Amid accusations of war crimes and a trail of carnage, experts weigh in on what lies ahead for Vladimir Putin

The Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine has been a disaster — for Ukraine, of course, but also for Russia itself. More than 10,000 Russian soldiers have likely been killed in the fighting. The Institute of International Finance projects an economic contraction of 15% in Russia's GDP for 2022 alone. Professional class Russians with the means to relocate are fleeing the country by the planeload. And Ukrainians have been rallying around their erstwhile embattled president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

In any normally functioning political system, the mastermind of such a debacle would be compelled to answer some very uncomfortable questions. In the Russian Federation that Vladimir Putin has spent the last twenty-two years shaping, however, the head of state may yet succeed in evading even that minor punishment.

Or he might be overthrown by a cabal of generals intent on stopping the carnage before Russia literally runs out of manpower. Or he might be poisoned by disgruntled Russian intelligence officers who see their country growing poorer, weaker, and more isolated each day Putin is permitted to remain in power. Or he might be driven from his dacha by an angry mob of former supporters, who were promised stability but received price inflation and medicine shortages instead. Or he might turn Russia into a literal bunker state by setting off a nuclear weapon and daring the outside world to respond in kind.

Of the six Russia experts who spoke to Newsweek over the course of reporting for this article, all took pains to make clear that no one — perhaps the man in the Kremlin least of all — really knows what comes next. By every indication, the Kremlin leadership genuinely expected its self-styled "special military operation" to succeed in taking control of Kyiv by the end of February. Instead, on March 25, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that it was reorienting its focus away from the Ukrainian capital in order to concentrate forces in the eastern Donbas region. As the Ukrainian army continues to retake temporarily lost territory and as evidence of Russian war crimes piles up, the Kremlin has relied on a regime of total information control to prevent ordinary Russians from learning the truth about their leaders' mounting record of miscalculation and barbarity.

Civilians in Bucha near Kyiv after Russians
Local residents walk with bicycles past destroyed armored vehicles on a street in the town of Bucha, on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on April 5, 2022. GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images

On the domestic front, all six of those aforementioned experts noted Russia's accelerating transition from the sort of Brezhnev-style authoritarianism that had characterized most of Putin's rule to something more closely resembling outright Stalinist totalitarianism. The Kremlin spent much of 2021 cracking down on civil society. In January of that year, opposition figure Alexey Navalny was arrested. In the ensuing months, his Anti-Corruption Foundation was dismantled after being labeled an "extremist organization," a designation that put it on par with Al-Qaeda in the eyes of Russian prosecutors. By September, when rigged parliamentary elections preserved the supermajority of the increasingly unpopular United Russia party—"the party of the president"— any Russian activist capable of organizing a widespread protest movement was already either in jail or in exile.

Despite the handful of anti-war demonstrations that followed Russia's February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, increasingly restrictive censorship has prevented the overwhelming majority of Russians from accessing accurate information about the war. In Russian media, it is a crime to refer to the war as anything other than a "special military operation," and the dissemination of any version of events that does not correspond to official statements from the Russian Ministry of Defense is now a crime punishable by up to fifteen years in prison.

Despite the crackdown, all six experts also see opportunities to turn Putin's newest self-inflicted crisis against him. If Western sanctions can be strengthened and maintained, and if military support for Ukrainian resistance efforts can continue to help Kyiv inflict irreplaceable losses on the Russian military, then the Kremlin's decision to launch this war of choice really could ultimately result in the unnatural end of Putin's reign. How that end might be reached, in what timeframe, and with which consequences, however, remain debating questions that only time can answer. While that end looks increasingly inevitable, few are confident that it is imminent.

Anyone looking in the direction of Langley, Virginia, for a quick answer is going to come away very disappointed very quickly. "Intelligence agencies aren't in the prediction business," John Sipher, former CIA station chief in Moscow, explains for neither the first nor the last time.

Sipher, of course, recognizes that Putin's catastrophic misadventure into Ukraine has opened up an aperture of possibilities that were almost unthinkable only two months ago. It's just that the most likely scenario, at least for the foreseeable future, is the one in which current trends continue. "This is what they call in the intelligence service 'a wild ass guess,' but I think you'll have a weakened Putin managing to stay in power for quite a long time."

Based on everything he has seen from Putin over the past 22 years, Sipher expects the Russian president-for-life to fight to the end. "As an old KGB guy, Putin has always been obsessed with the idea of traitors and treason. He's built a system in which, no matter how bad things might get domestically, there's no opposition left for Russians to turn to. There isn't even a clear figure in the security services for the elite to coalesce around. As long as he can keep the elite convinced that they're better off with him in charge than they would be fighting among themselves over whatever comes next, he'll be able to maintain control."

Russian protester in Moscow
A man holds a placard reading "No to war. Putin, get out" during a protest at Moscow's Pushkin Square on February 24, 2022. Domestic repression has largely succeeded in keeping protesters off of the streets. Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty

The amount of financial resources at the Kremlin's disposal in its efforts to keep that elite onside will depend largely on how much economic pain the outside world can impose on Russia. Daniel Fried, who served as the coordinator for sanctions policy throughout Barack Obama's second term as president, has been impressed with the pressure campaign that the current administration in Washington has organized thus far.

"The Biden team did an excellent job of coordinating with the Europeans in the run-up to the invasion," Fried says. They were ready immediately to levy sanctions on Russian financial institutions and influential individuals. Now the question is: as Russia continues its aggression, where do you go from here? How do you handle Russian energy exports? With sanctions, it usually helps to follow the money, and for Russia, oil and gas is where the money is."

Approximately 40% of the Russian state budget is financed by revenues from oil and gas exports. If buyers in Europe can find alternative sources, and if secondary sanctions can persuade large energy importers such as India and China to do the same, then Russia would be deprived of much of the income that has allowed its economy to weather the sanctions that have been imposed thus far. While this scenario might sound overly optimistic, Fried recalls from his days in the Obama administration that "the Chinese respected our secondary sanctions on Iranian oil. You might not be able to compel them to go to a full embargo, but a reduction is not outside the realm of possibility."

Sanctions on Asian imports of Russian energy, however, cannot move to the top of the Western agenda until European buyers succeed in getting their own continent in order. While Fried has come away from private conversations impressed with European officials' willingness to begin seeking alternative sources to Russian energy, among European Union members, only Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have cut off all of their imports of Russian oil and gas, and only Germany and Poland have pledged to do so in the coming years. The ultimate extent and effect of the sanctions will depend largely on Washington's ability to convince Brussels bureaucrats — along with Texas truck drivers — that increased energy costs are a small price to pay for the possibility of a Europe whole, free, and at peace.

Such efforts are complicated by the fact that sanctions are a stick, not a magic wand. According to Fried, their purpose is not necessarily to push the current Kremlin regime from power immediately, but to "deprive Putin of the resources he would need to carry out further aggression. You don't snap your fingers and make that happen. When you write a sanctions paper, you're guessing. You don't know how Putin is going to respond, and you don't know how the whole system will respond. You hope it results in a victory for the Ukrainians, but even if it doesn't, you keep the sanctions on in the hopes that Putinism will suffer a strategic decline in the medium term." In other words, this could still take a while.

Currency exchange, Moscow
A currency exchange office in central Moscow on February 24, 2022. After a tumultuous month of March, the ruble's official exchange value has stabilized back near pre-invasion levels. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/Getty

If Western politicians can demonstrate the patience and foresight necessary to cut Russia off from large segments of the global market, then the economic consequences really are fairly predictable. Konstantin Sonin, a Russian-born professor of economics at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy, foresees "an almost immediate decline in GDP and in real incomes of 10-15%, annual inflation of 20-30%, and no economic growth for as long as Putin remains in power."

But economic pain does not necessarily equate to political change. The Russian government's implicit control over most companies in the energy, banking, defense, and transportation sectors means that even as profits fall, state-dependent managers will be more likely to cut wages than to reduce staff. In less populated provincial areas, where small and medium-sized businesses drive the economy, the prospects for mass joblessness remain high. However, thanks largely to the influence of the state in the national economy, plenty of workers in the politically critical larger cities are likely to continue collecting a livable wage, even if sanctions have reduced the demand for their actual services.

Implementing stop-gap policies to mitigate such a level of economic damage is still no easy task. Unfortunately for Western policymakers, competent Russian officials such as Central Bank head Elvira Nabiulina, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, and Finance Minister Anton Siluanov have all remained loyal to the Kremlin. It is largely thanks to their intervention that the ruble's official exchange value has returned to levels approximating its prewar rate and that supermarket shelves across the country remain stocked with consumer staples such as sugar and buckwheat

"It is not in the interests of the country to continue the war, yet their professional advice makes it possible for Putin to sustain the war effort even as the macroeconomic situation deteriorates," Sonin says.

The Russian economic pie is undoubtedly shrinking, but in a country where everyone over the age of 40 has memories of a worse time, the collective decision may well be to cut back rather than to rise up. "Even under the circumstances," Sonin speaks from experience, "the Putinist system is economically capable of enduring for another ten years."

Dr. Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, understands how a regime that impoverishes its subjects can still manage to receive enough popular support to survive, at least in the short term: propaganda reinforced with repression.

For going on eight years, Kremlin-controlled television channels have portrayed successive democratically elected governments in Kyiv as "CIA-backed neo-fascist juntas." As a result, many ordinary Russians simply dismiss their Ukrainian relatives' eyewitness accounts of bombed-out apartment buildings and shelled civilian corridors as examples of Made in America anti-Russian propaganda. Polyakova is not exaggerating when she says that "the role of state media in Russia has been de-facto to brainwash people, and it's worked. A large portion of Russians believe in a picture of the world that's entirely disconnected from reality."

The Kremlin had been adding to the "repression" element of the formula throughout 2021, as evidenced by Navalny's arrest, the increased harassment of independent journalists, and the firm refusal to grant protest permits to citizens upset at official results. But since the start of Russia's open invasion of Ukraine, the repression has grown exponentially.

Polykova supplies a few examples. "You have a more militant response to any anti-war protest, people are being arrested for going out onto the street and holding up blank pieces of paper, police are showing up at people's doors because of things they've written on social media. It's only a matter of time before Russia is behind a new Iron Curtain."

Polyakova makes clear that the system Putin has built can outlive the man at the top. "Eventually, Putin won't be there—he's mortal—but it's not clear what comes next. Will it be essentially the same? Will it be worse? I don't see any indication that sanctions on the elite are leading to a palace coup, and a democratic uprising is highly unlikely given the repression. Whether or not Putin dies a natural death, there's a good chance that he'll be succeeded by something a lot like himself."

Still, Polyakova sees a distant cause for hope, along with an immediate opportunity for Western action to maximize Russia's chances of eventually making a successful democratic transition. "There are things we can do to make sure that Russians who are opposed to the Putinist system are still capable of participating in politics after the current regime collapses. That means establishing grants, fellowships, and teaching positions for Russian exiles. Long term, we can make sure that the writers, journalists, and civil society activists who are currently being forced abroad are able to maintain their skills. That way, when change in Russia eventually does happen, there will be people ready to return and maybe steer things in the right direction."

Alexey Navalny
Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny takes part in a march in memory of murdered Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov in Moscow on February 29, 2020. Less than six months later, Navalny himself survived a Kremlin assassination attempt. Kirill Kudryavtsev/Getty

While much of the Russian intelligentsia Polyakova describes has already left the country, a few independent thinkers have chosen to remain behind the hardening curtain. Dr. Greg Yudin, a professor of political philosophy at The Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, is among them. Yudin, who was concussed at one of the early anti-war protests back in February, sees only two possibilities for the future of Russia, and of the world: "Either Putin is removed from power, or the war continues. If the world community signs a deal which allows Putin to regroup and prepare for the next attack, then he will prepare for the next attack."

Even from Yudin's seat in Moscow, the timing and circumstances of Putin's ultimate departure are no easier to predict than they are from Washington. His first-hand view of Western sanctions' effects, however, suggests that the Russian capital remains firmly under the Kremlin's control.

"If you go into a shopping mall," Yudin explains, "maybe 30% of the stores are closed, but they all have signs saying 'we will reopen soon!' Prices are rising, but everyday life remains more or less unchanged. People expect that things will return to normal in three or four months. If the outside world can keep up the pressure for long enough, then maybe people really will decide to come out onto the streets. That potential development is still a couple of steps away though."

A couple of steps away sounds fine to Roman Dobrokhotov, the founder and editor-in-chief of the independent investigative journalism outlet The Insider. Dobrokhotov fled Russia in August 2021, shortly after his organization was labeled a "foreign agent" and police started showing up to search his apartment.

"When I left," Dobrokhotov thinks back to the world that existed a mere eight months ago, "I expected that I wouldn't return for at least fifteen years."

Now Dobrokhotov isn't so sure. In order to understand why, it's first necessary to run through a few of the highlights on his resume. Under Dobrokhotov's leadership, The Insider partnered closely with Bellingcat to expose the real identities of the two undercover GRU officers who attempted to assassinate Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal using Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury, England, in 2018; it tracked down the FSB agents who used a similar poison in their attempt to assassinate Navalny in August 2020, and it combed travel records to link the members of the Navalny hit squad to past Novichok assassination attempts—some of them successful—against other Kremlin critics. Over the past few years, Dobrokhotov may have read more top secret Russian documents than anyone else in the world, Vladimir Putin included.

And so when Dobrokohtov spends five minutes spinning out an almost unbelievably optimistic scenario for Russia's future, it comes with a certain credibility: "From the moment the bombs started falling on Kyiv, there was no going back to the pre-war status quo. The whole operation was based on inaccurate assumptions, and I know this because I've read the intelligence reports Putin was reading. Now he's at a dead end. If he retreats, then everyone sees that the enormous losses of troops, money, and reputation were all for nothing. If he continues fighting, then in a few months there will be mass unemployment, which guarantees massive protests throughout the country. The security services know how to deal with protesters in Moscow, but when hungry people come out onto the street in the provinces, individual National Guardsmen will sympathize with them. The Rosgvardia guys have seen enough of their own colleagues killed in Ukraine that even their illusions will have been destroyed."

Back in August, when Dobrokhotov left Russia, he expected to be gone for well over a decade. Now though?

"Now I can see my return on the horizon. All of this depends on the capacity of outside pressure to push Russian society to a kind of breaking point, but right now I'm 60% certain that it will happen in a matter of months. It's either that, or Putin succeeds in turning the country into something like Venezuela, Cuba, or Iran — only with nuclear weapons."

Sixty percent is the kind of number that ex-CIA station chief Sipher would call "a wild ass guess." It is. It's just that, under the circumstances, it's as good a guess as anybody's.

By giving the order to invade Ukraine, Putin created circumstances that could lead to his overthrow by the end of the year. Similarly, by giving the order to invade Ukraine, Putin created circumstances that could have Russia resembling Stalin's Soviet Union by the end of the year. American economic pressure on Moscow, combined with military support for Kyiv, can help make the overthrow scenario more likely, but "more likely" remains far from a guarantee of success. As Obama-era sanctions architect Fried says when asked when and how all of this ends: "How the hell should I know?"

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