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Putin Can Defeat Putin

By David Wendt, Co-Founder and Senior Advisor, Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs

May 5, 2024

How can Ukraine can defeat Putin?  Putin can defeat Putin.  His power structure is built on such a shaky foundation of myths, lies, and false promises. Under the right circumstances, the slightest whiff of reality could bring the whole edifice crashing down.

How could Putin get out ahead of himself in the war?   He could bite off more than he could chew by advancing too deeply into Ukraine’s territory, as both Napoleon and Hitler did to Russia.  Past could also become prologue with the Russian Revolution, a reminder of the consequences of war-weariness in an exhausted society -- though it is difficult to see any such fatigue from the outside looking in.  Critical intelligence failures could reveal a standing gap, as in Stalin’s time, in what one analyst has called the Russian military’s “relationship with the truth.”  The recent ISIS-K attacks in Moscow could catalyze a broader awakening to real domestic threats that Russia is missing because of the obsession with Ukraine.

A misstep resulting from these events, or from some other unforeseen circumstance, could slowly, or suddenly, pierce Putin’s mantle of invincibility, revealing him to be the Wizard of Oz-like creature of the imagination that he is.  A growing chorus of the 60% “silent majority” of Russians previously expressing tacit approval of the war in recent polls – as opposed to 20% at the extremes of active support or opposition -- could begin to sense his vulnerability.  

Emboldened, ordinary Russians from all walks of life could begin stepping forward from the shadows, demanding answers to their own questions.  Why, they might ask, should they continue to endure the war’s daily privations for the sake of an official rationale which they do not believe?  Why should they continue to convey their vote of confidence to a leader who had so manifestly revealed himself to be inept? 

These questions have no legitimate answers.  With his legitimacy itself in question, Putin could begin to face growing doubts about his leadership.  The social contract between the Russian people and their government, exchanging obedience for security, could begin to erode.  This growing coalition for truth -- if not yet reconciliation -- in Russia could fuel its own demand.  No longer content to keep their heads in the sand, Russians could want to know more about the war and its true costs, two-years in.  More and more Russians could begin to demand accountability.

Unfortunately, however, a growing movement for truth within Russia would be met with fierce resistance.  Like every previous democratic opening in Russia, it will pose a threat to those who hold privileged positions in the power structure.  The question is whether these anti-democratic forces will be able to regroup and mount a backlash.  

But history has also shown the power of an idea, once translated into a set of institutions, no matter how improbable at the start.  That is how the Marshall Plan, embedded within a network of post-War II institutions, gained traction and transformed a devastated post-World War II Europe.  As German Marshall Fund CEO Heather Conley has pointed out, “Success – of which here was no initial certainty -- of the Marshall Plan further strengthened the U.S.’s confidence as to what it could accomplish.” 

Institution-building, too, can strengthen the democratic idea in Russia.  As Leslie Vinjamuri has pointed out, even in the absence of war crimes trials, a peace deal can still satisfy the requirements for justice if it provides a basis to “empower a reform coalition’s institution-building efforts.”  Institutions can transform otherwise unpredictable behavior and activities into routine and “normal” procedures.

This was Gorbachev’s great contribution with Eastern Europe in 1989-1990 – by standing back, to allow the Soviet Union to conform to his vision of its historical role as a “normal” country.  “Normalcy” through democratic institution-building is the hope for a democratic Russia today as well.  We just need to wait Putin out and allow time for the forces of history – and, for that matter, of Putin’s own personality -- to work themselves out. 


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