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Can a regime change in Russia end the Russo-Ukrainian war?

It could, but the relationship between leadership change and war termination forecasts an unpredictable future

By: /
28 July, 2023
Battle hardened Ukrainian soldiers based in the Donetsk region await President Zelenskyy during his visit to the front lines in June 2023. Photo Credit: The Presidential Office of Ukraine.
Marshall Palmer
By: Marshall Palmer
Fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny on 23 June 2023 was one of the more bizarre events in recent memory. The unhinged viral ranting. The near-frictionless capture of Rostov-on-Don. The march to Moscow. The afternoon turnaround. Who expected Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to enter the fray and negotiate a deal at the 11th hour? At time of writing, rumors abound that Prigozhin is flying between Belarus and Russia, where alternatively he is either facing a total loss of power or is somehow building a coalition of new power players in the Kremlin. 

It will be a long time before the dust settles for historians to understand exactly what happened. 

One point, however, is clear: in a mafia state where the perception of power can be as important as power itself, Putin’s aura of invincibility has been smashed. Furthermore, members of his inner circle, as well as enterprising, ambitious members of the Russian security services, may be starting to imagine a world without him. Russian dissident groups also used the drama of Prigozhin’s mutiny to reaffirm their agenda for regime change, a policy that appears to be supported by at least some NATO member states, including Canada. 

Given Putin’s future downfall is at least plausible, it is worth asking whether this is something for which NATO and Ukraine should hope and support. Does regime change, or change within the executive leadership, usually lead to war termination? Could his downfall also lead to a full withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukrainian territory and a credible promise by the Russian government never to return?

These are questions that political science can help to answer. For example, social science theories can model the logic of how regime change may lead to war termination and quantitative studies can help to identify general trends. If such a trend can be observed, then one could combine these findings with a focus on Russian politics to help determine whether the Russian case is typical of those general trends or whether it might be an exception. 

So, why might regime change lead to war termination? One reason could be that leaders who start wars may have very different preferences from those who succeed them. Culpable leaders may have a range of reasons not to terminate war. For example, their reputation or their political survival may be tied to victory, or they may be stuck in information bubbles, where positive but false information flows upward. Successors by contrast may be better placed to soberly assess losing military situations. If successors inherit a war that they are not perceived as “owning” then they should have more political freedom to engage in negotiations or accept a face-saving way out. 

During the Korean War, for example, Joseph Stalin remained obstinately in favor of continued fighting, even after the war had ground to stalemate. Stalin’s cult of personality and his coterie of yes-men kept him insulated from the realities on the ground. He believed that any retreat would be interpreted as weakness. After his unexpected death in March 1953, the new Soviet leadership, which did not suffer from these pathologies, quickly made moves to bring the conflict to an end. 

Like Stalin, President Putin is thought to exist within his own information bubble. And, unlike Stalin, Putin owns the Russo-Ukrainian war in ways that Stalin did not during the Korean War, making it harder for him to retreat. Outside of the Kremlin, Russians seem attuned to the fact the war is not going well. This combination of factors suggest that Putin’s successors may be both more willing and able to end the war. 

However, the findings of quantitative research on the generalizability of this argument are at best mixed or incomplete. In a 1996 study, for example, Scott Bennett used a dataset of wars from 1816 to 1988 to discover that interstate “rivalries” usually end upon regime change in one of the rivalrous states. That said, his research did not consider the discrete effects of leadership turnover in authoritarian states. Moreover, he found that regime change during war (which is a sub-type of “rivalry”) did not have any additional effect on likelihood of rivalry termination. 

A subsequent study in 2012, which focused specifically on war termination, did find that regime change generally increases the probability of war termination. However, these findings appeared stronger for leadership changes in democracies rather than autocracies. On the other hand, Shawn Cochrane used a separate dataset to find that new leaders often face the same institutional constraints as their predecessors. In 66 percent of the cases Cochrane examined, new leaders were unable or willing to terminate short of victory.

Then there is the broader literature on foreign imposed regime change (FIRC). Suffice to say, the evidence here is also mixed. One major study found that that FIRCs tend to lead to an end to conflict and an enduring peace, while another finds that FIRCs usually cause renewed conflicts between the interveners and the targeted country. Another wash.

Studies of FIRCs are, however, clear on secondary effects that can follow from regime change. There is an abundance of research showing, for example, that regime changes, especially if foreign backed, could lead to mass killings and civil war

In short, the general trends are not terribly supportive of the conclusion that an internally driven regime change would lead to war termination. Furthermore, none of this research speaks to the cessation of conflict on terms favourable to the defending state, and a foreign-supported regime change could be very risky. 

How should these trends be viewed in the context of the Russo-Ukraine war?

One major challenge specific to Russia is that Putin’s downfall is unlikely to result in a democratic transition. Pro-democratic dissident groups, like the one led by the authors of a recent Foreign Affairs article, have little support in Russia. The Kremlin has also crushed independent civil society groups that could organize and support a democratic revolution. Alexei Navalny, an opposition figurehead, is in a prison in Siberia. Meanwhile, nearly 900,000 people have emigrated from Russia. Russians, up against a brutal police state, are choosing flight over fight. Abroad, dissident groups are characterized by infighting, while diasporic communities are not especially condemnatory of Russian behavior.

Therefore, those best advantaged to succeed Putin are likely to come from the patchwork of security services: the military, the Federal Security Service (FSB), various mercenary groups in Russia, and perhaps khanate leaders, like Ramzan Kadyrov of the Chechen Republic. None of these players are democrats but their attitudes towards the war will vary. Some, like Prigozhin or Kadyrov, are hardliners. They would use their position at the top to reorganize Russian forces and bring battle to the enemy. Others may be more pessimistic and willing to engage in a face-saving retreat from occupied Ukraine. 

Ultimately, though, it is difficult to know who would rise to the top in a Death of Stalin – esque leadership struggle. 

On the other hand, a power struggle in Moscow could encourage Russia’s long-suffering national liberation movements to make a bid for independence. From the perspective of the defending army in Ukraine, such chaos in Russia would be welcomed. The Russian military, deployed in Ukraine, would need to be diverted to re-establish government authority. 

Of course, the human tragedy in Russia would be immense and even if a political resolution was not forthcoming, Ukraine would be able to freeze the conflict on its terms. Yet it would trade one crisis for another, as civil unrest in Russia could create a massive refugee crisis. Some nuclear analysts believe that Russia’s nuclear stockpile would remain relatively secure, but since no nuclear state has fallen into civil war before that proposition remains untested. New leadership in Russia, whatever form that takes, may also embody a highly militarized ideology, and could rise to power based on revanchism and a stab-in-the-back myth. This could lead to a renewal of conflict.

There is probably little that Ukraine or NATO can do to orchestrate regime change in Russia other than what it is doing now through sanctions and continuing to provide wide-ranging support to Ukraine. The decision to overthrow Putin will be made by Russians, influenced but not determined by their assessment of how western countries might react. The most damning blow that can be dealt to Putin remains a decisive defeat on battlefield. One that even he could no longer deny. Like Saddam Hussein in 1991 or Slobodan Milosevic in 1999, he might choose to retreat and take a deal, on terms acceptable to the Ukrainians, to stave off a crumbling regime.

The most likely path towards a lasting and just peace in Ukraine is therefore one achieved through a Ukrainian military breakthrough at some point. As a result, western policy should remain predicated on the provision of arms and training to Ukraine to obtain maximum leverage should the two parties choose to enter negotiations.

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