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Opinion: Putin can cling on to power, but his legend is dead

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Editor’s Note: Mark Galeotti is the executive director of the consultancy Mayak Intelligence and an honorary professor at University College London. He is the author of several books on Russian history, most recently “Putin’s Wars: from Chechnya to Ukraine.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

Despite some frenzied speculation around Russia’s apparent loss of the occupied Ukrainian region of Kherson this week, it is still too soon to predict when and how President Vladimir Putin will surrender power – whether it will be because he is ousted, retires or simply dies in office.

Mark Galeotti

However, what we can already see are some of the processes which may shape and prompt that departure. More to the point, even clinging on to power, Putin will never live up to the image he had created for himself.

Especially in the early months of the war, there was much excited speculation about his health, with claims that he had everything from blood cancer to Parkinson’s. Much of this has subsided, especially as the puffy aspect and odd twitches that were fastened upon as proof seem to have passed.

It was unsurprising that this would attract such interest, offering something of a deus ex machina for Western governments eager for a quick solution to the dilemmas of the conflict.

However, according to US intelligence officers who have studied the question, while Putin may well have recurring health issues – he has long been known to suffer from back problems and may even be suffering from a condition that has compromised his immune system, explaining the extreme measures taken to shield him from Covid-19 – there is no sign of anything likely to lead to his imminent death or incapacity.

Yet he is 70, and his health really has become an existential question for the system. After all, while the Russian constitution stipulates what happens if he dies in office – the prime minister steps in as interim president until early elections can be held – there is no provision in case he is incapacitated for any substantial length of time, nor is there a vice president able to stand in for him.

This is exactly the kind of political crisis which might generate an intra-elite struggle, which could bring down this regime.

After all, for now, the chances of a palace coup are scarcely greater than those of Putin being toppled by protests in the streets. Multiple security forces balance each other: in Moscow, for example, the military garrison, a special division of the National Guard and the Kremlin Regiment all report to different chains of command. The Federal Security Service watches all three – and the Federal Protection Service in turn watch them.

So long as Putin is able to control the heads of these so-called “power ministries” and they command the loyalties of their agencies, he seems hard to topple.

However, for all he looks firmly in control, what is happening is that his system is becoming increasingly brittle, losing the resources which in the past have provided the resilience to respond to unexpected challenges.

Obviously, this means financial resources. As sanctions bite and the costs of war escalate, money is getting tighter. Almost a third of the 2023 budget (more than 9 trillion out of a total 29 trillion rubles) will go towards defense and security. This leaves proportionately less to support regional budgets and keep struggling industries afloat.

However, it also means weakened legitimacy and the goodwill of the security services and local elites. Putin’s approval ratings have always been artificially high, given that there is no meaningful opposition for him to be measured against, but they are nonetheless falling.

Putin’s military machine is broken; his country’s economy so scarred that it will take years to recover; his reputation as a geopolitical mastermind in tatters.

Mark Galeotti

The National Guard, the key force charged with controlling protests in the streets, has been decimated fighting in Ukraine. Members of the National Guard are also angry that they were used as cannon fodder in a war for which glorified riot police were neither trained nor equipped.

Meanwhile, while the grumbling within the elite remains carefully muted, it is evident. Just as he did during Covid-19, Putin is dumping the hard and unpopular work of raising “volunteer battalions” and keeping the war economy running onto his regional mayors and governors. While some, like St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov, have seized this as an opportunity to court Putin’s approval, many others are quietly appalled.

All this makes predicting the future of Putin and his regime even more difficult. Even brittle and stagnating regimes can hold on for a long time. Tsarist Russia was arguably brain-dead by 1911, when the brutally reformist Prime Minister Petr Stolypin was assassinated, but it still lasted through three years of catastrophe in the First World War before crumbling in 1917.

However, it does mean that Putin’s state is much less capable of dealing with the kind of unexpected crises that are at once hard to predict and yet ultimately inevitable. This could be anything from generalized rout in Ukraine to a cascading regional economic collapse at home, the security forces refusing to suppress protests on the streets or Putin falling seriously ill.

In these circumstances, as in March 1917 (February by the old Russian calendar), perhaps the commander-in-chief will be confronted by his senior generals and politicians and induced to step down for the good of the Motherland.

It seems hard at present to imagine such a scenario, but in the main the Russian elite, political and military alike, are not ‘Putinists’ but ruthless opportunists. They have supported Putin because it is in their interests; they continue to stay loyal because the risks in opposing him for now very much seem greater.

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However, if they start to believe that he is vulnerable, they will likely distance themselves from him at speed. No one wants to be the last loyalist of a doomed regime.

Whatever happens, though, Putin’s dreams of establishing Russia as a great power on the back of its military strength are over, and so too are his ambitions of securing a legacy as one of the nation’s great state-builders.

His military machine is broken; his country’s economy so scarred that it will take years to recover; his reputation as a geopolitical mastermind in tatters. Putin-the-man may still cling to power for years, but Putin-the-legend is dead.