After a year of the Ukrainian conflict, President Vladimir Putin remains in power in Russia. This is impressive, considering his multiple setbacks on the battlefield, over 200,000 casualties among Russian troops, hefty sanctions on his country’s economy, his nation’s exclusion from the world community and the latest indignity, the decision by the International Criminal Court in The Hague to charge him with war crimes for deporting approximately 16,000 Ukrainian children to Russia, barring him from visiting 123 countries under obligations to the court’s founding treaty.
The question now is: Will Putin ever be compelled to step down? The following is a series of seven scenarios that could lead to the end of Putin and his regime, voluntarily or involuntarily.
• The Yeltsin Maneuver: Putin states that he will not run for the presidency again in 2024. (Even though Xi Jinping, president of China, said recently that Putin will win re-election.) He then selects his successor but works out an agreement with the new leader to pardon him for all his crimes. Would that happen? Putin does not appear ready to abandon his post. Nor does he appear ready to trust anyone who takes over the presidency and abide by a Yeltsin-type deal.
• A United Nations (plus European Union) peace settlement: UN Secretary-General António Guterres, having struck deals with Putin to permit Ukrainian civilians trapped in Mariupol to leave and for Ukraine to continue to send grain shipments to Africa and elsewhere — all despite his own public opposition to the Russian invasion — engineers a temporary truce between the two foes, leading to peace talks and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine; in effect, an outright surrender by Putin. If such an accord is reached, Putin is immensely pressured at home regarding his calamitous war and is forced to resign, as Nikita Khrushchev did after the debacle of the Cuban missile crisis. The problem, of course, is that Putin is refusing to consider talks.
• An FSB coup: Here Putin’s old KGB agency and now new base, the Federal Security Service, where he retains many of his most loyal followers, decides that Putin’s egregious and reckless invasion of Ukraine is imperiling the country. The organization turns against Putin and secretly initiates an effort to oust him. The complication, though, is that too many employees in the FSB owe their jobs to Putin and not enough of them are likely to risk launching a strike against him without ironclad assurance that it would succeed.
• An army uprising: Russia’s battered army, its failing generals and its restive troops (perhaps with the aid of the divisive Wagner Group chieftan, Yevgeny Prigozhin) decide to withdraw from Ukraine, march on the Kremlin and arrest Putin. Putin, though, still has enough loyalists in control of his armed forces and, even more important, retains a majority support of the Russian people, to make this plan essentially unworkable. That could change if military deaths grow, weapons supplies continue to dwindle and the economic squeeze in Russia itself turns truly ruinous.
• Grass-roots rebellion: According to polls, most Russians continue to back Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, his control of the media has inculcated into his people the notion that the country is in a battle for its very survival against NATO and the United States. A revolt seems unlikely. Only a worsening military situation, an increase in the numbers of body bags and further economic deterioration could trigger an insurrection. Even then, it would have to be broad, well funded and well organized and joined by breakaway elements from the Putin regime to depose the president.
• An illness: Rumors have circulated for several years that Putin may have cancer (or some other disease) and might be forced to leave the Kremlin. So far, there is no proof of this. And it is clear that Putin has protected himself against Covid by insisting his visitors sit at a laughably long table in meetings with him. But if Putin is forced to step down because of ailments, he undoubtedly will resort to the Yeltsin maneuver as an exit plan, allowing him to retire peacefully with his millions and remain exempt from punishment or prison.
• Assassination: Putin is so isolated in his office and paranoid about murderous threats against him that so far, not a single attempt has been made on his life, as far as we know. Being extremely well protected by bodyguards, living in virtual solitude at the highest levels of secrecy makes it extremely difficult for anybody to get physically close to him. The only way an attack could happen is if somebody within Putin’s orbit arranged his killing. Even then, things might go awry. Remember the botched attempted murder of Hitler in 1944.
The major dilemma in ousting Putin in all these cases is that his successor might be worse than he is — although that is hard to believe. Furthermore, it is impossible to imagine that at the moment of Putin’s downfall, high-level officials in Moscow would abruptly switch sides and elevate somebody with a liberal disposition, like Alexey Navalny, to the presidency — certainly not in a Russia dominated for decades by Putinism.
The only hope is what occurred after Stalin’s death. A new leadership took over and began to slowly dismantle the dictator’s tyrannical system. That may be the best outcome one can imagine for Russia.
Stephen Schlesinger is the author of three books, including “Act of Creation: The Founding of The United Nations,” which won the 2004 Harry S. Truman Book Award. He is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City and the former director of the World Policy Institute at the New School (1997-2006) and former publisher of the quarterly magazine, The World Policy Journal. In the 1970s, he edited and published The New Democrat Magazine; was a speechwriter for the Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern; and later was the weekly columnist for The Boston Globe’s “The L’t’ry Life.” He wrote, with Stephen Kinzer, “Bitter Fruit,” a book about the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala.
Thereafter, he spent four years as a staff writer at Time Magazine. For 12 years, he served as New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s speechwriter and foreign policy adviser. In the mid 1990s, Schlesinger worked at the United Nations at Habitat, the agency dealing with cities.
Schlesinger received his B.A. from Harvard University, a certificate of study from Cambridge University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He lives in New York City.