Forever Putinism has its vulnerabilities. Any regime that promises to live forever cannot let itself be perceived as failing. To endure, Putin’s regime must maintain the illusion not just of its inevitability, which it has already achieved, but also of its own immortality, which it cannot achieve. Visible cracks in the myth have the potential to undermine the myth itself. Putin’s presentation of himself as an omnipotent savior—the only one who can steer Russia’s destiny—thus presents a long-term risk for the regime.

BY  for Foreign Affairs

In 2012, Vladimir Putin, after four years as prime minister, once again became Russia’s president. Many Russians resented his engineered return: before the 2012 presidential election, “Russia Without Putin” had been a popular sign at protest rallies. Their discontent had something to do with Putin himself and much to do with Russia’s evolving political system. There was no institution or clause in the Russian constitution that could constrain Putin. Nobody stood in his way.

Early-stage Putinism was marked by a mix of public complacency and indifference. Complacency flourished when the Russian economy expanded between 2000 and 2008, the first eight years of Putin’s presidency, enabling the rise of a Russian middle class. Indifference, which the Kremlin inculcated in part by discouraging public participation in politics, assisted in the regime’s creeping authoritarianism. One need not love Putin; it was sufficient to merely not care how he stayed in power. By 2022, Russia had arrived at something new: wartime Putinism. It was fully authoritarian and partially mobilized for war, yet with space left for degrees of complacency and indifference.

From March 15 to March 17, a putative presidential election will again be held in Russia. The procedural formalities—candidates, campaigns, the ballot box itself—will not affect the Kremlin’s preordained result. Now in his 25th year in power, Putin will serve another six-year term. At the end of it, he will be eligible to run again and to extend his reign to 2036.

Through tight management, the Kremlin has tried to make the election as uneventful as possible. Although Putin would likely win a fair election in 2024, an unmanaged election would foster genuine political contestation and criticism of the president, which the Kremlin had long been keeping off-limits. Meaningful criticism would open the door to another possibility: namely, that Putin’s edicts may not reflect the united will of the Russian people and that he may not be destined to rule Russia in perpetuity.

In his quarter century in power, Putin has pursued two separate goals. The first has been to create a vast machinery of repression, eliminating any domestic forces that oppose him or that have the potential to do so. This process has entailed the murder of journalists, the arrest of insufficiently loyal oligarchs, and the persecution of any viable political alternative to Putin. The liberal politician Boris Nemtsov was killed outside the Kremlin in 2015. The political activist Vladimir Kara-Murza has been imprisoned since the start of the war in Ukraine. And after displaying unyielding political courage, the opposition leader Alexei Navalny died at the age of 47 in a penal colony in the Russian Arctic. He had survived an attempted assassination by poisoning, in 2020. A year later, after receiving medical care in Germany, he returned to Russia, aware of the risks he was taking.

Putin’s other goal has been to deprive most Russians of the ability to imagine a future without him. Because it is impossible to counter him today, the thinking goes, it will be impossible to counter him tomorrow. No longer hemmed in by a parliament, a constitution, or a political opposition, Putin is at the height of his power. A prevailing sense of “forever Putinism” provides many Russians with a sense of stability; it is the political continuity they know best. For a minority, it induces despair or rage.

Forever Putinism has its vulnerabilities. Any regime that promises to live forever cannot let itself be perceived as failing. To endure, Putin’s regime must maintain the illusion not just of its inevitability, which it has already achieved, but also of its own immortality, which it cannot achieve. Visible cracks in the myth have the potential to undermine the myth itself. Putin’s presentation of himself as an omnipotent savior—the only one who can steer Russia’s destiny—thus presents a long-term risk for the regime.


The 2022 invasion of Ukraine was an instrumental step in the construction of forever Putinism. The war has strengthened the Russian leader less by augmenting the Kremlin’s already formidable power than by radically diminishing the scope of civil society. Whereas until recently political elites had a degree of decision-making power, the war has made them into the executors of Putin’s will, mere adjutants to the generalissimo.

Today, Russian institutions cannot serve as vehicles for questioning official policy. They are expected to show their commitment to the war effort; any expression of dissent with respect to the war has been criminalized. Many Russians now accept the following propositions as doctrinal truths: Putin is capably fighting a necessary war, Putin is the only one who can lead Russia, and Putin owns Russia’s political future. Anyone who suggests otherwise does so at great risk.

The war has significantly militarized Russian politics and society. Around the country, billboards and posters glamorize soldiering. State media demonize the “collective West,” which has turned Ukraine into its puppet, forcing Russia into a defensive war. In the Kremlin’s telling, Putin is the irreplaceable commander in chief, the strategist and diplomat who can carry the country on his shoulders, and the purveyor of order who will lead the country to victory. Even among Russians who long for peace, many believe that only Putin can deliver it:

At home, the war in Ukraine has reinforced Putin’s image as a defender of Russia’s national interests.

The militarization of Russian society can be selective. It does not mean that everyone must passionately support or enlist in the war effort. Demanding acquiescence, the Kremlin understands that the war effort can also be ignored or put out of mind. Such piecemeal militarization is the defining feature of wartime Putinism, which is repressive but only episodically Orwellian.

Through its media infrastructure, the Kremlin repeats its talking points daily. It claims, not without justification, that Russia has gained the upper hand on the battlefield; that outside the U.S.-led West, public opinion is more sympathetic toward Russia’s position; and that the Russian economy is in good shape, a point bolstered by low unemployment and rising wages. In the eyes of his domestic audience, Putin has passed an important test: he has stood up to the West, defying its criticism, its sanctions, and its military aid to Ukraine. This projection of strength necessitates that Moscow consolidate its battlefield victories. Were Putin’s army to fail, the leader’s competence at home could well be questioned.

In the early months of 2024, however, and given the course of events, the war and forever Putinism are mutually reinforcing. Putin has positioned himself as the singular man who has synthesized the best strands of imperial Russian, Soviet, and post-Soviet history, the history of a great country that has never been conquered; the president who restored pride in Russia and Russianness; the defender of traditional values against decadence; and the statesman who has given Russia (just barely) the strength necessary to contend with the perfidious West. Hostile to the West instead of envious, Putin’s Russia is far more secure in 2024 than the Soviet Union was in the 1980s.

Whatever Putin does is what Russia needs to do. His words and actions determine the nature of the ideology, not the other way around. The war in Ukraine has further reinforced Putin’s image as a defender of Russia’s national interests. The war has been fashioned into the keystone of a state-sponsored ideology, yet another event in the continuum of forever Putinism.


Even a timid oppositionist, such as Boris Nadezhdin, with no record of rebellion against the powers that be, was an affront to the aesthetic of forever Putinism. In the presidential election, Nadezhdin was not given even the shortest leash to run as an opposition candidate to Putin. When Nadezhdin’s campaign unexpectedly encouraged tens of thousands to sign on to his candidacy and antiwar sentiment began crystallizing around his person, Nadezhdin had to be removed from contention, revealing a dilemma of dictatorships, which can comfortably move only toward greater repression. Dictatorial governments endanger themselves more by loosening up than by cracking down.

Unlike Nadezhdin’s short-lived campaign, the death of Navalny is a real ripple on the surface of forever Putinism, and it will not be effortless for the regime to accommodate it. By 2024, Navalny had run out of room: he had long been barred from running for office, he had been denied access to the public in all but the most truncated of ways, and then he lost his life. The Kremlin has treated Navalny’s death as a nonevent, although tens of thousands in Moscow and other cities, overcoming fear of repression, expressed their grief in public and chanted Navalny’s name. For three consecutive days, mourners came to his grave in Moscow, creating a mountain of flowers.

The Russian state defeated Navalny, turning his unique biography into the story of a secular saint. His memory embodies two principles that will militate against forever Putinism: the refusal to tolerate apathy and the refusal to accept that Russian politics is entirely a top-down operation.

The death of Navalny is the Kremlin’s sign that forever Putinism is not hiding itself from view, not masking itself, not pretending to be democratic or subject to outside influence. The Kremlin assumes that it can act with impunity. Many inside Russia, although they understand, of course, that Putin is mortal, still cannot conceive of a future without him. This year’s presidential election, then, is not just a ritual exercise validating another six years under Putin. It should be interpreted as a final farewell to those vestiges of the political past that preceded or that complicated the arrival of forever Putinism. The emperor is on his throne, and all that can be said is, “Hail, Caesar!”


To borrow a phrase from Karl Marx, forever Putinism may contain the seeds of its own destruction. In an unapologetic dictatorship, there is much that can go wrong. The war in Ukraine oscillates every few months, and Russia’s fortunes there could well deteriorate. Wartime societies have breaking points that become visible only when they are reached, and Putin’s war has already brought staggering levels of human loss to Russia.

Russia’s economy also remains subject to upheaval and vulnerable to Western sanctions. Forever Putinism could slide into overreach. Autocratic governments can enrich themselves unwisely. They can lose contact with those they govern, becoming progressively less secretive about the coercion and repression that is the foundation of their rule.

Allowing for the vicissitudes of war, markets, and politics, the depth and scope of forever Putinism is striking. So far, the war has made Putinism stronger. Should the Russian military start to achieve something closer to victory in Ukraine, the Putinist system will become more assertive at home and abroad. Even if Putin were to pass suddenly from the scene, the instruments of coercion will likely remain where he has planted them: in the Kremlin, in the security services, and in the military. Whether anyone other than Putin can capably manage these instruments is unknowable, but with or without Putin, these instruments align with many vested interests and many past precedents. They will not be handed over peacefully to the stewards of some other system.

When Joseph Stalin died in 1953, after decades of tyranny, the battle for succession was chaotic and bloody. His eventual successor, Nikita Khrushchev, superseded his rivals and had the most formidable of them, Lavrentiy Beria, executed. Khrushchev was later toppled by his own elite. He was succeeded by Leonid Brezhnev, who embraced the principle of collective leadership. What survived, as leadership changed, was the Communist Party, the pillar of the Soviet Union. So, too, did the Soviet ideology, the Soviet army, and the many administrative institutions that existed within the Soviet government. The Soviet Union of the 1950s and 1960s did not descend into civil war. It did not opt out of the Cold War, and it did not disappear from the map.

This is a pattern that forever Putinism might replicate. Because Putin has anointed no successor, a struggle for power could well follow Putin’s exit from the scene. Those within this struggle, if they can prevent a bloodbath, would have many incentives to perpetuate the existing system. They would keep their grip on the powers lodged in the military and the security services. They would not want to see internal strife imperil Russia’s geopolitical position, and they would not want to give up the ideological constructs Putin has assembled. This raises the sobering possibility that forever Putinism, which now revolves around a single man, could outlast the tenure of Putin himself. Putin has done enough to ensure that whoever follows him is likely to be his heir.