The present Russian-NATO proxy war in Ukraine along with the Russian-Western economic cold war could destabilize Russia’s political metastability and even topple Putin and his system. Assume for a moment that Putin really is pushed into a corner. Imagine Putin’s foreign reserves begin to run out cutting into his popularity, and/or he loses his battle with the West over Ukraine because of Russia’s economic weaknesses in conditions of falling oil and natural gas prices and Western sanctions. Political and economic crises mount, and the foundations of his system begin to shake. Putin the winner has become Putin the disappointing loser.
The regime elite begins to split; some defect to the opposition. The latter begins to mount successively larger and more turbulent demonstrations led by a Maidan-like mix of democrats, angered by economic dislocation, and ultra-nationalists, disgruntled by a failure to annex or protect the Donbass. All this reaches a crescendo – a perfect storm – in the runup to, during or just after the 2018 presidential election. It is around elections when corrupt authoritarian systems are often challenged because of limited levels of public trust in the electoral process. The emperor has no clothes.
In such a situation how would Putin and his political order likely react? What would his options be and which among them would he most likely choose? In short, what would Putin try to do to salvage his rule?
Although Putin is not an ultra-nationalist dictator or would-be imperialist, he is likely to err on the side of increasingly authoritarian and expansionist measures to protect his power and system, which he regards as necessary to achieve the growth of Russian power. Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to maintain Russian influence in Ukraine. Therefore, if pushed into a corner in Ukraine, internationally, or at home, Putin is likely to crackdown on domestic opposition and foreign economic and political elements inside Russia and undertake high-risk foreign policy measures like the Crimea annexation in order to save face. If Putin overreaches, the West overreacts, or a ‘black swan’ event occurs at such a pivot point, war with the West – perhaps a second Crimean war – would be at hand.