Could a Defeat in Ukraine Spell the End of Putin’s Russia?

Last week, Ukraine managed to recapture more than 2,000 square miles of the Kharkiv province in the country’s east. The media, U.S. government officials, pundits, and observers alike heralded this event as the beginning of the end of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Newsweek’s William Arkin even foretold that this defeat signifies the end of Russian President Vladimir Putin himself.

While the battle for Kharkiv was a major rout for Russian forces—no matter how the Kremlin tries to spin the story—the war is far from over. Still, the events of last week raise several vital questions, chief among them is what would happen to Putin’s regime should he face a decisive defeat in his military campaign in Ukraine.

If Russian history is an indicator, it might be that Putin’s power structure and the government he has built to sustain it could crumble as a result. This was the case with the collapse of every regime in the history of modern Russia.

It begins with an authoritarian figure who, feeling an abundance of power and entitlement, ventures into a war he is not properly prepared to conduct, makes rash and ill-informed decisions, and suffers a major humiliating loss. Aside from the military defeat, the public image of said leader is tarnished beyond repair, resulting in an erosion of his claim to absolute legitimacy and leaving enough cracks in the standing system for serious opposition movements to maneuver.

This was the case of Czarist Russia, under the reign of Czar Nicholas II, the last ruling Romanov. Possessing a shallow understanding of modern warfare, Nicholas relied on the whimsical and often ignorant advice of his military entourage and household. He did not understand how to manage the rising tensions with an overly aggressive and powerful Japanese Empire to his east, a factor which inevitably led to war in 1904.

After a short-lived period of military modernization, the czar felt invulnerable and engaged a large portion of his army in the war effort. He made several major decisions that led his armies along a string of defeats, culminating in the destruction of most of the Russian navy and the death of more than 80,000 troops. Back home, the image of the infallible patriarch was shattered and political opposition saw the light, first as a failed revolution in 1905. The state barely managed to maintain control over an ever-disgruntled population and, despite many efforts to remedy the disaster of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, Russia’s entry into another conflict, World War I, effectively signified the end of the old Russian Empire.

More than six decades later, it was a similar scenario that ushered in the end of the Soviet Union. Leonid Brezhnev had reached nuclear parity with the United States and spread the influence of the USSR far beyond its borders. The growing Soviet military power instilled in him the same sense of invulnerability Nicholas had felt, as he opted to invade neighboring Afghanistan, in support of the embattled communist government there. This was justified through the Brezhnev Doctrine, the Soviet response to the Eisenhower Doctrine, which effectively stated that a threat to any socialist state is a threat to all socialist states.

Brezhnev died before he could witness the disastrous effect of the war on the Soviet Union. Beaten by a ragtag consortium of peasant guerilla fighters, whom Soviet officials deemed inferior and incapable of sustaining the onslaught of the Soviet war machine, the Communist Party and the Red Army lost the veil of legitimacy through which many still saw them, as well as the fear that had silenced a majority of Soviet citizens. The image of Soviet tanks trampling the Prague Spring no longer evoked the same sense of dread. Popular pressure mounted, former Soviet republics gained their independence, and the Soviet Union was no more. 

Fast forward 30 years, another Russian autocrat sits atop a new version of the Russian Empire. After a successful modernization of his armed forces and three major military interventions in which he came out on top, Putin showed the same signs of feeling invincible as our previous two protagonists. He entered a war he was not truly prepared to engage, which visibly showed during the first stage of the invasion when he sought to quickly storm Kyiv and anticipated ethnic Russians in the east of Ukraine would welcome him with open arms. Both expectations proved false and, as we would discover shortly after, were the product of advice from arrogant and vastly incompetent military advisors and commanders. 

Putin’s fate, however, seems far from sealed. His war remains popular in Russia, with more than three-quarters of the population supporting it, while his own approval ratings still hover higher than 80 percent, according to the latest polls by the independent Levada Center. It is difficult to know whether these numbers are the product of genuine conviction or the success of the Russian government’s wartime propaganda campaign. 

We are starting to see cracks on the internal front, however, with sizable opposition groups now voicing concern, one way or another, about the prospects of the war. These include the right-wing Russian nationalists, the Russian Communist Party, and even some of the state-owned media currently experiencing more and more difficulty to spin unfavorable news to support the Kremlin’s needs.

Most importantly, we are seeing growing discontent among the young generation. The greatest opposition to the war and to Putin himself comes from people under the age of 30. This generation did not experience Soviet indoctrination, nor does it remember the turbulent 1990s. They don’t feel they owe Putin anything, least of all loyalty. It was also this same demographic that led the charge both in the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese war in 1905 and the Soviet-Afghan war in 1989. Alienating and aggravating this segment of the population is likely to lead to Putin’s downfall or, at the very least, mar the legacy he tried so hard to build over the past two decades.

Putin prides himself on his understanding of history, to which he often makes reference in order to justify his policies and politics. As a result of the defeat in Kharkiv, he probably sees himself backed into a corner, since he knows the true cost of defeat. It will go far beyond Ukraine and even his own person. Defeat will dismantle the version of Russia he has been painstakingly constructing for the past two decades. 

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About Hicham Tohme

Hicham Tohme is the director of Trans-Atlantic Network Consulting. He holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Sheffield and is an expert on Russian military interventions and foreign relations, particularly in the Middle East. He is the author of Russia's Geostrategic Outlook and the Syrian Crisis (2020).

Photo: Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images