Regime Change in Russia must not be a Taboo for the West


The failed Wagner rebellion has dras­ti­cally revealed the weakness of the Putin regime. Supporting Ukraine is now the West’s most effective lever to promote political change in Russia, argue Maria Sannikova-Franck and Ralf Fücks.

This text was first published in German by For more articles and analysis about Russia, visit the homepage of our Expert Network!

On 24 June, Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner troops were able to take control of Rostov-on-Don, a city of over a million people. Other large cities were passed without signif­i­cant resis­tance on Wagner’s march to Moscow. It is hard to imagine that Russian secret services and the military command had no knowledge of the prepa­ra­tions for this. Which raises the question of how much sympathy there was for this rebellion in the security apparatus and how much it still relies on Putin.

It seems that Prigozhin was not aware of the conse­quences of his coup – when the road to Moscow was open, he flinched from the final test of power. The same applies reci­p­ro­cally to Putin.

The fact that such a mutiny could take place at all and was met with no signif­i­cant resis­tance has massively damaged Putin’s image as the “strong man” who keeps the situation in the country and the various competing groupings within the regime under control. This also applies to the 180-degree turn­around in his handling of the rebellion within a few hours. As was the case before the invasion of Ukraine, the stability and strength of the regime were often over­es­ti­mated in the West.


Putin will try to wipe out this flaw and consol­i­date his power. Domes­ti­cally, one must expect a further inten­si­fi­ca­tion of repres­sion. We know from his long rule that the regime is simply incapable of reacting to crises and chal­lenges other than with violence and harshness. The war has rein­forced this tendency.

With regard to the war against Ukraine, he will also strive to prove himself as a strongman. This may drive him to further escalate the conflict. His position as a political leader is weakened so much that he is even less able than before to turn the tide towards a nego­ti­ated peace. By unleashing this brutal war, Putin has manoeu­vered himself into a dead end. He has already sacri­ficed more than a hundred thousand Russian soldiers, severely weakened the Russian armed forces, darkened Russia’s economic future and cut ties with the West without achieving his war aims in Ukraine. All talk of a ceasefire cannot hide the fact that he has crossed the Rubicon. The outcome of the war will determine his fate.

If Russia continues to be mili­tarily on the defensive in Ukraine, the like­li­hood of a split in the Russian elites increase. The condi­tions for change in Russian public opinion are also more favourable. Now that the threat of armed clashes in the streets of Russian cities was real, no one can claim that the war is far away and does not affect Russian citizens. Those who believed that Putin had every­thing under control have been proven wrong.

Russia’s demo­c­ratic oppo­si­tion is betting that the conflict with Prigozhin is only the beginning of a deepening crisis of the regime. It expects further turbu­lence and conflict within the circle of power and is preparing for it. It will intensify its campaign against the war and try to convince also the armed forces and the security apparatus that Putin is leading Russia to ruin. Russian soldiers in Ukraine are a partic­u­larly important target group. When Putin invoked the collapse of Russia in 1917 as a cautionary tale in his 24 June speech, he had in mind the mutiny of the front-line soldiers who disobeyed orders en masse at the time and turned against the Tsar.

What Should the West do?

It is high time that Western democ­ra­cies prepare for possible scenarios of change in Russia. Prigozhin’s aborted putsch has shown that they could quickly become reality. Putin is no guarantor of stability. The regime itself is unstable, its policies are the greatest threat to democracy and security in Europe. Therefore, regime change in Moscow must no longer be a taboo for Berlin, Paris, Brussels and Washington.

The most important factor for any positive change in Russia is a military defeat in Ukraine. It will destroy the regime’s dwindling authority, exac­er­bate divisions within the circle of power and intensify the protest mood among the popu­la­tion. All-out support for Ukraine is the West’s most effective lever to promote political change in Russia. The events of the weekend have shown that Putin will backpedal when he comes under pressure. Western govern­ments should heed this lesson instead of letting Putin’s supposed “red lines” slow down their support for Ukraine.

The West should do its utmost to promote a split in the Russian lead­er­ship and Putin’s political isolation. Members of the govern­ment apparatus and the economic elite who condemn the criminal war and side with Ukraine should be offered safety in the West and exemption from sanctions, as long as they have not committed war crimes. This may cause parts of the elites who so far have been outwardly loyal to Putin to recon­sider their stance.

Berlin as a new centre for the Russian opposition

European govern­ments should partic­u­larily support the demo­c­ratic oppo­si­tion in exile to prepare for a change of power and to form a political alter­na­tive to the reac­tionary and bellicose forces in Moscow. Russia should not only have the choice between Putin and figures of Prigozhin’s ilk. This includes residence permits for opponents of the Putin regime who entered the EU with Schengen visas. Berlin in partic­ular could become a centre for Russia’s demo­c­ratic opposition.

Finally, we should talk openly with Russian society about precon­di­tions for a return to coop­er­a­tion: Complete with­drawal from Ukraine, financial compen­sa­tion for the massive destruc­tion, legal punish­ment for war crimes, renun­ci­a­tion of violence towards neigh­bouring states. Russian exiled media and Russian-language programmes of European foreign broad­casters should be used for this commu­ni­ca­tion. The message should be: Our opponent is Russian impe­ri­alism, not the Russian people. The doors are open for a Russia that respects human rights and inter­na­tional law and stops being a danger to its neighbours.


The German original of this text was first published by


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