RUSSIA: Why Putin’s Days Are Numbered – Opinion

The system that Russia’s autocrat built wasn’t designed to survive the pressures it is now facing.

  By Vladimir Milov | Journal of Democracy 

The world’s attention is focused on the immense suffering of the brave Ukrainian people, and rightly so — no words can describe the misery and damage that Vladimir Putin has inflicted upon Ukraine with his unprovoked aggression.

Russians are also suffering from the consequences of the invasion. In recent years, Russia has hardly resembled a democracy, but Putin’s war has untied the government’s hands — de-facto scrapping the people’s few remaining rights and freedoms. New, hastily adopted legislation criminalizing spreading “fake news” with up to 15 years in prison allows the Kremlin not only to eliminate any dissent, but also to instigate a mass persecution of its own population. The campaign is already in full swing, with one person being arrested for holding a poster that read “Fascism Will Not Pass”, which authorities claimed was “discrediting the Russian Armed Forces.” Russian TV officially claims that “No to War” (Het Bonhe) is somehow a Nazi slogan.           

Russia is effectively being cut off from the civilized world, with its own citizens trapped inside with little ability to escape. Economic and technology sanctions are already being felt, with the return of long lines, empty shelves, and the double-digit inflation of our past — a menacing combination of Russia’s troubles in both the 1980s and 1990s.

But the war that Putin has started also provides an enormous opportunity for Russians to rethink the country’s path over the last quarter of a century, and to have a chance for a fresh start — no matter how difficult that may be. The events since February 24 have made real the prospect of an end to Putin’s regime as we know it. No one can predict the pace of change, but one thing is clear: Putin’s system has suffered a series of dire blows to its structural integrity. 

Putinism was not built to withstand such comprehensive isolation from global markets, technologies, financial systems, and logistics. It possesses neither the resources nor the competence to weather this kind of perfect storm.

The problem for the regime is not just that more ordinary Russians will soon personally feel the economic consequences of war. It is also that Putin’s nomenklatura is totally incapable of handling such a shock to the system. They, as much as everyone else, were caught off guard by Putin’s attack on Ukraine, and they lack any experience with wartime mobilization-management techniques.

I worked in senior levels of the Russian government for six years (1997–2002), and I know many of the officials who are still working in top government posts today. They are personally devastated by the consequences of Putin’s aggression, and they have almost no idea how to do their jobs when G7 countries are blocking Russia’s financial reserves and the country is cut off from global markets and vital technologies. 

This system will not be able to operate intact for much longer. In the months ahead, the Kremlin will experience serious difficulties managing the domestic social, economic, and political situation. It will be the biggest challenge Putin’s system has faced by far. We don’t yet know what the specific scenarios will be, but clearly it will be enormously challenging for Putin to maintain his credibility and grip on power. Change may be coming — particularly if Putin suffers military defeat in Ukraine, which is now a much more realistic possibility than many ever imagined. 

In this moment, it is important not only to document Russia’s turn toward totalitarian horrors, but also to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Russians who oppose Putin and his war badly need to look beyond this grim present. They need hope in the face of growing repression fed by government propaganda and the regime’s witch hunt for “enemies within”.

Contrary to many Western interpretations, a significant number of Russians do not support the war. It is utterly wrong and unprofessional for experts to cite government-orchestrated “opinion polls” that show supposedly overwhelmingly Russian support for the war. While it is true that a sizeable segment of Russian society backs the war, especially Russians who get their news only from state television, we also know that since the invasion pollsters have confronted an unprecedented number of respondents who refuse to answer questions about the war. Why would they refuse to answer if they support the war?

Journalists who interviewed people attending staged pro-Putin rallies — including the notorious March 18 prowar rally at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, where Putin himself appeared — found that many did not support the war, and had been forced to attend the events. Alexei Navalny’s YouTube channel, Navalny Live — which broadcasts the truth about Putin’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine — attracted almost 20 million unique viewers during the first month of the war, a great majority of them from within Russia.

For those trying to assess current public opinion in Russia, a word of advice: Be Extremely Cautious. We in the Russian opposition are working tirelessly to broadcast the truth to the Russian people, including through active people-to-people communication, explaining the realities of the war to those who are isolated by state censorship or brainwashed by government propaganda. Many in the West are still unaware of the propaganda bubble that Russians live in; even amid these horrible circumstances, it takes time to change public opinion to an antiwar and anti-Putin majority. But it is possible, and the tide is shifting.

It is important that people in the West understand these nuances. Some prominent figures are already lending a hand in promoting a future democratic Russia. For instance, former Lithuanian prime minister Andrius Kubilius, who is now a member of the European Parliament, and fellow MEPs have launched a discussion on the future of a post-Putin Russia within the framework of their Friends of European Russia Forum in the European Parliament. Such efforts should be supported.

Likewise, everyday Russians who are opposed to Putin and his war deserve support, protection, and help in amplifying their voices. Because if Russia does not become democratic, it will always be trouble for its neighbors and for the world. Difficult as it may sound at this moment, we need to look to the future. It can and should be very different from the grim realities of today, but the change must begin from within Russia itself.

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Comments

  • Clyde Duncan  On 04/05/2022 at 11:58 am

    Little Melissa comes home from first grade and tells her father that they learned about the history of Valentine’s Day. “Since Valentine’s Day is for a Christian saint and we’re Jewish,” she asks, “will God get mad at me for giving someone a valentine?”

    Melissa’s father thinks a bit, then says “No, I don’t think God would get mad. Who do you want to give a Valentine to?”

    “Vladimir Putin,” she says.

    “Why Vladimir Putin?” her father asks in shock.

    “Well,” she says, “I thought that if a little American Jewish girl could have enough love to give him Valentine, he might start to think that maybe we’re not all bad, and maybe start loving people a little bit. And if other kids saw what I did and sent Valentines to President Putin, he’d love everyone a lot. And then he’d start going all over the place to tell everyone how much he loved them and how he didn’t hate anyone anymore.”

    Her father’s heart swells and he looks at his daughter with newfound pride. “Melissa, that’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever heard”

    “I know,” Melissa says, “and once that gets him out in the open, we could shoot him!”

  • Clyde Duncan  On 04/05/2022 at 5:03 pm

    • brandli62  On 04/07/2022 at 3:46 am

      This is an excellent interview by Ian Bremer with the former PM of Finland on the Ukraine War and the future of Europe! I could not agree more with the analysis.

      Clyde, many thanks for posting the link!

  • Clyde Duncan  On 04/05/2022 at 5:19 pm

    Political scientist Yascha Mounk says we’re in a new era of naked power politics.

    That means Vladimir Putin doesn’t care what you think anymore about his blind ambition. And he really doesn’t have to because authoritarians like him are on the rise.

    On GZERO World, Ian Bremmer talks to Mounk, who explains why confidence in democracy is declining in the West at the same time authoritarian leaders like Putin and Xi Jinping have become more honest about their demands and lack of respect for democracy.

    Mounk also offers some reasons for hope in America’s experiment with democracy in a diverse nation. He identifies tribalism and extreme partisanship as the biggest threats for democracy in the 21st century.

    Also: a look at Ukrainians in the tech industry, who are still coding away even as Russian bombs fall on their cities.

    Click here to watch the video.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 04/06/2022 at 2:36 pm

    The Beginning of the End for Putin?

    Dictatorships Look Stable — Until They Aren’t

    By Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz | Foreign Affairs

    Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine has been a clarifying moment. Since he came to power in 2000, various Western leaders have tried to cooperate, accommodate, or negotiate with him.

    But by embarking on a war of choice against a country he claims doesn’t have a right to exist, Putin has forced the international community to see him for what he is: A BELLIGERENT LEADER WITH A REMARKABLE CAPACITY FOR DESTRUCTION.

    The result has been sweeping new measures designed to constrict and constrain him — punishing sanctions against Russia’s financial institutions, bans on Russian planes over EU airspace, and increased weapons shipments to Ukraine.

    Even Germany, long reluctant to confront Putin, agreed to exclude Russian banks from the SWIFT financial messaging system, reversed its long-standing prohibition on providing arms to conflict zones, and substantially increased its military spending. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked nothing less than a sea change in international perceptions of Putin and what must be done to confront him.

    Such a sea change could well be underway inside Russia, too. Throughout his tenure, Putin has maintained relatively high levels of public support thanks in large part to his ability to restore economic growth and stability after the turmoil of the 1990s. While most Russians have few illusions about their leader, recognizing the corruption that benefits him and the elite around him, it remained all but unfathomable to most Russians that Putin would launch a major conventional war against their Ukrainian neighbors.

    For months, many Russian analysts, commentators, and citizens alike were convinced that Putin would not engage in such an act of aggression. The news of the war and the economic ramifications that followed have led Russians to see both Putin and Russia differently; Russia is not the same today as it was last month.

    The prevailing wisdom holds that Putin will be able to survive any domestic backlash. That is most likely true. In personalist authoritarian regimes — where power is concentrated in the hands of an individual rather than shared by a party, military junta, or royal family — the leader is rarely driven from office by wars, even when they experience defeat.

    That’s both because other elites are not strong enough to hold the dictator to account and because domestic audiences have few opportunities to punish leaders for their actions. But the thing about repressive regimes like Putin’s Russia is that they often look stable right up to the point that they are not. Putin has taken a major risk in attacking Ukraine, and there is a chance — one that seems to be growing — that it could mark the beginning of his end.

    FORTRESS RUSSIA

    There are good reasons to believe that Putin can withstand the backlash from his war. He has gone to great lengths in the last year to crack down on Russian civil society, political opposition, journalists, and the information environment. The regime’s brazen poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and banning of Memorial, the country’s most important post-Soviet human rights civic institution underscore the regime’s commitment to using repression to maintain control. Russians have gotten the message.

    Such an uptick in repression is common late in the tenures of longtime autocrats. The longer these authoritarians remain in power, the more they lose touch with their societies and the less they have to offer their citizens. As a result, they have few other ways to sustain their rule.

    Along with repression, Putin can manipulate Russia’s information environment, shaping the way many Russians understand events in Ukraine. Already, Russia’s security actors are harassing individuals who post antiwar messages on social media and censoring facts and details about the war. The authorities also moved to shut down Echo Moskvy, an independent radio station broadcasting in Russia since 1990.

    Before Russia invaded Ukraine, polls show that large majorities of Russians supported recognizing the Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent countries and that they blamed Ukraine and NATO for the conflict.

    Together, repression and information control could help prevent Russia’s antiwar protests from catching on. So far, the regime has arrested more than 5,000 people for actively demonstrating against Russia’s invasion, which may deter others from joining. While other Russians may be willing to risk arrest if they think the demonstrations will snowball, censorship makes it difficult for potential protesters to know how many citizens are upset with the war.

    Putin has also gone to great lengths to inoculate himself against another threat: ELITE DEFECTION. In a highly choreographed meeting of his national security council, Russia’s president forced each member of his team to publicly pledge their support for his decision to recognize the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. This reduced the council members’ ability to credibly defect and claim that Putin is taking Russia in the wrong direction. Likewise, Putin convened his country’s most powerful businessmen the day after the campaign against Ukraine began to discuss the economic shocks that would follow. Putin’s goal was clear — remind them that their fates are tied to his continuation in power.

    ALL FALLS DOWN

    The war also has famous and influential domestic opponents — and they are not just known dissidents. Several Russian celebrities have signed letters opposing the war. Russian tennis star Andrei Rublev wrote “no war please” on a TV camera. The Russian head of a delegation at a major UN climate conference apologized for his country’s invasion of Ukraine, and the daughter of Putin’s press secretary reportedly posted “no war” on her Instagram account. She deleted it hours later. There are even signs that Putin’s cozy oligarchs are getting uncomfortable. Former energy magnate Anatoly Chubais posted a picture of Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition leader murdered in front of the Kremlin, on his Facebook page. Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska called for peace and negotiations.

    Finally, the conflict in Ukraine may well evolve into a drawn-out insurgency that slowly saps the patience of the Russian public. Research shows that personalist dictators are more willing than other authoritarians to tolerate military disputes with high casualties, but that doesn’t mean their citizens are.

    In Libya, for example, former leader Muammar al-Qaddafi engaged in heavy-handed repression to maintain control of the country as the costs of his wars increased. But eventually, when faced with dire economic conditions, ordinary citizens violently overthrew his government. In the Soviet Union, a lengthy and expensive invasion of Afghanistan helped drain faith in the Communist Party’s regime. It is not inconceivable that Putin’s grip on Russia will slip if Ukraine becomes a morass.

    LOSING TOUCH

    Predicting the downfall of an authoritarian leader is a fool’s errand. Weak and embattled autocrats can limp along far longer than analysts expect. Former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe survived hyperinflation and electoral defeat, staying in power until just two years before his death. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro remains in office, even though Venezuela’s economy has utterly collapsed. Similarly, leaders that appear strong can be suddenly ousted, as happened to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali that same year.

    But analysts do know that personalist leaders such as Putin are more likely to make foreign policy mistakes than are other autocrats. They surround themselves with yes men who only tell them what they want to hear and withhold bad news, making it difficult for these dictators to make well-informed decisions. Whether or not Putin’s war of choice becomes the mistake that unseats him from power is an open question. But Russia is experiencing rising dissatisfaction from the public, fissures among its elite, and broad-based international punishment. Putin’s downfall may not come tomorrow or the day after, but his grip on power is certainly more tenuous than it was before he invaded Ukraine.

  • brandli62  On 04/07/2022 at 3:50 am

    Is Deflation Coming to China? | Anne Stevenson-Yang

    Anne Stevenson-Yang is probably one of the best expert on China’s economy. It was worth my time listening to her analysis in the context of the war in Ukraine.

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