The war in Ukraine is taking longer and causing more losses than Vladimir Putin had expected. But what does that mean for the Russian President? Marina Henke, Professor of International Relations, explains in an interview with FOCUS Online what domestic political power the Kremlin ruler now has, who could pose a threat to him and how brutally he is cementing his leadership role.

In view of the sluggish progress of the war in Ukraine, with military setbacks, many dead soldiers and Russia’s increasing isolation, the question is becoming ever more urgent: How much longer can Vladimir Putin remain as Kremlin leader? Does he have to fear that the costly and so far moderately successful invasion in the neighboring country will cost him his reputation, maybe even his office? In English: Are there any signs that the red regent will soon be overthrown – by frustrated followers or by the Russian people?

“On the whole, we cannot expect Putin to be overthrown so quickly – neither by a revolt from within his circle of power nor by a broad protest movement from the population,” says Marina Henke, Professor of International Relations at the Hertie School Berlin. in conversation with FOCUS Online. The 39-year-old is convinced: “No matter how the war ends, Putin will remain President of Russia.”

Theoretically, there are two ways to chase Putin out of office. One would be that Putin’s inner circle, or the military and security apparatus, would turn their backs on him and stage some kind of coup. Marina Henke: “In the German media, it is often said that members of the Russian security and defense apparatus, the so-called siloviki, are a class, a kind of unit that could take over power after Putin. But that is a fallacy.”

In Putin’s head: the logic and arbitrariness of an autocrat

The various organizations – secret services, the Russian National Guard, police units, security agencies – are in competition with each other. “There is no cooperation and no cohesion. They monitor and control each other, there are cliques and fights, distrust and rivalries at all levels.” And that’s exactly what Putin is playing into the cards, the security expert believes. “If someone from the National Guard is planning to overthrow Putin, that does not mean that the secret services and other authorities are involved. It would be much more likely that they would blow up the plot and deliver those responsible to the knife.”

Since taking office in 2000, Putin has mastered the art of creating structures around himself that are designed to maintain his power and nip in the bud any attempt to scratch his position. When he was appointed President of Russia by Boris Yeltsin, everyone expected him to fit 100 percent into Yeltsin’s clique, the so-called “family” of oligarchs and other supporters, Henke said. “But to everyone’s surprise, Putin very quickly turned against the oligarchs in particular and prosecuted some of them for tax evasion or other reasons.” The signal was clear: “I am now president and have the last word. Either you submit – or you go to jail or exile!”

So Putin made things clear very early on and built up a hierarchy within his regime that makes him almost unassailable. “This hierarchy continues to this day,” says security expert Henke to FOCUS Online. “People around Putin are very, very loyal. They know very well that if they don’t stand by Putin’s side, then their careers will be over and their livelihoods will probably be destroyed.” The same applies to the oligarchs, who owe their wealth primarily to Putin. “They are afraid that if Putin is no longer in power, they will end up in court and everything will be taken away from them. That’s why there is a great sense of togetherness.”

For these reasons, the professor of international relations does not believe that anyone from her own ranks could become a threat to Putin. “I think it is very unlikely that anyone from the closest circle will oppose him.” High-ranking military or secret service officials who were fired by Putin because of mistakes in the Ukraine war do not pose a great risk either. “I don’t want to rule out the possibility that frustration in the Russian military will grow so much at some point that anti-Putin currents will emerge,” says Henke. “But in my opinion, the dismissal of a few generals is not enough.” Rather, the president still enjoys a high reputation among the troops because he has invested a lot of money in the modernization of the Russian army.

Putin also feels the support of the Russian people. “There is no enthusiasm for the war, but rather a certain indifference, almost apathy,” says Marina Henke. But according to recent polls, more than 80 percent of the population would support the war. The main reason for this is probably that the people in Russia know little about the true background of the war and instead get their information solely from Putin’s propaganda machine. There they also learn that the military “special operation” in Ukraine is not running smoothly. The crucial thing, however, is that Putin speaks openly about the reasons for the war.

While it was initially about the “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine, he now blames the West and NATO. Expert Henke: “With this war, Putin has strengthened the narrative that NATO, that the West, that the Americans want to destroy Russia – and Russia must defend itself against that.”

In connection with the Ukraine war, he believes, Putin can now present “for the first time concrete evidence” of the West’s alleged hostility towards Russia: the economic sanctions, military support for Ukraine, most recently the statements on the expansion of NATO territory to include Finland and Sweden. Henke: “If the Russian population is constantly confronted with this attitude in the media, then the mood inevitably arises: Now we have to stick together and defend ourselves against the enemy in the West – under leader Vladimir Putin.”

The political expert on FOCUS Online: “Putin was able to strengthen his domestic political position here.” Even if he should not achieve the war goals he initially formulated, with his anti-Western course he is more powerful in Russia than ever before. According to a poll, Putin’s popularity with the people rose from 71 percent in February to 83 percent in April. “From the start, the main goal of Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine was to strengthen his regime domestically,” estimates Marina Henke. “He acted out of domestic political compulsion to uphold the enemy image of the evil, aggressive West. He was absolutely successful with this course.” The expert predicts that Putin will continue to seize every opportunity to brand the West as Russia’s great adversary.

“No matter what NATO does, Putin will always find an excuse to paint the West as an enemy and an aggressor. He needs this image of the enemy in order to survive domestically,” explains Henke. Even if NATO withdrew completely from Ukraine and countries like Finland and Sweden were not accepted into the defense alliance – Putin would always find new reasons for his aggression and, if necessary, provoke NATO again and again. “If he wants to portray NATO badly, then he does it. What NATO does is completely irrelevant,” said Henke.

With this method, Putin will probably get the Russian people behind him for a long time. And anyone who is not in line is threatened with severe reprisals – from being clubbed down at demonstrations to poison attacks and several years in prison to the complete destruction of family and friends. The fate of the Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny is exemplary. The best-known opponent of Kremlin boss Putin barely survived an assassination attempt with the chemical warfare agent Novichok in August 2020 and recovered from it in Germany. When he voluntarily returned to Moscow in early 2021, he was immediately arrested. The 45-year-old has been in prison ever since.