Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine Makes Him More Vulnerable than Ever Before

This quick take is part of our Crisis Crossroads series, which highlights timely analysis by CSIS scholars on the evolving situation in Ukraine and its security, economic, energy, and humanitarian effects.

The poor performance of the Russian military in the first days of the conflict, fierce resistance from Ukrainian defenders, and a stronger-than-anticipated response from Ukraine’s supporters in the West have dealt a blow to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s standing at home.

Having transformed Russia into a personalized autocracy since coming to power in 1999, Putin is the ultimate arbiter of consequential decisions relating to Russia’s future. His omnipotence is reinforced by the Kremlin’s tight control over domestic media, which gives him credit for positive developments in domestic and global affairs while blaming failures on feckless subordinates. Yet, the consequences of Russia’s misadventure in Ukraine are different. Putin’s central role in launching this war means that he will bear responsibility for plunging his country into a period of profound hardship.

A mere five days into the conflict, the toll of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is coming into focus. The value of the ruble has plunged, billions of dollars of wealth have been wiped out, and Russians can no longer travel through European airspace. Meanwhile, graphic images from the front lines are making their way back to Russia, despite a hasty censorship campaign, which undermines the official line that Russian forces have suffered minimal losses and caused no harm to civilians. Polls taken before the invasion showed that most Russians feared the possibility of war with Ukraine, and there are few indications that citizens are rallying around the flag now that one has begun.

By launching this unnecessary and costly war, Putin has broken the long-standing social contract whereby citizens give up certain political freedoms and civil liberties in exchange for stability and economic opportunity. Even a full and immediate withdrawal of forces from Ukraine is unlikely to reverse the damage. With the state no longer able to fulfill its obligations, from now on Putin will be forced to rely on ever-increasing repressions to keep citizens in line. There may come a time when enough beleaguered citizens lose their fear of arrest or physical harm that Putin faces a real threat of accountability from the streets—an ironic parallel to the 2013–14 Euromaidan protests that triggered Ukraine’s strategic realignment toward the West.

Meanwhile, as the macroeconomic fallout of sanctions reduces the availability of political rents to secure the loyalty of top officials, Putin will face a harder time preventing elites from defecting. Lacking carrots, he will turn to sticks, but the tolerance threshold of this group has never been tested to the extent it will be in the coming days and weeks. More than ever before, Putin is vulnerable.

Andrew Lohsen is a fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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