A popular uprising can topple Putin – PRIO Blogs


Putin’s place at the Kremlin’s long table is more uncertain than ever, and while he will cling to power, it is not inevitable that he will succeed.

Large-scale protests after Putin’s re-election. Moscow rally in 2011. Photo: Bogomolov.PL / Wikimedia Commons / CC 3.0

Fear that the so-called color revolutions will spread to Russia continued Putin’s time in power.

Color revolutions in two of Russia’s neighbours, Georgia and Ukraine, have driven autocratic leaders from power and an attempted color revolution in Belarus nearly toppled Lukashenko after the country’s 2020 elections.

The large-scale protests that followed Putin’s questionable re-election as president in 2011-2012 are the closest Russia has come to such a revolution so far. But could the war trigger a new popular movement capable of overthrowing the regime? Research on protest movements and regime change can provide some insight.

It is unusual for a dictator to be overthrown by popular uprising, and few expect a revolution in Russia.

At the same time, revolutions are inherently unexpected, especially in regimes as oppressive as Putin’s. Due to the brutal punishment inflicted on the opposition, the vast majority of people will express their support for the regime, regardless of their actual views. Seen from the outside, such regimes seem stable – until suddenly they are not.

The Arab Spring was sparked when Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit and vegetable seller, set himself on fire, frustrated by widespread corruption. This sparked a series of protests that resulted in regime change in four countries. In other words: once someone declares their opposition, major consequences can follow.

There is no doubt that Putin is acutely aware of this dynamic, and currently his regime is arresting even small groups of protesters in order to prevent the protests from growing. Even so, we can identify several factors that could pave the way for large-scale protests.

Growing opposition among Russians

The more people who participate in protests, the more likely they are to succeed. To attract large numbers of protesters, people need to know where and when the protests will take place and be confident that many more will join them. Although it is very risky to demonstrate in small groups, large crowds provide a sense of security. This sense of security means that large protests can experience enormous growth. In Russia, there are signs of a continued increase in the number of protesters.

Three coordinated protests have taken place so far, on February 24, February 27 and March 6. The magnitude of these protests likely increased on each of these dates. When the invasion began on February 24, at least 2,000 people were arrested. Ten days later, on March 6, 5,000 protesters were imprisoned in more than 70 Russian cities.

Activists use digital means to mobilize supporters, with the Telegram messaging app being particularly popular. Although the Russian regime controls the country’s mainstream media with an iron fist, more and more information escapes digital censors.

Download and usage statistics from opposition news outlets, VPN services used to evade censorship, and encrypted messaging apps suggest that the Russian population is increasingly able to access information from external sources. Research shows that protest movements can grow and spread through these platforms.

Opinion polls in Moscow suggest that attitudes towards the regime are changing. These polls aren’t representative of the country as a whole, but they don’t have to be: popular mobilization in cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk might be enough to get things moving.

Autocratic leaders also actively use social media to maintain their grip on power. Putin’s ability to control the narrative may determine the extent to which the protests continue to grow. The regime does not necessarily need to convince the population of its own side of the story, as long as it is able to derail the debate and generate enough uncertainty about the true course of events.

The urban middle class and an economy in crisis

Another important factor is the type of people participating in the protests. Some groups have more influence than others. For example, a strike by munitions workers will have more impact than a demonstration by academics. At the same time, the mobilization must be broad to succeed. The wider the range of social groups involved – trade unions, students, religious organisations, etc. – is broader, the more the demonstrations are likely to undermine the loyalty of those who support the regime.

Historically, the middle class has been an important force in protest movements and democratization processes. The middle class wields significant economic power and is often behind demands for egalitarian and transparent political institutions. Previously, the Russian middle class was not heavily represented in protests in Russia.

One explanation is that many middle-class Russians are either bureaucrats or employed elsewhere in the public sector. As a result, their interests may tend to be to show loyalty to the regime. But Russia’s economic sanctions and war costs are going to have a severe impact on the middle class. Perhaps the coming economic crisis will persuade the middle class to turn their backs on Putin’s regime.

Tsar Putin

In recent years, Russia has become more autocratic, with more power concentrated in the hands of Putin. Political scientists call this a personalistic style of government. People with personal ties to Putin hold the most powerful positions, both in politics and in the security services. Putin ensures that these ties remain strong by offering large financial rewards for loyalty. Putin’s loyalists know that their affluent way of life depends on Putin staying in power. But precisely because the regime is based on financial corruption, sanctions and economic decline can be particularly problematic for this type of regime.

One of the purposes of the current sanctions is to reduce Putin’s access to the resources he needs to buy the loyalty of his supporters. However, Russia’s vast oil and gas revenues mitigate the effect of the sanctions. These revenues are used not only to finance the war in Ukraine, but also to bribe oligarchs, ministers and military leaders in Russia. Research tells us that fossil fuel revenues make autocratic regimes more oppressive and more stable.

So far, the regime has cracked down hard on protesters. And personalist leaders like Putin have no qualms about ordering bloodbaths if necessary. At the same time, violent attacks on peaceful protesters are risky because they are experienced as an illegitimate use of power and can become otherwise loyal supporters, including those assigned execute commands, against the regime. There is a greater likelihood under personalist regimes than under other styles of government that security forces will switch sides when they encounter large protests, and Putin’s regime will fall if the security apparatus stops providing united support. Putin is not helped by the fact that so far the invasion appears to have been a mistake, and the war will be extremely costly for Russia.

Putin’s place at the Kremlin’s long table is more uncertain than ever, and while he will cling to power, it is not inevitable that he will succeed.


  • Espen Geelmuyden Rod. Researcher, Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Senior Researcher, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
  • Marianne Dahl. Senior Researcher, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
  • Haakon Gjerlow. Senior Researcher, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
  • Hanne Fjelde. Associate Professor, Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Senior Researcher, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)

This text was published in Norwegian by NRK Ytring March 16, 2022: “And folkelig opprør kan bli Putins skjebne”

Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext


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