Home Gambling Putin underestimates the risks for the Russian political system.

Putin underestimates the risks for the Russian political system.

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But what would a Russian invasion of Ukraine mean for Russia itself? War inevitably affects domestic politics – and our research suggests that a war in Ukraine could change the nature of Russia’s authoritarian system.

Our research shows that autocrats resolve this trade-off by balancing the use of information manipulation and repression: censorship first, but if that approach fails, repression. How that plays out depends on public sentiment. When citizens are inclined to oppose government policy, censorship does not help much and the likelihood of repression is high.

Russians show little support for long war with Ukraine

So what does this mean for Putin’s regime, and how are Russians likely to react to a war in Ukraine? For the Kremlin, the most optimistic outcome is that a war would be quick and decisive, causing the Russian population to rally around the flag, as was the case after Putin’s capture of Crimea in 2014. In this scenario, Putin’s approval ratings, pressured by years of economic stagnation and an ineffective response to the pandemic, would rise.

Such a scenario is not impossible, but it is unlikely. An invasion of Ukraine in 2022 would be nothing like the lightning strike over Crimea in 2014, or even the bitter conflict in the Donbass that followed. Ukraine probably won’t be able to stop a full-scale assault, but it can inflict significant casualties. With help from the West, Ukrainian insurgents would continue to send Russian soldiers home in body bags, making a protracted conflict likely.

And Putin did little to prepare the Russian public for such losses. The Russians would have little appetite for a war with Ukraine, in what would be Russia’s biggest military conflict since the Cold War. Opinion polls show declining support for the conflict in eastern Ukraine which will soon enter its ninth year, with less than 10% of the Russian population in favor of open conflict with Ukrainian troops.

If the war is long, Putin will try to censor outside information

To forestall the loss of popular support, Kremlin spin-docs would undoubtedly construct a narrative that justifies war – that Russian troops offer protection to a Russian ethnic minority threatened with genocide, for example, much like the story justifying Russian intervention in Georgia on behalf of South Ossetians in 2008. Yet such propaganda is unlikely to succeed without unprecedented censorship of outside information. It is therefore unlikely that the few remaining independent media in Russia will survive a prolonged conflict.

There would, of course, be other voices trying to bring news to the Russian public, including through social media. To prevent this, the government would likely shut down YouTube and other channels where such voices have communicated their views. Those who nevertheless published information about Russian casualties would face physical reprisals, as happened at the start of the Donbass war.

If censorship doesn’t work, repression will increase

Yet even such extreme measures can backfire, as reports of Russian casualties and the Ukrainian opposition trickle in. If so, Putin will turn to the dictator’s last resort: open repression. Having failed to maintain popular support for the war and with his own presidency in jeopardy, Putin would impose new restrictions to cling to power, just as his neighbor Alexander Lukashenko did in Belarus. The final result ? We could see a far more autocratic Russia than at any point in the post-Soviet era.

Russian security forces would undoubtedly suppress any street demonstrations against the war in Ukraine and imprison Russians who speak out against the regime. Activists already in prison – most notably Alexei Navalny – would be at greater risk of torture and death. Russia’s opposition parties – which the Kremlin has so far tolerated, managed and even created to maintain a semblance of political competition – may find they have outlived their usefulness. The FSB, the security agency that is already more powerful than any institution except the presidency itself, would become even more powerful.

Having embarked on this path, it would be difficult for Putin to go back. Any hope for a more open regime would necessarily await Putin’s ouster from power, or a natural death in power.

Putin is playing his future – and that of Russia

Putin could be betting on the first optimistic scenario above – that a quick Russian victory generates increased popular support. Alternatively, he could bet he can manipulate public opinion even in the face of major battle losses. Finally, he may be betting that repression would work cheaply. What happens to the Russian political system depends on the right bet.

Another Russian invasion would be terrible for Ukraine. It could also be terrible for Russia, whose people could suffer the loss of all remaining political and civil liberties after two decades of Putin’s rule. The stakes of the current crisis extend far beyond Ukraine’s borders – those who strive to avoid conflict are fighting for the future of Russia as well as that of Ukraine.

Scott Gehlbach is a professor in the Department of Political Science and the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

Zhaotian Luo is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago.