How Long Will Putin Remain in Power?

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner group’s march toward Moscow on June 23 marked the beginning of the end for Putin’s regime in Russia. In exchange for stopping his troops short of Moscow, Putin promised Prigozhin he could leave for Belarus and face no charges for his rebellion. Many observers, including me, thought that Prigozhin would not live out the year.

Prigozhin’s recent death is a sign of Putin’s weakness. Despite Putin’s denial of any involvement, too many of those who have questioned Putin have met untimely deaths. Putin made a promise to Prigozhin and went back on his word. That is a sign of weakness and a sign that even among his inner circle, he cannot be trusted.

Coups and revolutions are very difficult to predict because even if most people oppose the existing leadership, any one individual who expresses dissatisfaction, as Prigozhin did, risks the wrath of the current holder(s) of power. (Here is a good book on the subject.)

The result is that most people can be opposed to the current government. Yet, nobody has an incentive to act against it. Oppressive regimes remain in power because of the threat they pose to challengers.

If sufficient opposition becomes so apparent that regime change appears likely, those who were silently in opposition will make their loyalty known, which can result in a successful rebellion. An excellent example is the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Few experts saw that coming, but once the opposition appeared likely to succeed, those in support rose up. And once that happened in East Germany, other oppressed populations behind the Iron Curtain took that as a sign. The situation in Russia today is similar to that in East Germany prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Putin’s rule is backed by a group of oligarchs who have benefited economically from Putin’s power, but Western sanctions have hurt their wealth and limited their ability to travel. They no longer have access to their yachts and vacation homes on the Mediterranean Sea.

Quite obviously, if one of them poses any perceived threat to Putin’s regime, that oligarch’s life will be in danger. Talking among themselves risks being outed by others who fear Putin’s wrath. There is a collective action problem. All of them might wish to replace Putin, but each one of them is unwilling to risk initiating any action.

Prigozhin’s death ups the perceived threat Putin poses to those oligarchs. It gives them an incentive to find allies in the military to displace Putin. Should it appear that those who want Putin replaced can succeed, those oligarchs will rapidly unite and switch sides, ending Putin’s reign.

When will that happen? For the reasons I stated above, successful rebellions are difficult to predict. Prigozhin’s march on Moscow gave those oligarchs a chance to step up and side with Prigozhin, but they didn’t take it. With Putin’s growing signs of weakness, perhaps the next challenger will win over a critical mass and succeed.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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