As It Happens·Q&A

If Russia loses its war in Ukraine, Putin's career is over: professor

If Russia is defeated in Ukraine, it will likely spell the end of President Vladimir Putin’s political career, says a Moscow-based professor and outspoken critic of the war. 

Most Russians remain indifferent to the war — but that could change, says Grigory Yudin

A man in a black suit and tie looks off to one side.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing scrutiny from within his own country as his forces face mounting losses in Ukraine. (Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images)

If Russia is defeated in Ukraine, it will likely spell the end of President Vladimir Putin's political career, says a Moscow professor and outspoken critic of the war. 

In recent weeks, Russia has been losing ground in its invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian forces have had a series of strategic victories, liberating towns and regions from Russian occupation.

Putin, meanwhile, has faced scrutiny from within his own country. A group of councilors in St. Petersburg wrote a letter accusing him of "high treason" and calling on him to step down. Russian pop star Alla Pugacheva has also spoken out against the war, asking her government to label her a "foreign agent" alongside her husband.

Grigory Yudin is a sociologist and political scientist at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences who has been arrested for protesting the war. He says the majority of Russians remain indifferent to the war. But if the country continues to face defeats on the battlefield, that could change.

Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

You've said that there are three distinct groups in Russia, three different ways of thinking about this war. Can you take us through what those groups are, who they are, and how they're reacting to these recent Ukrainian gains?

One of them is an aggressive minority, which [has] support for this war, which demands more active action, demands mobilization. And these people are still very much involved. They're following the war. And some of them would even go to the front lines, perhaps. 

Now you have an opposite minority ... of the dissenters who are against this war. And they're protesting as much as they can. Of course, the opportunities are very, very limited in Russia now. And they are not that vocal, well, first of all, because they are depressed, and then because the independent media have been shut down in Russia with the outbreak of the war.

And then you have the majority … [which is] actually pretty much indifferent. It values its everyday life. It defers all sorts of political decisions to the president. If he thinks it should be a special military operation, that's fine. If he thinks that there should be something else, that's also fine. And these people don't want to have anything in common with politics or with war.

The first group — the group that is emotionally, sometimes even financially, involved in this war — of course, it reacts strongly to those setbacks. And there are very difficult conversations within this group. Some of those people are saying that only a total mobilization would save Russia. Others would say that, actually, the defeat is looming no matter what.

But the majority, the passive majority, is actually pretty much ignorant about that. There are people who wouldn't want to know much about how the war is progressing. And, for them, the news on the state-controlled channels … wouldn't disclose anything about those setbacks.

Three men in military fatigues atop a tank littered with bottles and cloths.
Ukrainian servicemen stand atop a destroyed Russian tank in a retaken area near the border with Russia in Kharkiv region of Ukraine on Saturday. (Leo Correa/The Associated Press)

Is that majority that you speak of — the one that is tuned out and indifferent — is that why Putin is able to continue even in the face of these Ukrainian advances?

He actually needs two of these three groups to continue. Because he needs the passive majority to stay away from what he's doing and not ask questions. And he persuades people that life as usual continues, and there will be, of course, no economic downfall.

But he also needs the smaller group, the aggressive minority, because it is this group that produces this feeling of Russia being under existential threat, waging an existential battle.

A man with curly hair and a reddish beard holds his hand to his chin.
Grigory Yudin is a sociologist and political scientist at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. (Yuri Terik)

The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, last week was saying: "The special military operation continues and will continue until we've achieved all objectives laid out at the beginning." What are Vladimir Putin's options if his military doesn't deliver on those promises?

I think the discourse was stuck in this nonsense from the very beginning of this war. And nobody knows, of course, including Russia, what [it means]. Basically, the message it conveys is that everything's going to be fine. And this is the message conveyed to the majority.

Well, for now, the majority is still willing to believe that. But if there are further setbacks — which seem increasingly likely, of course, at [this] point — that will be a really difficult situation for Putin and the people around him. I bet that he will not be able to survive a real military defeat in Ukraine. That will be the end of his political career.

How are you able to speak out on these issues?... You speak quite openly. You're offering analysis and criticism, when we know that that's not necessarily a safe thing to do for many Russians. 

You are not asking why Ukrainians are fighting for their country. 

I mean, I think it's natural. Russia is my country. I love ... my country. And, I mean, I think it is worth taking a risk of my life for my country. 

What these people are doing now is a complete, utter destruction of Russia. It's suicidal. So we have to speak about that. And I'm sure that more and more people will be realizing the nightmare that these terrible decisions are plunging Russia into. So at least speaking up about that is a duty.

When you say [Putin] wouldn't survive a military failure, he is a very deft politician and politicians spin things. Is there any way you can see the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin trying to spin, you know, that it's their choice to retreat, or they've accomplished what they wanted to accomplish?

Well, obviously, they would try to do that, try to sell a defeat as a victory. But I guess too much [has been] put at stake in this war.

Putin had an economic model that actually worked. He had a very strict hierarchical system that worked. Now, this is no longer the case. And the only justification he can come up with for this war is that when Russia wins this war, Russia will win big, and the resources available to Russia will increase significantly.

Now, if it proves to be wrong, if it proves to be a failure [and] that Putin actually sacrificed the whole country, the whole political and economic model, for nothing, there will be plenty of people near him who would be happy to get rid of him. 

Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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