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Failure on the battlefield would likely be the beginning of the end for Putin’s regime. But how would that play out?

Phone calls made by Russian soldiers to their families describing the shambolic preparation and execution of the invasion of Ukraine have confirmed their country's seemingly untenable position in the war.

The calls, recorded by the Ukrainian government and published in the New York Times, revealed just how desperate, murderous and poorly planned the invasion was. This was underscored by the recent Kherson counter-offensive that saw Ukraine retake about 2,000 sq km (700 sq miles) from Russian forces. The advance showed that, despite limited equipment and resources on the ground, the Ukrainian military continually outmaneuvered and out-thought their better-equipped enemy. 

President Putin now finds himself in the most vulnerable position of his 22 years of autocracy. Could he lose his grip on power amid defeat in Ukraine? And if so, what would that look like?

Tribunals, war crimes and punishment

As the phone calls reveal, Russian soldiers have been murdering Ukrainian civilians indiscriminately. Mass graves and evidence of torture have followed Russian forces wherever they have been. Assaults and gender-based crimes, including the rape of civilians ranging in ages from four to 82, amount to over 30,000 war crimes, according to Ukraine's prosecutor-general. However, prosecuting them would be far from easy. Captured soldiers, such as Vadim Shishimarin, the first Russian soldier to be prosecuted for war crimes, will be tried and imprisoned, but the men who ordered the atrocities will be much harder to convict. 

Firstly, the International Court of Justice – which prosecutes states and not individuals (Ukraine has already begun a case against Russia) – would have to go to the UN Security Council to enforce their case. However, Russia is currently one of the council's five permanent members and would veto any proposal to sanction it.

Secondly, the International Criminal Court, which investigates and prosecutes individual war criminals in the Hague, relies on individual states to arrest criminals. However, as Russia is not a court member, the likelihood of it extraditing any suspects is slim. For Putin to stand trial in the Hague, he must have been ousted from power and turned in by a new president. 

Possibilities for a coup

The longer the war drags on, the more young soldiers are sent home in body-bags, and conscripts drafted to the front line, the more protests will erupt on Russian streets. As a result, the weaker Putin's position becomes. "Vladimir Putin's attack on Ukraine will result in the downfall of him and his friends," foreign affairs and national security expert David Rothkopf stated in the Daily Beast. "If history is any guide, his overreach and his miscalculations, his weaknesses as a strategist, and the flaws in his character will undo him." For this to occur, most experts agree, the west needs to keep supporting Ukraine militarily and with sanctions against Russia. 

If Putin is close to the cliff's edge, the US and others are doing whatever they can to force him over the edge. Social media, insurrections, and encouraging his enemies will all play a part. His demise will happen in one of two ways: a military coup or a popular uprising. 

On the latter front, about 2,000 protesters have been arrested, and a gunman opened fire in a Siberian draft office as a backlash against the mobilisation order grew in intensity. Still, it seems difficult to imagine a popular uprising in the same way as the Arab Spring saw Libya's Muammar Gaddafi paraded through the streets before being killed. That's partly because Putin has created an almost threat-proof regime over the last two decades. Dissidents are threatened or killed at home and abroad, and widespread surveillance in Russia results in the imprisonment of agitators for lengthy periods. His people fear him, he controls the media, social media is blocked, and arrests are made en masse. This makes it nearly impossible for opposition groups to organize online or in person. 

A mutiny-proofed military 

If experts with links to Putin's inner circle are to be believed, the president cuts an increasingly isolated and aloof figure. He has already lost countless generals on the battlefield, and other retired, respected generals have criticised the war. He has a few hawkish yes men that feed his narrative of restoring Russia's former glories. 

However, he seems to lack anyone around him who will stand up to him and offer a reality check, which is why this disastrous war was allowed to happen. Even his own military officers received few details about plans for the war beforehand. According to Andrei Soldatov, a Russia expert at the Center for European Policy Analysis thinktank, Putin lashed out at senior officials in the FSB – successor to the KGB – for its early failings, putting them under house arrest. By punishing high-ranking officials, Putin is insulating himself against dissent.

In addition, by placing counter-intelligence officers in the military, he has made it extremely difficult to launch a mutiny. He has also split up the military, with an ally leading each branch. In 2016, he created the Russian National Guard, or Rosgvardiya, separate from the military, headed by a hardcore loyalist, Viktor Solotov. One of its functions is internal security. With all these fail-safe mechanisms in place, it's hard to see how a coup could materialise.

Is Putin capable of accepting defeat?

As former allies such as China and India have voiced reservations about the war, Putin doubled down and announced a mass mobilisation with the draft. However, a crippled economy and a hamstrung military taking on the west is not a scenario that can be endured. It's hard to see a scenario where Putin can come out of this saving face unless he takes Kyiv.

More rational heads around him might think he should cease fighting following the formal annexation of the four south-eastern regions of Ukraine. However, this will likely result in more sanctions, and Ukraine further embedding its position with the rest of Europe and the US. Russia, in the words of the Finnish president, Sauli Niinistö, has gone "all in". He added: "All this further increases the risk of escalation. Russia's actions are dangerous and reprehensible." Escalation could mean chemical and even tactical nuclear weapons. If that happens, the US response will have "catastrophic consequences"

It is not in Putin's DNA to accept defeat. His ego wouldn't allow it. As Maureen Dowd stated in the New York Times, when describing his similarities with Donald Trump: "They would rather destroy their countries than admit they have lost." A narcissistic psychopath, according to psychologist Caroline Strawson, Putin psychologically ranks alongside Hitler and other megalomaniacs: "With dictators, it is all about power and control. Winning and never losing. There is no middle ground for negotiation."

Other governments would be aware of this and must have privately dismissed the idea of meaningful negotiations, hence the recent package of long-term aid for Ukraine. Putin has never been in this position where he has had so much at stake. The fact that he sits so far away from his senior military staff during meetings is perhaps an acknowledgment of his vulnerability and paranoia. Many around him would have concluded that the only way to bring the war to a swift conclusion would be with Putin's death. When those thoughts start to become conversations and those conversations plans, an end to the war might be in sight. 

If there is a military coup, there's no guarantee that Putin's replacement would be much better than him, and the west would do well not to get its hopes up. If he is overthrown and jailed, and opposition leader Alexei Navalny comes to power, there could be cause for celebration. A Hague trial of Putin for war crimes and a more harmonious relationship with the west is a dream scenario. Right now, though, that seems about as remote as the maximum security jail where Navalny is serving out his years of imprisonment.


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