Will Putin’s War in Ukraine Continue Without Him?
Will Russia’s war in Ukraine continue if Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves office? Since the invasion in February, there has been ongoing deliberation about how long Putin will remain in power, his hypothetical demise an outcome of failing health or domestic political ouster. Underpinning this deliberation is speculation, or perhaps hope, that without Putin, Russia might be more apt to abandon its war in Ukraine and seek a negotiated peace. Although supported by conventional views of war termination, any such assumption is problematic. History demonstrates that the leader who starts a costly, protracted war is rarely willing to end the war short of victory — but history also shows that leadership change does not always facilitate peace.
For political leaders, the desire to avoid blame and domestic punishment for a failed war can have a powerful effect on war termination decision-making. Per the conventional wisdom, leaders responsible for starting a war are uniquely susceptible to blame and punishment for a how a war ends and are thus prone to keep fighting even with little hope of victory. Accordingly, leadership change is often a necessary precursor to war termination. Such a view may be well-founded, but it does not necessarily follow that new leaders — those who merely inherit an ongoing war — are free from domestic pressures and risks associated with ending the war under less than favorable terms.
Within the most relevant population of wars — those characterized as costly, protracted foreign military interventions — I assessed the decision-making and behaviors of 85 individual wartime leaders, to include a mix of leaders linked to the start of their respective wars and new leaders who took over with the war ongoing. Through review of primary source documents from more than a dozen countries and personal interaction with former government officials and journalists with relevant firsthand knowledge, I found that new leaders remain susceptible to the domestic pressures and risks associated with war termination, or they at least perceive themselves to be at risk and behave accordingly. Particularly, many new leaders behave like their predecessors and prove similarly unable or unwilling to cut the state’s losses and seek peace. This is because the politics of blame associated with war termination is complex and varied, with multiple potential blame narratives extending beyond the leader who starts a failed war.
A wartime transfer of leadership in Russia could go in many different directions. Pundits have identified a host of potential successors, ranging from the outspoken hawk Dmitry Medvedev to Sergei Sobyanin, who has consistently sought to distance himself from Putin’s war in Ukraine. Some have even raised the possibility, even if slim, of imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny replacing Putin. While individual differences certainly matter, the politics of blame associated with war termination does not discriminate: Any new leader who seeks to extricate Russia from Putin’s war likely will face tough domestic hurdles. Russia’s current domestic political environment, as characterized by an intense blame game pitting political versus military leadership, would be especially dangerous for Putin’s successor and disincentive any move to abandon Russia’s war aims in Ukraine and seek peace, at least in the short term. This holds even for a successor who opposed or did not openly support Putin’s war prior to taking office. Thus, Putin’s war may very well continue without Putin.
The Conventional View of Leadership Change and War Termination
Going back more than 70 years, scholars have argued that political leadership change serves as an important, even necessary, condition for the termination of protracted armed conflict given that leaders who start a war generally prove unable or unwilling to end the war short of victory. The predominant explanation for this leadership behavior centers on the logic of political survival, or the idea that political decision-making is influenced by the desire to avoid blame and domestic political punishment for bad policy outcomes. Particularly, leaders who are closely linked to the start of a war are most likely to be held liable by the population and other governing elites — and subsequently punished — if the war ends poorly. Thus, these leaders are prone to keep fighting despite mounting costs and little hope of winning.
As political scientist Sarah Croco explains, “The primary factor in determining a leader’s choice between continuation and termination of the conflict is the probability of punishment if he or she accepts any outcome less than a win.” And specifically, for a leader closely linked to the start of a failed war, the probability of punishment “will almost always be very near one,” whereas for subsequent leaders who merely inherit a failed war, this risk “will most likely be zero.” Shielded from blame, these new leaders “will not face this hard choice” of whether to quit the war or keep fighting. Applied to the case of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the implication is that Putin’s deposal would remove a major hurdle to war termination, with Putin’s successor far more apt to seek peace even if this means abandoning the state’s war aims and accepting military defeat.
Is There a Difference Between Leaders Who Start a War and Those Who Inherit a War?
The leadership change theory of war termination, reiterated in various forms over the years, is widely accepted and effectively represents the conventional wisdom. But the theory is flawed or at least incomplete. One can readily find cases in which political leadership change helped facilitate an end to costly, protracted war. However, even if leadership change is often a necessary condition for war termination, it is rarely a sufficient condition. In other words, war termination is often preceded by a change of leadership, but most wartime changes of leadership do not result in war termination.
For example, scholars point to Mikhail Gorbachev’s accession as key to the Soviet Union’s exit from Afghanistan and likewise note the formation of the Mendès-France government in 1954 as facilitating an end to France’s post-colonial war in Indochina. But Gorbachev was the fourth Soviet premier to preside over the 10-year Afghan conflict, and France experienced no less than nine wartime changes of government before Pierre Mendès-France accepted military defeat and extricated the French army from Indochina. With the 85 cases of political leaders embroiled in wars characterized as costly, protracted foreign military interventions, the data shows that 86 percent of initial leaders responsible for starting a war keep fighting until they either leave office or achieve what can reasonably be interpreted as a win. Amongst those new leaders who merely inherit an ongoing war, 66 percent likewise prove unable or unwilling to terminate short of victory.
Of course, the status of the war matters when a new leader takes over. If the war is going as planned and victory is readily within reach at acceptable cost, there is little incentive for any leader to quit. Of greater interest is how leaders respond once a war has proven more costly and more difficult than expected at the outset, or when the likelihood of success dwindles. While it is difficult to generalize these latter conditions across cases, further analysis into individual cases shows that new leaders elect to keep fighting wars that have degenerated to costly quagmires with little hope of winning. In some cases, new leaders even escalate an ongoing war while in private expressing a belief in the pointlessness of further fighting and a desire to cut the state’s losses and seek peace. Overall, the distinction between leadership types may be statistically significant, but qualitatively, they are not that different, with more than half of new leaders behaving like their predecessors responsible for starting the war.
Why New Leaders Behave Like Their Predecessors
Based on my research, I argue that new leaders behave as if they are at risk of punishment for a failed war because they are at risk, often facing the same hard choice as their predecessors. Absent clear-cut military victory or defeat, the domestic politics of war termination equates to the politics of blame. The leadership change theory of war termination accounts for this dynamic but incorporates a narrow conception of blame that oversimplifies how the domestic audience draws the line of responsibility between policy outcome and political leadership. Particularly, the conventional theory takes for granted that, in a wartime context, the lines trace reflexively back to leadership associated with the start of the war. Deeper research into the politics of blame, however, reveals that how a domestic audience assigns responsibility for policy failure is far more complex and varied.
I propose that there are at least four distinct blame narratives associated with political leadership and war termination. The pretender narrative targets political leadership’s lack of judgement and competence in instigating a failed war. The decision to go to war was misguided and based on faulty assessments or narrow interests, and any assurances of victory made at the outset have proven a façade. In contrast, the bungler narrative maligns political leadership for ineffective prosecution of the war regardless of who started the war. Associated critiques relate to inadequately resourcing the military, tying the military’s hands, or otherwise adopting a “no win” approach. The backstabber narrative cites political leadership for prematurely and unnecessarily terminating a war that was still winnable and still worth fighting. Success remained within reach, but political leadership pulled the plug before the military could finish the job and thus snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Finally, the sellout narrative focuses on political leadership’s failure to procure the best possible outcome despite military defeat, highlighting leadership’s role in an unfair peace settlement that betrays the nation’s sacrifice.
Each of these narratives is distinct, holding political leadership accountable for a failed war in different ways. The key is that only one, the pretender narrative, is constrained to the leader who starts a war, with new leaders still susceptible to blame and domestic repercussions tied to multiple alternative narratives. This remaining risk can have a powerful effect on war termination decision-making and helps explain why so many new leaders behave like their predecessors.
What Does This Mean for Russia’s War in Ukraine?
For Putin, the war in Ukraine could be, effectively, a matter of political survival because defeat could very well lead to his ouster. But the risk of punishment does not just pertain to Putin’s remaining tenure in office. Defeat in Ukraine would significantly taint Putin’s image and long-term legacy. Putin envisions himself as a modern-day Peter the Great and wants to be remembered as such. He sees it as his mission and destiny to return Russia to its rightful status as a world power, erasing the indignity of a loss in the Cold War and subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union. The situation in Ukraine puts this personal legacy at risk, and the West should not underestimate how far Putin will go to stave off defeat.
But what if Putin is deposed with the war ongoing, whether due to declining health or domestic opposition? For any successor, the current state of Russian domestic politics would be a proverbial minefield and disincentivize any move to extricate Russia from the conflict, at least in the short term. According to one Russian journalist, a vicious blame game has erupted in Russia over the flailing special military operation. Particularly, Kremlin officials are working to shift blame from Putin to senior military leaders, effectively “manufacturing a crisis with its Ministry of Defense in an attempt to distance President Vladimir Putin from the stunning retreats and other embarrassing battlefield failures.” Military leadership, already on edge given a rash of senior commander firings, is pushing back, deflecting blame to other parts of the state for providing faulty intelligence and for inadequately resourcing the military, or otherwise tying the military’s hands.
The central role of the military in the politics of blame is especially problematic. For new political leadership seeking to end a protracted war short of achieving the state’s objectives, the support of military leadership is critical given what civil-military relations scholar Peter Feaver refers to as the special moral competence of the armed forces in the context of war termination. Absent this support, new political leadership is more vulnerable to attacks by hawkish elements of the political opposition and more susceptible to backstabber and sellout accusations. But garnering military leadership backing for military withdrawal in such a scenario is no easy task. Even if military leadership is in favor of abandoning the war, military leadership is unlikely to support any such move unless there is a strong civil-military relationship, or civil-military bargain, characterized by mutual trust so that military leadership does not fear being scapegoated by political leadership in an effort to deflect blame. This condition does not currently exist amidst Russia’s vicious blame game, and it would likely take time to build in the wake of a change in political leadership, as history suggests that the Russian military’s sensitivity to scapegoating goes deeper than the current conflict. In the course of Russia’s First Chechen War (1994-1996), for example, Russian Gen. Alexander Lebed declared to the media, “Every time, the orders were explicit and came from the highest level … And every time, when we [the military] had done their dirty work for them [the politicians], they ran away and left us to take all the blame … Believe me, the army will never allow that to happen again.”
Will Putin’s War Continue Without Putin?
If Putin departs office (voluntarily or not) with the war in Ukraine ongoing, his successor may elect to quit fighting, but the decision will not be easy or risk free, and this holds regardless of who replaces Putin, whether it is Medvedev, Sobyanin, or even Navalny. Given his responsibility for starting the war, Putin is highly susceptible to blame and punishment for how the war ends and is apt to keep fighting despite mounting costs and little hope of winning. But any new leader who inherits Putin’s war would not be immune to similar domestic pressures. With any case of costly, protracted war, the politics of blame can have a powerful impact on war termination decision-making and potentially drive new leaders to keep fighting even if they did not support the war prior to taking office. But Russia’s current domestic political environment, with its vicious blame game pitting political versus military leadership, would be especially problematic for a new political leader seeking to extricate Russia from the war. Looking at the historical record, many new leaders in comparable circumstances have decided to keep fighting an ongoing war or else push for peace only to have the extrication process drag on for years. It is difficult and probably pointless to predict the outcome of any wartime change of leadership in the case of Russia’s war in Ukraine. At a minimum, however, the West should not assume a change of leadership would result in an end to the war, at least in the short term, as Putin’s war could very well continue without Putin.
Shawn T. Cochran, PhD, is the is the author of War Termination as a Civil-Military Bargain as well as multiple articles on the domestic politics of war termination. He is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He recently completed 25 years in the Air Force, last serving as the Dean of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.
Photo credit: kremlin.ru