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No End in Sight to ‘Beginning of Putin’s End’

August 10, 2022
Simon Saradzhyan

When scanning commentaries on post-Soviet Eurasia from English- and Russian-language sources, certain words or phrases stand out as fads that later fade away. So when RFE/RL described on July 30, 2022, a “bold prediction” by Russia expert Iver Neumann that we are witnessing “the beginning of the end” of Vladimir Putin’s regime, it seemed like one of the newest fads that have emerged after Putin’s decision to (re-)invade Ukraine in February. We decided to reaffirm that hunch as Neumann’s prediction began to gain traction in other media. With no skills or means immediately available for meta-analysis, we searched in Factiva, Google, Yandex and other open sources for “beginning of the end”+ “Putin” and “начало+конца”+ Путин.

The search revealed that proclaiming the beginning of Putin’s end was a trend long before his troops marched into Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. In fact, the earliest such proclamation we found was made on Oct. 26, 2002: a column by Moscow-based sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky that asks in its headline whether the Russian authorities’ mishandling of the deadly hostage crisis at Moscow’s Dubrovka theater during the second full year of Putin’s presidency meant the beginning of his political end. 

In total, we have found 38 predictions of the beginning of Putin’s end made from Dec. 31, 1999, (Putin’s ascent to the presidency) to July 30, 2022, including 22 made before the invasion of Ukraine (Table 1) and 16 made after the invasion (Table 2).

Many of the pre-invasion predictions that we found in texts and/or their headlines1 were made during federal electoral campaigns in Russia or in the aftermath of these elections. Their authors typically accused Putin and whichever party he supported of either campaigning unfairly or winning illegally (or both) when explaining why the beginning of Putin’s end was near. But it wasn’t all about elections. The beginning of Putin’s end was also forecast over his government’s handling of hostage crises (2002 and 2004), the conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky (2005), the decline in Russians’ living standards (2011), a faltering economy (2012), Russia’s intervention in Syria (2015) and even Putin’s mysterious disappearance for several days in March 2015. 

As for the post-invasion predictions, all 17 that we found pointed to the invasion as the primary reason behind the beginning of Putin’s end (interestingly, the first was made only hours after Putin announced the launch of his “special military operation” shortly before 6:00am Moscow time on Feb. 24).

All but one of the politicians, experts, authors and journalists whose predictions we found did not specify when their forecasts might materialize. Moreover, none of these forecasters defined what the “beginning of the end” could look like so that we can recognize it when it happens. That makes it impossible to ascertain whether these predictions may materialize or not. As for future predictions, those who feel like making one today might find it useful to factor in the following three propositions (all gleaned from Russia Matters’ recent digests) when pondering whether the invasion of Ukraine (or another reason) has sparked the beginning of Putin’s end:

  • First, the Russian economy’s performance in 2022 has exceeded the IMF’s expectations. The IMF's latest World Economic Outlook upgraded Russia's GDP estimate for this year by a remarkable 2.5 percentage points, predicting it would decline by 6% this year rather than by 8.5% as previously estimated. "Russia's economy is estimated to have contracted during the second quarter by less than previously projected, with crude oil and non-energy exports holding up better than expected," the IMF report said.
  • Second, some of Russia’s own best thinkers—who have no love lost for Putin—and some of the country’s top business leaders acknowledge that Putin has actually strengthened his grip on power as elites continue to support him.
  • Last, but not the least, when it comes to mortality, not much has changed since The Onion2 shockingly cited WHO as admitting that “despite the enormous efforts of doctors, rescue workers and other medical professionals worldwide, the global death rate remains constant at 100 percent.” So, for now, per William Burns’ July 20, 2022, diagnosis, 69-year-old Putin is “too healthy.” (And Burns is not alone in refraining from banking on Putin’s death. “[D]o not count on the premise that Putin is about to die and that the economic sanctions will kill Russia,” former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma said Aug. 4.)

Putin’s rule will end one day, one way or another. But perhaps MI6’s former chief Richard Dearlove had a point when he said in early March 2022: “It may be the beginning of the end for Putin, but the end might be a very, very long time coming."

Table 1

Predictions of (and questions about) the beginning of the end for Putin prior to the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, in chronological order:

Context/perceived reasons behind the proposition:

Moscow-based sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky: "Is This the Beginning Of the End for Putin?" (The Moscow Times, 10.28.22)

Russian authorities’ mishandling of the Dubrovka hostage crisis in Moscow during which hundreds died.

Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky wrote in a commentary, entitled “Sunset of Vladimir Putin”: “Putin in his sixth presidential address consciously or unconsciously announced the beginning of the end of his political era.” (Vedomosti, 04.26.05)

Putin’s decision to trade reforms for stability would alienate his supporters, creating a sense of hopelessness among Russians in what would eventually “end in a revolution.”

Scandinavian economist Anders Aslund wrote a commentary, entitled “The beginning of the end for Putin.” (South China Morning Post, 09.30.04)

Aslund criticized Putin’s handling of the deadly hostage crisis in Beslan in September 2004.

Former Yukos shareholder Leonid Nevzlin: "The verdict is the beginning of the end for Putin." (AP/The Moscow Times, 06.01.05)

Conviction of Yukos’ co-owners Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev.

Russian opposition leader Irina Khakamada: “I don’t think this is the beginning of the end. I think this is the first stage of the beginning of the end ... authoritarian regimes always end badly if they do not reconfigure themselves in time, following the modernist path.” (Zerkalo, 12.05.07)

Alleged rigging of the December 2007 parliamentary elections in Russia and the absence of a push for modernization by Putin’s regime.

Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili: “We saw yesterday how they booed Putin. This is the beginning of the end for authoritarian rule in Russia.” (PIK Channel via Sputnik, 11.23.11)

Saakashvili was referring to Putin being booed at a wrestling match in Russia after he announced his intention to replace Medvedev in the Kremlin.

 

Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin: "It is the beginning of the end, but he will fight to preserve the system." (RFE/RL, 12.05.11)

“Putin has ceased to be a magician wielding a magic wand," Oreshkin explained in comments made after Putin’s decision to return to the Kremlin. "His popularity is declining and this creates an unusual and potentially dangerous situation.”

Russian opposition leader Yevgenia Chirikova: “Putin is ridiculous. This is the beginning of the end of the Putin regime.” (Reuters, 12.15.11)

In response to Putin mocking Moscow's “condom-wearing” protesters during his campaigning in December 2011 after announcing his decision to return to the Kremlin.

Former Russian PM Mikhail Kasyanov said he felt it was the beginning of the end for Putin. (Press Trust of India/The Economic Times, 12.18.11)

“For the first time I have no doubt that if I or one of my colleagues was registered as a presidential candidate we would definitely win in the second round of voting. Putin has no doubt of that too, which is why he is afraid of us," Kasyanov said in reference to the upcoming 2012 presidential elections.

Author Masha Gessen: “I think it's the beginning of the end for Putin. How long this process will last is hard to tell. But I think it is more likely to be a matter of months rather than years.” (Telegraph Magazine, 02.25.12)

Gessen was reacting to the massive anti-Putin protests that began in fall 2011 and continued into winter 2012.

The Economist editorial team’s Leader product: “The beginning of the end of Putin.” (The Economist, 03.03.12)

“His time is running out... if he cannot bring himself to reform the state or the economy, if he cannot harness middle-class desire for change, if he cannot see the demonstrations as anything more than a threat to be contained and crushed, then the prospect for President Putin's next term is grim indeed. … A wise man with a sense of his own destiny would now be thinking carefully about his legacy and his successor,” the Economist explained.

Financial Times editorial board: The March 2012 reelection of Putin “marks the beginning of what is in all probability his final six-year term; the beginning of the end of the Putin era.” (Financial Times, 03.04.12)

FT editors saw growing discontent with Putin in Russia as well as his declining popularity and predicted that he would not pursue the necessary measures needed to alleviate that discontent.

Russian opposition leader Boris Vishnevsky: “This is proof of fear. … The experience of other authoritarian regimes says: this is the beginning of the end.” (Novaya Gazeta, 03.05.12)

The alleged rigging of the first round of the presidential elections in Russia in 2012, which Putin was declared to have won.

Stratfor founder George Friedman sees Putin’s mysterious disappearance as the beginning of the end for a Russian president whose prestige, like the Russian economy, is declining by the day. (Delovaya Stolitsa, 03.20.15) (as posted by Dsnews.ua)

Putin's mysterious disappearance for several days in March 2015.

German MP Jürgen Trittin: “With Putin's re-election, the beginning of the end of the Putin era begins. And we must be prepared for the fact that Russia will change, that there will be a successor.” (Deutsche Welle, 03.17.18)

 

Trittin did not offer any explicit explanation of why he held such a view.

Former British Ambassador to Russia Tony Brenton: “This is the beginning of the end of Vladimir Putin.” (Telegraph, 01.17.20)

In Brenton’s interpretation, Putin’s announcement of a series of constitutional amendments in January 2020 that would transfer significant power from the president to the prime minister “made it clear that he is ready to leave the presidency in 2024.” This made the announcement of the constitutional amendments “genuinely historic, signaling the beginning of the end of 20 years of Putin rule,” Brenton wrote.

 

French member of the European Parliament Bernard Guetta: “The beginning of the end of a reign in Russia,” (European View, April 2021)

“The muscular young avenger has aged. He has become tiresome. Big cities and younger generations—the useful Russia—have now slipped from his grasp,” Guetta explained.

The Warsaw Institute Review: “This is the end of democracy in Russia, even the sham one, but also the beginning of the end of Putin’s rule.” (04.18.21)

No explicit explanation given, but when listing difficulties faced by Putin, the WIR team mentioned decline in living standards, some public discontent with rigged elections.

P.S. You can also find assessments that not only Putin’s regime is collapsing, but Russia itself is also in agony. Recent examples include:

 

 

Russian political scientist Lilia Shevtsvova: “Russia’s agony has begun. It could be a nasty ride not just for Russia, but for the rest of the world as well.” (Brookings Institution, 03.17.15)

No explicit information given.

Trinity University professor David W. Lesch: “Fifty years from now, historians may identify Russia’s 2015 push in Syria as the beginning of the end of Putinism, just as the 1957 landing was the beginning of the end of Nasserism.” (Foreign Policy, 10.06.15)

Russia’s intervention in Syria.

Jamestown Foundation senior fellow Janusz Bugajski: “NATO should prepare contingencies for both the dangers and the opportunities that Russia's fragmentation will present.” (The Hill, 01.09.19)

“Russia’s economy is stagnating... Although economic performance alone is insufficient to measure susceptibility to collapse, rising social, ethnic and regional pressures indicate that Russia is heading toward fragmentation.”

 

Russian opposition leader Gary Kasparov: “Russia Is in Agony, but Putin’s Dictatorship Is Going Down.” (Foreign Policy, 01.26.21)

“History doesn’t favor dictators; dictators go down,” Kasparov explained.

 

Table 2

Predictions of the beginning of the end for Putin following the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, in chronological order. All these predictions were made in the context of Russia’s invasion and/or Ukraine’s/the West’s response to it, citing the invasion as a/the reason for the proposition:

John Hopkins University professor David Rothkopf, "Ukraine Invasion by Russia Is the Beginning of the End for Putin and His Friends." (Daily Beast, 02.24.22)

Would-be British PM Liz Truss “suggested the Russian invasion of Ukraine could mark the ‘beginning of the end’ for Vladimir Putin.” (Independent, 02.27.22)

Kennan Institute Senior Adviser Mykhailo Minakov: “The War on Ukraine: The Beginning of the End of Putin’s Russia.” (Wilson Center, 02.28.22)

CNAS senior fellow Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Michigan State University professor Erica Frantz: “The Beginning of the End for Putin?” (Foreign Affairs, 03.02.22)

Former MI6 chief Richard Dearlove: “It may be the beginning of the end for Putin, but the end might be a very, very long time coming." (Telegraph, 03.03.22)

Retired Lt. Col Alexander Vindman: “This is the 'beginning of the end' for Putin.” (The Hill, 03.03.22)

Author Brian E. Frydenborg: “The Beginning of the End of Putin?” (Small Wars Journal, 03.08.22)

President of Latvia Egils Levits said  that the invasion of Ukraine is the beginning of the end of the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin. (The Baltic Times, 03.07.22)

Former Russian PM Mikhail Kasyanov said "so long as Ukraine continues to ‘stand up and continues to defend itself and win this war, it means it is already the beginning of Putin's era end,’ predicting President Putin will have ‘maximum two years’ in the Kremlin." (LBC, 03.26.22) (Kasyanov also sensed the beginning of the end for Putin back in 2011, see Table 1.)

Ex-MI6 agent Christopher Steele: “Ukraine Is the Beginning of the End for Putin.” (Haaretz, 04.10.22)

Russian opposition figure Vladimir Ashurkov: “The beginning of the end of Putin started some time ago.” (Business Insider, 04.27.22)

Author Matija Šerić: “Invasion Of Ukraine: The Beginning Of The End Of Putin’s Russia.” (Eurasia Review, 05.16.22)

Russian satirist Viktor Shenderovich noted that now we are witnessing the beginning of the end of Putin's rule, but, alas, Ukraine will have to pay for the fall of the empire. He joked that from Kyiv, the mother of Russian cities, everything began for Russia, and it was Kyiv that should finish it. (Cursor Info, 05.18.22)

PhD candidate Joshua Kroeker: “Putin's hold on Russia: the beginning of the end.” (New Eastern Europe, 05.24.22)

Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash: “The evening before, he says: ‘I told my colleagues at 11pm: ‘Putin won’t invade, because if he does it will be the beginning of the end for him. It will be the end of his regime.’” (FT, 07.29.22)

Director of Norway’s Fridof Nansen Institute Iver Neumann “boldly predicts that Putin’s refusal to reform the country’s economy, magnified by the current invasion of its neighbor, could be ‘the beginning of the end’ of his regime.” (RFE/RL, 07.30.22)

Footnotes

  1. While we know that editors are often the ones who write headlines, we also know that authors typically get to approve the proposed headlines.
  2. We continue to cite The Onion even though they shortsightedly rejected a proposal one of us made in the early 2000s to establish a Russian version while acknowledging that some of the real news out of Russia appeared more extreme than The Onion’s at the time.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors quoted. Photo shared under a Pixabay license.