What history teaches us about how autocrats lose power — and how Putin might hang on.
As Russia’s war in Ukraine looks increasingly disastrous, speculation has mounted that President Vladimir Putin’s misstep could prove to be his downfall. A litany of pundits and experts have predicted that frustration with the war’s costs and crushing economic sanctions could lead to the collapse of his regime.
“Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine will result in the downfall of him and his friends,” David Rothkopf declared in the Daily Beast. “If history is any guide, his overreach and his miscalculations, his weaknesses as a strategist, and the flaws in his character will undo him.”
But what events could actually bring down Putin? And how likely might they be in the foreseeable future?
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The best research on how authoritarians fall points to two possible scenarios: a military coup or a popular uprising. During the Cold War, coups were the more common way for dictators to be forced out of office — think the toppling of Argentina’s Juan Perón in 1955. But since the 1990s, there has been a shift in the way that authoritarians are removed. Coups have been on the decline while popular revolts, like the Arab Spring uprisings and “color revolutions” in the former Soviet Union, have been on the rise.
For all the speculation about Putin losing power, neither of these eventualities seems particularly likely in Russia — even after the disastrous initial invasion of Ukraine. This is in no small part because Putin has done about as good a job preparing for them as any dictator could.
Over the past two decades, the Russian leader and his allies have structured nearly every core element of the Russian state with an eye toward limiting threats to the regime. Putin has arrested or killed leading dissidents, instilled fear in the general public, and made the country’s leadership class dependent on his goodwill for their continued prosperity. His ability to rapidly ramp up repression during the current crisis in response to antiwar protests — using tactics ranging from mass arrests at protests to shutting down opposition media to cutting off social media platforms — is a demonstration of the regime’s strengths.
“Putin has prepared for this eventuality for a long time, and has taken a lot of concerted actions to make sure he’s not vulnerable,” says Adam Casey, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan who studies the history of coups in Russia and the former communist bloc.
Yet at the same time, scholars of authoritarianism and Russian politics are not fully ready to rule out Putin’s fall. Unlikely is not impossible; the experts I spoke with generally believe the Ukraine invasion to have been a strategic blunder that raised the risks of both a coup and a revolution, even if their probability remains low in absolute terms.
“Before [the war], the risk from either of those threats was close to zero. And now the risk in both of those respects is certainly higher,” says Brian Taylor, a professor at Syracuse University and author of The Code of Putinism.
Ukrainians and their Western sympathizers cannot bank on Putin’s downfall. But if the war proves even more disastrous for Russia’s president than it already seems, history tells us there are pathways for even the most entrenched autocrats to lose their grip on power.
Could the Ukraine war could cause a military coup?
In a recent appearance on Fox News, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) hit upon what he saw as a solution to the Ukraine war — for someone, perhaps “in the Russian military,” to remove Vladimir Putin by assassination or a coup. “The only way this ends is for somebody in Russia to take this guy out,” the senator argued.
He shouldn’t get his hopes up. A military revolt against Putin is more possible now than it was before the invasion of Ukraine, but the odds against it remain long.
Naunihal Singh is one of the world’s leading scholars of military coups. His 2017book Seizing Power uses statistical analysis, game theory, and historical case studies to try to figure out what causes coups and what makes them likely to succeed.
Singh finds that militaries are most likely to attempt coups inlow-income countries, regimes that are neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic, and nations where coups have recently happened. None of these conditions apply very well to modern Russia, a firmly authoritarian middle-income country that hasn’t seen a coup attempt since the early ’90s.
But at the same time, wars like Putin’s can breed resentment and fear in the ranks, precisely the conditions under which we’ve seen coups in other countries. “There are reasons why Putin might be increasingly concerned here,” Singh says, pointing to coups in Mali in 2012 and Burkina Faso earlier this year as precedent. Indeed, a 2017 study of civil wars found that coups are more likely to happen during conflicts when governments face stronger opponents — suggesting that wartime deaths and defeat really do raise the odds of military mutinies.
In Singh’s view, the Ukraine conflict raises the odds of a coup in Russia for two reasons: It could weaken the military leadership’s allegiance to Putin, and it could provide an unusual opportunity to plan a move against him.
The motive for Russian officers to launch a coup would be fairly straightforward: The costly Ukraine campaign becomes unpopular among, and even personally threatening to, key members of the military.
Leading Russian journalists and experts have warned that Putin is surrounded by a shrinking bubble of hawkish yes-men who feed his nationalist obsessions and tell him only what he wants to hear. This very small group drew up an invasion plan that assumed the Ukrainian military would put up minimal resistance, allowing Russia to rapidly seize Kyiv and install a puppet regime.
This plan both underestimated Ukraine’s resolve and overestimated the competence of the Russian military, leading to significant Russian casualties and a failed early push toward the Ukrainian capital. Since then, Russian forces have been bogged down in a slow and costly conflict defined by horrific bombardments of populated areas. International sanctions have been far harsher than the Kremlin expected, sending the Russian economy into a tailspin and specifically punishing its elite’s ability to engage in commerce abroad.
According to Farida Rustamova, a Russian reporter well-sourced in the Kremlin, high-ranking civilian officials in the Russian government are already unhappy about the war and its economic consequences. One can only imagine the sentiment among military officers, few of whom appear to have been informed of the war plans beforehand — and many of whom are now tasked with killing Ukrainians en masse.
Layered on top of that is something that often can precipitate coups: personal insecurity among high-ranking generals and intelligence officers. According to Andrei Soldatov, a Russia expert at the Center for European Policy Analysis think tank, Putin is punishing high-ranking officials in the FSB — the successor agency to the KGB — for the war’s early failures. Soldatov’s sources say that Putin has placed Sergei Beseda, the leader of the FSB’s foreign intelligence branch, under house arrest (as well as his deputy).
Reports like this are hard to verify. But they track with Singh’s predictions that poor performance in wars generally leads autocrats to find someone to blame — and that fear of punishment could convince some among Russia’s security elite that the best way to protect themselves is to get rid of Putin.
“I don’t think Putin will assassinate them, but they may still have to live in fear and humiliation,” Singh says. “They’ll be afraid for their own futures.”
The conflict also provides disgruntled officials with an opening. In authoritarian countries like Russia, generals don’t always have many opportunities to speak with one another without fear of surveillance or informants. Wars change that, at least somewhat.
There are now “lots of good reasons for generals to be in a room with key players and even to evade surveillance by the state, since they will want to evade NATO and US surveillance,” Singh explains.
That said, coups are famously difficult to pull off. And the Russian security state in particular is organized around a frustrating one.
Contrary to most people’s expectations, successful military coups are generally pretty bloodless; smart plotters typically don’t launch if they believe there’s a real chance it’ll come down to a gun battle in the presidential palace. Instead, they ensure they have overwhelming support from the armed forces in the capital — or at least can convince everyone that they do — before they make their move.
And on that front, Russia experts say Putin has done a bang-up job of what political scientists call “coup-proofing” his government. He has seeded the military with counterintelligence officers, making it hard for potential mutineers to know whom to trust. He has delegated primary responsibility for repression at home to security agencies other than the regular military, which both physically distances troops from Moscow and reduces an incentive to rebel (orders to kill one’s own people being quite unpopular in the ranks).
He has also intensified the coup coordination problem by splitting up the state security services into different groups led by trusted allies. In 2016, Putin created the Russian National Guard — also called the Rosgvardiya — as an entity separate from the military. Under the command of thuggish Putin loyalist Viktor Zolotov, it performs internal security tasks like border security and counterterrorism in conjunction with Russia’s intelligence services.
These services are split into four federal branches. Three of these — the FSB, GRU, and SVR — have their own elite special operations forces. The fourth, the Federal Protection Services, is Russia’s Secret Service equivalent with a twist: It has in the range of 20,000 officers, according to a 2013 estimate. By contrast, the Secret Service has about 4,500, in a country with a population roughly three times Russia’s. This allows the Federal Protection Services to function as a kind of Praetorian Guard that can protect Putin from assassins and coups alike.
The result is that the regular military, the most powerful of Russia’s armed factions, does not necessarily dominate Russia’s internal security landscape. Any successful plot would likely require complex coordination among members of different agencies who may not know each other well or trust each other very much. In a government known to be shot through with potential informers, that’s a powerful disincentive against a coup.
“The coordination dilemma … is especially severe when you have multiple different intelligence agencies and ways of monitoring the military effectively, which the Russians do,” Casey explains. “There’s just a lot of different failsafe measures that Putin has built over the years that are oriented toward preventing a coup.”
Dreams of a Russian uprising — but can it happen?
In an interview on the New York Times’s Sway podcast, former FBI special agent Clint Watts warned of casualties in the Ukraine war leading to another Russian revolution.
“The mothers in Russia have always been the pushback against Putin during these conflicts. This is going to be next-level scale,” he argued. “We’re worried about Kyiv falling today. I’m worried about Moscow falling between day 30 and six months from now.”
A revolution against Putin has become likelier since the war began; in fact, it’s probably more plausible than a coup. In the 21st century, we have seen more popular uprisings in post-Soviet countries — like Georgia, Belarus, and Ukraine itself — than we have coups. Despite that, the best evidence suggests the odds of one erupting in Russia are still fairly low.
Few scholars are more influential in this field than Harvard’s Erica Chenoweth. Their finding, in work with fellow political scientist Maria Stephan, that nonviolent protest is more likely to topple regimes than an armed uprising is one of the rare political science claims to have transcended academia, becoming a staple of op-eds and activist rhetoric.
When Chenoweth looks at the situation in Russia today, they note that the longstanding appearance of stability in Putin’s Russia might be deceiving.
“Russia has a long and storied legacy of civil resistance [movements],” Chenoweth tells me. “Unpopular wars have precipitated two of them.”
Here, Chenoweth is referring to two early-20th-century uprisings against the czars: the 1905 uprising that led to the creation of the Duma, Russia’s legislature; and the more famous 1917 revolution that gave us the Soviet Union. Both events were triggered in significant part by Russian wartime losses (in the Russo-Japanese War and World War I, respectively). And indeed, we have seen notabledissent already during the current conflict, including demonstrations in nearly 70 Russian cities on March 6 alone.
It’s conceivable that these protests grow if the war continues to go poorly, especially if it produces significant Russian casualties, clear evidence of mass atrocities against civilians, and continued deep economic pain from sanctions. But we are still very far from a mass uprising.
Chenoweth’s research suggests you need to get about 3.5 percent of the population involved in protests to guarantee some kind of government concession. In Russia, that translates to about 5 million people. The antiwar protests haven’t reached anything even close to that scale, and Chenoweth is not willing to predict that it’s likely for them to approach it.
“It is hard to organize sustained collective protest in Russia,” they note. “Putin’s government has criminalized many forms of protests, and has shut down or restricted the activities of groups, movements, and media outlets perceived to be in opposition or associated with the West.”
A mass revolution, like a coup, is something that Putin has been preparing to confront for years. By some accounts, it has been his number one fear since the Arab Spring and especially the 2013 Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine. The repressive barriers Chenoweth points out are significant, making it unlikely — though, again, not impossible — that the antiwar protests evolve into a movement that topples Putin, even during a time of heightened stress for the regime.
In an authoritarian society like Russia, the government’s willingness to arrest, torture, and kill dissidents creates a similar coordination problem as the one coup plotters experience —just on a grander scale. Instead of needing to get a small cabal of military and intelligence officers to risk death, leaders need to convince thousands of ordinary citizens to do the same.
In past revolutions, opposition-controlled media outlets and social media platforms have helped solve this difficulty. But during the war, Putin has shut down notable independent media outlets and cracked down on social media, restricting Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram access. He has also introduced emergency measures that punish the spread of “fake” information about the war by up to 15 years in jail, leading even international media outlets like the New York Times to pull their local staff. Antiwar protesters have been arrested en masse.
Most Russians get their news from government-run media, which have been serving up a steady diet of pro-war propaganda. Many of them appear to genuinely believe it: An independent opinion poll found that 58 percent of Russians supported the war to at least some degree.
“What these polls reflect is how many people actually tune in to state media, which tells them what to think and what to say,” Russian journalist Alexey Kovalyov tells my colleague Sean Illing.
The brave protesters in Russian cities prove that the government grip on the information environment isn’t airtight. But for this dissent to evolve into something bigger, Russian activists will need to figure out a broader way to get around censorship, government agitprop, and repression. That’s not easy to do, and requires skilled activists. Chenoweth’s research, and the literature on civil resistance more broadly, finds that the tactical choices of opposition activists have a tremendous impact on whether the protesters ultimately succeed in their aims.
Organizers need to “give people a range of tactics they can participate in, because not everyone is going to want to protest given the circumstances. But people may be willing to boycott or do other things that appear to have lower risk but still have a significant impact, ” says Hardy Merriman, a senior advisor to the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.
You can already see some tactical creativity at work. Alexis Lerner, a scholar of dissent in Russia at the US Naval Academy, tells me that Russians are using unconventional methods like graffiti and TikTok videos to get around the state’s censorship and coercive apparatus. She also notes that an unusual amount of criticism of the government has come from high-profile Russians, ranging from oligarchs to social media stars.
But at the same time, you can also see the effect of the past decades of repression at work. During his time in power, Putin has systematically worked to marginalize and repress anyone he identifies as a potential threat. At the highest level, this means attacking and imprisoning prominent dissenters like Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Alexei Navalny.
But the repression also extends down the social food chain, from journalists to activists on down to ordinary Russians who may have dabbled too much in politics. The result is that anti-Putin forces are extremely depleted, with many Putin opponents operating in exile even before the Ukraine conflict began.
Moreover, revolutions don’t generally succeed without elite action. The prototypical success of a revolutionary protest movement is not the storming of the Bastille but the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. In that case, Mubarak’s security forces refused to repress the protesters and pressured him to resign as they continued.
“Symbolic protest is usually not enough to bring about change,” Chenoweth explains. “What makes such movements succeed is the ability to create, facilitate, or precipitate shifts in the loyalty of the pillars of support, including military and security elites, state media, oligarchs, and Putin’s inner circle of political associates.”
Given the Russian president’s level of control over his security establishment, it will take a truly massive protest movement to wedge them apart.
What are the odds of regime change in Russia?
It can be difficult to talk about low-probability events like the collapse of the Putin regime. Suggesting that it’s possible can come across as suggesting it’s likely; suggesting it’s unlikely can come across as suggesting it’s impossible.
But it’s important to see a grey area here: accepting that Putin’s end is more likely than it was on February 23, the day before Russia launched its offensive, but still significantly less likely than his government continuing to muddle through. The war has put new pressure on the regime, at both the elite and the mass public level, but the fact remains that Putin’s Russia is an extremely effective autocracy with strong guardrails against coups and revolutions.
So how should we think about the odds? Is it closer to 20 percent — or 1 percent?
This kind of question is impossible to answer with anything like precision. The information environment is so murky, due to both Russian censorship and the fog of war, that it’s difficult to discern basic facts like the actual number of Russian war dead. We don’t really have a good sense of how key members of the Russian security establishment are feeling about the war or whether the people trying to organize mass protests are talented enough to get around aggressive repression.
And the near-future effects of key policies are similarly unclear. Take international sanctions. We know that these measures have had a devastating effect on the Russian economy. What we don’t know is who the Russian public will blame for their immiseration: Putin for launching the war — or America and its allies for imposing the sanctions? Can reality pierce through Putin’s control of the information environment? The answers to these questions will make a huge difference.
Putin built his legitimacy around the idea of restoring Russia’s stability, prosperity, and global standing. By threatening all three, the war in Ukraine is shaping up to be the greatest test of his regime to date.
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