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Why Regime Change in Russia is Unlikely Russian President Vladimir Putin at the "Victory Day" Parade in Red Square this past May. Photo sourced from the Kremlin.

Why Regime Change in Russia is Unlikely

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Russia’s recent invasion and occupation of Ukraine has caused tens of thousands of Russians and non-Russians to call for an end to Russia’s military actions. In Russia, there have been both mass and individual protests across the country, from thousands of Russians marching in the streets to a grocery store owner painting “Peace to Ukraine, Freedom to Russia” on his store. However, despite these protests, regime change in Russia remains unlikely. Over the past twenty years, Putin has fortified his control of Russia to protect against the threat of both military coups and mass uprisings, the primary methods by which autocrats are removed from power. Consequently, the removal of Putin as the leader of Russia and the implementation of democracy in Russia remains a remote possibility.

To prevent a military coup, Putin has created a system that inhibits coups and provides him personal protection. First, F.S.B. agents stationed throughout the Russian military observe and report on dissent throughout the ranks. Consequently, Russian military officers are unable to confidently approach others about anti-Putin sentiment or actions, making the planning and formation of a secret coup very difficult and easy for Putin to discover and punish. If discovered, Putin would then most likely make a public example of the dissenters, further dissuading those questioning his rule to speak up. Second, Putin’s Russian National Guard, the Rosgvardiya, is separate from the military and its de facto purpose is believed to be to protect him in the event of a violent uprising. The F.S.B. and the Rosgvardiya work congruently to shield Putin from the threat of a military coup, making one extremely unlikely. As such, many have hoped that the latest round of protests against Putin’s actions would turn into a mass uprising against the autocratic government.

However, despite protests across Russia, a successful mass uprising against the Russian government remains improbable for three primary reasons. First, according to the ‘3.5% rule’ formulated by Professor Erica Chenoweth, 3.5% of Russia’s population would have to participate in a nonviolent uprising for meaningful regime change in Russia to occur. Although tens of thousands of Russians have been protesting, that number is nowhere near the necessary five million that would be needed to create change in Russia. Second, the F.S.B and the Rosgvardiya are also both used by Putin to stamp out public dissent, making popular uprising more difficult and costly. Finally, the third reason why a mass uprising in Russia is unlikely comes from Russian culture and history.

Although the U.S. looks at Russia and sees an autocracy under the guise of democracy, many Russians see their government in a different light. To them, Putin represents strength and stability to many Russians, especially because his rise to power coincided with the end of the chaos of the 1990s. Moreover, Russia and the Soviet Union were historically ruled by authoritarians, making Russian citizens more comfortable with the idea of a strong central ruler, like Putin. Consequently, more Russians support Putin than many Americans might think, indicated by the fact that his high approval rating has even increased following the invasion of Ukraine. However, this increase could be attributed to the fact that many critics of the regime have left the country since the invasion, thereby increasing the proportion of Putin-supporters in the country. Moreover, Russians have a different understanding of democracy than Americans and therefore do not feel as if Putin is an autocratic dictator. Although many Russians say they support democracy, they tend to think that democratic values such as freedom of the press or the separation of church and state are not important, making Putin’s limitations on these freedoms insignificant.

Finally, it is worth considering another scenario: what would happen if the rumors surrounding Putin’s illness were true? Early this year, an unnamed Russian oligarch close to Putin was recorded saying that Putin is very ill with a form of blood cancer. If these rumors are true, and if Putin were to die in office, total regime change in Russia still remains unlikely due to the influence of the powerful oligarchs in Russia. According to Kendall-Taylor et al., the death of an autocrat very rarely leads to regime change. This is because the elite who benefit from and have power in the autocratic system are invested in keeping the regime as is. Consequently, they work to ensure that the system continues even if the autocrat changes. Although the line of succession in Russia is currently unclear, most reports indicate that the current Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin, would replace him. This would allow the Russian oligarchs to keep control of the country, thus perpetuating the current Russian system, and preventing regime change in Russia and the formation of a democratic Russian state.