreeing not to veto a UN Security Council Resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya. Putin publicly denounced his own president for doing so, saying the decision effectively allowed the United States to pursue “a crusade in which somebody calls upon somebody to go to a certain place and liberate it.” A few months later, Putin announced that he would run for a third presidential term in March 2012.

Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012 as a much weaker and less popular leader than when he left in 2008. Economic growth had slowed. Public-opinion polls showed nominal support, but no real enthusiasm for having him back at the helm. But most damagingly, a parliamentary election marred by egregious fraud the previous December had triggered massive anti-Putin protests — the biggest street demonstrations in Russia since 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed. Once he was back in the Kremlin, Putin cracked down on these protesters and then over time on almost every person or group that was critical of his regime. The repression intensified after Putin’s first intervention in Ukraine in 2014 and ramped up even more ahead of the full-scale invasion in 2022.

During this same period, Putin also increased state control over the economy, redistributed property to his cronies, and squashed Medvedev’s minor economic initiatives, including, most importantly, Skolkovo — the Russian attempt to build a Silicon Valley outside of Moscow. Russia’s prewar economy has often been likened to the era of zastoi (stagnation) under the two decades that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was in power.

It would be inaccurate, however, to describe Putin’s regime before the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 as unstable or Russia’s economy as collapsing. Had Putin not launched this military adventure, his legacy for most Russians would likely have been a positive one. He could have been remembered as “Putin the Restorer,” the Russian leader who renewed the economy and state, as well as Russia’s standing in the world as a great power.

The Lonely Autocrat at the “Dacha”

As Russia’s political system became more autocratic, Putin became more isolated. Early in his career, Putin listened to his advisors, especially on economic matters. But as time went on, he became a lone wolf, operating in solitude most days from his Novo-Ogaryevo country estate. Before he became president in 2000, Putin knew very little about economics aside from running corruption schemes in St. Petersburg. So in the first years of his presidency, Putin leaned heavily on the talented pro-Western liberal economists from that city, many of whom he had worked with in the mayor’s office. Herman Gref and Alexei Kudrin both played a central role in Putin’s inner circle, devising and then implementing radical liberal reforms — a 13 percent individual flat tax, a significant corporate-tax reduction, and the like — as well as successful macroeconomic policies that helped to stimulate rapid economic growth.

Over time, however, Putin became convinced of his own genius and gradually stopped listening to subordinates. This often happens when an autocrat remains in power for more than two decades. When Putin made the decision to invade Ukraine for the first time in 2014, it is said that only his intelligence comrades were in the room. The covid-19 pandemic that began in early 2020 increased his isolation, perhaps because of his allegedly declining health. That year, even Putin’s own close staff had to undergo a “very strict two-week quarantine” to meet with him in person.

By the time he began making plans for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s circle of confidants had narrowed even further. Some reporting suggests that he relied heavily on an international division within the FSB, instead of the SVR (the Russian equivalent of the CIA), the GRU (the Russian equivalent of the DIA), or the military, to plan the operation. Given the dictator’s KGB history, this is not surprising. But Putin had also cut himself off from society. So, he had no accurate information about how the Russian people felt. There was no deliberative process. Putin alone decided to invade.

In early 2022, Putin also believed that he was on a roll regarding the use of force. By his count, Russia had won four wars in a row — Chechnya in 1999–2000, Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, and Syria in 2015. A year ago, he assumed that his military would achieve another quick victory in Ukraine against an allegedly weak Ukrainian army, a corrupt and unpopular regime, and a Russian-speaking segment of society waiting to be liberated. He grossly miscalculated.

The Western response to all these military interventions also had been weak. After he invaded Georgia in 2008, U.S. president George W. Bush did not implement any sanctions or provide any military assistance to Tbilisi. In 2014, after Putin annexed Crimea and militarily aided separatists’ movements in eastern Ukraine, President Obama and European leaders imposed modest sanctions but offered no military support to Kyiv. Putin was also allowed a free hand when he deployed his air force in Syria to prop up the dictator Bashar al-Assad. Putin assumed that the U.S. and European response to his 2022 invasion would be similar. He was wrong again.

Putin’s New Legacy 

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has been the most disastrous mistake of Putin’s 23-year rule. By far, the Ukrainian people have suffered most from Putin’s barbaric move. It will take years to repair the country’s battered economy and billions of dollars for postwar reconstruction and recovery. By invading Ukraine, Putin has lost Ukraine forever. Ukrainian society has overwhelmingly rallied to support their president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and pivoted firmly toward joining Europe.

But Putin also has inflicted deep wounds on his own country. The implications for Putin’s army, economy, society, and regime are many, and the costs will linger for years, if not decades. Like Brezhnev did in Afghanistan, Putin overreached in Ukraine. His regime and his legacy will never recover.

First, Putin has destroyed his military. Before the invasion, Russia’s military was considered one of the largest and most capable in the world (after only the United States’ and China’s). This perception deterred Russia’s enemies — contrary to Putin’s propaganda, no country or alliance in the world ever contemplated attacking Russia. Its nuclear arsenal and its supposedly highly skilled army helped Russia to regain its status as a great power. This army and status are now lost. According to U.S. estimates, at least 200,000 Russian soldiers have died or been wounded on the battlefield in Ukraine so far. Russia has lost roughly ten-thousand pieces of military equipment, including thousands of vehicles (tanks, infantry and armored fighting vehicles, and others), more than a hundred aircraft and helicopters, and more than two-hundred command posts and communications stations. Russia will have to divert billions of dollars from things like education, infrastructure, and healthcare if its military is ever to reach its previous capacity.

Ukraine’s warriors deserve the most credit for destroying Russia’ fighting force and weaponry. But other factors, including Russian inefficiency and corruption also played a role. As Zoltan Barany notes, the “Russian military is a quintessential reflection of the state that created it: Autocratic, security-obsessed, and teeming with hypercentralized decisionmaking, dysfunctional relations between civilian and military authorities, inefficiency, corruption, and brutality.” The failed military reforms that began in 2008 have also contributed to the Russian army’s poor performance. Training and maintenance standards have improved for a few elite units since then, but they have not been standardized across the board. The Russian army also failed to attract young talent from the labor market, making mandatory conscription even more unpopular.

Second, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is producing long-term negative consequences for the Russian economy. In the early months of the war, Russia benefited from higher energy prices, driven by Europe’s reliance on Russian oil and gas. Despite this short-term energy rush, however, the Russian economy is contracting. In 2022, it shrank somewhere between 2.2 percent to 3.9 percent (according to the IMF and OECD, respectively). Russian exports and imports also plummeted, with estimates varying between 13 percent and 21 percent. Inflation in Russia is soaring, reaching almost 14 percent last year.

Sanctions are already having an impact that will only continue to grow over time. Recent technology-export sanctions are exacting a heavy toll across the economy. Industries dependent on technology imports, such as car manufacturing, are suffering and will take years to recover. Without the necessary materials to make new automobiles, for example, Russian car sales dropped by 59 percent in 2022.  Sanctions have also hampered Russia’s production of smart weapons and impeded the development of Russian telecommunications companies. Meanwhile, Europe has successfully reduced its reliance on Russian energy imports, denying Moscow those markets forever. Thousands of foreign companies abandoned Russia, taking with them their know-how and links to the outside world. Putin said good riddance to them, handing many of the properties over to his cronies, who lack the expertise to run them efficiently. Putin surely must understand that losing partners like ExxonMobil will severely set back the development of Russia’s oil industry in remote locations after he spent decades trying to entice these companies to invest in Russia. Finally, tens of thousands — maybe hundreds of thousands — of Russia’s best and brightest have fled Russia. These entrepreneurs, computer programmers, financial specialists, consultants, scientists have already boosted the GDPs of their new homes in places such as Georgia, Armenia, and Kazakhstan.

Third, Putin’s dictatorship has become even more repressive and draconian since the invasion began. He expanded his oppressive foreign-agent legislation, so far declaring nearly five-hundred organizations and individuals to be extremists, terrorists, and criminals. He needed leaders like Navalny who are effective at mobilizing the public to be either dead or in jail. After the war began, the space for independent political activity closed even more.  According to the Russian human-rights organization OVD-Info, 19,335 Russians were arrested at antiwar protests right after the invasion began. In reality, this number is significantly higher, as the group only lists those who reported their detention. People are being jailed for their social-media posts and holding a blank white piece of paper on the street. Use of the word “war” is now illegal. In December 2022, Russian prodemocratic leader Ilya Yashin was sentenced to eight-and-a- half years in prison for allegedly spreading “fake news” about the war.  Political leaders such as Vladimir Kara-Murza have been arrested and labeled traitors, draconian actions that did not occur before the war. Meanwhile, independent media were squeezed even harder: TV Rain, Novaya Gazeta, Ekho Moskvy, and many others were forced to shut down inside Russia, while Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram were banned, and access to popular media outlets operating from outside Russia, including most importantly Meduza, were blocked.

Fourth, Putin’s war has produced lasting, negative changes in Russian society. The Russians who have emigrated since the war began have tended to be more liberal and democratically inclined than an average Russian citizen. Only 1.5 percent of these emigrés ever supported Putin’s United Russia party. Putin and other Russian nationalists, such as Vladimir Solovyov and Aleksandr Dugin, have dubbed this a “natural cleansing” of liberalism from Russia society and thus a positive development. Putin boasts that the Russian people “will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scums and traitors,” and sees ridding the country of this “fifth column” as a “natural and necessary self-purification of society” that will strengthen Russia. But what he forgets is that the people leaving are also the most innovative, creative, and entrepreneurial Russians. Precisely measuring the negative economic impact of their exodus is hard. But surveys emphasize that nearly half of those who emigrated worked in IT and computing, as senior managers (16 percent), or in the arts and culture (16 percent).

And those left behind have been bombarded by Putin’s propaganda describing Ukrainians in grotesque and inhuman terms, “Nazis” being one of the more polite labels. State-propaganda channels are framing the war not as a conflict between Russians and Ukrainians but as a clash between Russia and NATO, fueling an already deep sense of paranoia and resentment about the United States and Europe. The crimes against humanity that Russian soldiers have committed against Ukrainian noncombatants are making many question the basic decency of large swathes of Russian society. This may be the worst and longest-lasting of all the damage to Russian society.

Fifth, Putin’s war in Ukraine has accelerated Russia’s political and economic isolation from the world, especially from Europe. For several years before this war, Putin had invested heavily in courting ties with like-minded illiberal populists through personal diplomacy, global media, and sometimes direct financial support. In Hungary, France, Italy, Serbia, and even the United States, he achieved some real success. But the war is now interrupting these connections. Again, Russian fossil-fuel exports to Europe have radically declined and will never return. Financial sanctions, including exclusion from the SWIFT international banking system, will keep Russian companies out of markets in democracies. And sanctions are sticky; they could remain in place well after the war ends, especially considering that the Ukrainian government and its supporters will rightly seek prosecution of Russian war criminals and reparations from Moscow for reconstruction.

In Russia’s neighborhood, every former Soviet republic, except for Belarus, now has either a more strained or more suspicious relationship with Russia than before, especially Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Moldova. Even ties with Belarus — one of Russia’s last regional partners — have become more complicated. Alyaksandr Lukashenka has played a difficult balancing act of maintaining ties with the Kremlin without entering the war, but Belarusian society is firmly against Russia and supports Ukraine. Even Putin’s closest partner, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, has offered Putin only faint rhetorical support and has not violated the global sanctions regime. China-Russia relations will endure, but with China emerging as the much stronger partner. Moreover, at the UN General Assembly in March 2022, a resolution denouncing Russia’s actions in Ukraine and demanding immediate withdrawal of troops passed by a giant majority — with 143 member states in favor, 5 against, and 35 abstentions. China, India, and some African countries abstained, but only Belarus, Nicaragua, Syria, and North Korea voted with Russia against the resolution. Most of the world has condemned the invasion, but there are still some leaders and societies in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America that support Putin.

Sixth and finally, there are even signs of cracks within Putin’s ruling elite. When you are losing the battle, the blame game begins. This is precisely what is happening in Russia today. Putin recently replaced his commander in Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin, after only a few months in the job. Out of desperation, Putin has allowed several private armies to fight in Ukraine — including, most prominently, the Wagner Group, headed by Evgeny Prigozhin. Not surprisingly, Russia’s generals have shown little enthusiasm for the efforts of the mercenaries and their leader, who accused Russia’s top brass of treason for failing to provide his men with ammunition during the ongoing bloody battle for control of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. The “guys with the guns” in Putin’s Russia seem to be increasingly divided. This is never a good sign for regime stability.

Coups and revolutions are hard to predict. Before they happen, they seem impossible. After the occur, they seem inevitable. So, we must be humble in our forecasting about regime stability and regime change in Russia. Putin seems unlikely to lose power in a coup or through a social revolution. The dictatorship he has constructed over the last two decades is still too repressive to allow either of these scenarios to unfold anytime soon. Moreover, Putin’s cult of personality is too large to create space for a challenger from within his regime. His most formidable challenger from outside the government — Alexei Navalny — sits in jail today. At the same time, the damage done from Putin’s war in Ukraine to Russia’s military, government, economy, society, and international standing will be lasting. And it will make it that much harder for Putin’s handpicked successor to sustain Putinism for another twenty years. But for now, only one thing appears certain: The longer Putin remains in power, the more damage will be done to Russia.

Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, is professor of political science at Stanford University, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. His most recent book is From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia (2018).


Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: Sergei Bobylyov/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images




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