( Foreign Policy in Focus) – A failed military intervention. The genocidal killing of citizens. Economic isolation by the international community. The arrests of anti-war protestors at home and the shuttering of independent media.
Any one of these factors could mark the end of an ordinary political leader. Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin has not only weathered these challenges, his popularity has actually risen. According to the independent Levada polling center, Putin has improved his support among Russian citizens from a 69 percent approval rating in January to 83 percent in recent days. That’s significant even when you discount the steady impact of government propaganda on the Russian capacity for critical thinking.
The bump up in Putin’s ratings results not just from the “rally around the flag” effect. Russian citizens think of their leader as the only person who stands between them and the complete ruin of their country. Such faith gives new meaning to the word “absolutism”—absolute fidelity to an absolutist leader to prevent absolute collapse.
Putin’s surge in popularity is also sobering news for anyone who imagines that the war in Ukraine and the sanctions squeezing the Russian economy will lead to some kind of regime change inside the Kremlin.
At best, the sanctions are designed to disrupt the Russian war machine by creating shortages in the supply chains that keep the country’s military-industrial complex humming. There is some evidence that the sanctions are having just that effect by driving up prices for key components and restricting access to high-tech items.
The sanctions will necessarily impact Russian citizens along the way, which may give Putin an easy way to blame the country’s woes on outsiders. But that is no reason to oppose sanctions. Putin has been blaming outsiders for some time, and his approval ratings have consistently hovered around 70 percent. So, sanctions don’t really change the domestic political calculus inside Russia. Moreover, the suffering of ordinary Russians can’t compare with the suffering of ordinary Ukrainians. So, if the sanctions help in scaling back and eventually ending the war, they must be pursued.
If sanctions won’t precipitate regime change—and they haven’t done so in North Korea or Iran either—then what could push Putin from power? Probably not a popular revolution like the Euromaidan protests that ejected Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovych from Ukraine in 2014. Russian dissidents like Alexei Navalny are in jail or, like Vladimir Kara-Murza, have gone into exile. Since the invasion began, the regime has arrested thousands of anti-war protesters. The recent exodus of Russian oppositionists and intellectuals from their country—environmental activist Arshak Makichyan to Berlin, Pussy Riot’s Anna Kuzminikh to Tbilisi, journalist Sergey Smirnov to Vilnius—makes the prospect of a grassroots uprising even dimmer.
However, Putin won’t live forever. As the war drags on, his popularity will eventually take a hit. At some point, those in his inner circle might decide that he is more of a liability than an asset. Or perhaps a broad-based coalition will oust a weakened Putin in some future election.
The Cold War didn’t end until Mikhail Gorbachev transformed the Soviet Union. The current stand-off between Russia and much of the rest of the world will not end until someone takes Putin’s place. But that begs the question: what will a post-Putin Russia look like?
Russia has long favored leaders that rule with an iron fist, from Ivan the Terrible to Stalin. Putin has continued in that long line of ruthlessness, pairing his apparatchik background with an instrumental nationalism to appeal to communists and the far right simultaneously. He has taken advantage of the wealth of the petrostate and a deep nostalgia for the predictable order of the Soviet era (especially among those who didn’t live through its worst excesses). Putin’s popularity rating of around 70 percent is approximately the same that Stalin also currently enjoys, a telling convergence.
Putin, in other words, is not an aberration. His removal from power will not magically transform Russia into a liberal place.
At one point, it might have been possible to imagine a military leader taking over Russia, either through an election or a coup. Lieutenant General Alexander Lebed came in third in the 1996 elections behind Boris Yeltsin and the Communist Party’s Gennady Zyuganov. If he’d run for election in 2000, Lebed might have beaten Putin, who’d only been appointed to succeed Yeltsin on a temporary basis, and imposed a Pinochet model on Russia. But Lebed didn’t run, and he died in a helicopter accident in 2002. Thereafter, Putin made sure that the military was entirely under his heel.
Today, after the disaster in Ukraine, the Russian military is hardly in a position to occupy the Kremlin. But Russia has no shortage of political figures who could take the country in a hyper-militarized direction.
Zyuganov, for instance, is still the head of the Russian Communist Party, a position he’s had since 1993. He is the very definition of “unreconstructed,” having supported in 2010 the “re-Stalinization” of Russia in the face of the relatively mild anti-Stalinist policies of Putin’s right-hand man Dmitry Medvedev. In a February 16 piece faithfully reproduced in People’s World, Zyuganov praised the “good neighborliness” of Russia in its efforts to beat back the “fascists” in Ukraine and their “Washington puppeteers.” Zyuganov and his comrades seem entirely unaware of what you get when you add “nationalism” to “socialism.”
Zyuganov’s bedfellow on the other side of the political spectrum has long been Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the dangerous clown prince of Russian politics. Way back in the 1990s, Zhirinovsky previewed many of Putin’s later positions on Ukraine when he argued that the country was really part of Russia. He has unabashedly supported the restoration of a grand Russian empire. Fortunately, his poor health prevents him from currently making any serious bid for power.
Given the age of this troika—Putin, Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky—it may well be that the post-Cold War generation of Russian neo-fascists is dying out. Alas, there is a younger cadre ready and willing to take their place. As political scientist Robert Horvath has argued, the Kremlin has long cultivated ties with a young and vibrant far right in Russia, from the youth group Nashi to the neo-Nazi Russkii Obraz. The alumni of these groups—politician Maksim Mishchenko, Internet troll Anna Bogachyova—are waiting in the wings for their opportunity.
Then there is the Russian alt-right, which draws on the hazy ideological roots of Eurasianism (which I wrote about here in 2014). The leading figure for some time has been Alexander Dugin, a political scientist who has guided Putin toward fascism. Even before Putin came to power, Dugin advocated for exploiting tensions within the United States, sowing dissent within the European Union, and expanding Russian influence over a huge swath of Eurasia. After a steady diet of government propaganda, the Russian public is all too susceptible to such delusions of grandeur.
You might think that such delusions will die in Ukraine. As Hitler demonstrated, however, a skilled politician can exploit the resentments of a defeated power and spur it to even greater imperial ambitions.
Coup of the Siloviki?
The siloviki are Russia’s power elite: the heads of the security, intelligence, and military agencies. They have formed the foundation of Putin’s institutional support, allowing him to exert unprecedented control over Russian society as well as the country’s foreign policy. They come from the same milieu as Putin himself and form a protective Politburo around him.
The Ukraine war has certainly rattled the siloviki. Putin has placed two high-ranking members of the foreign intelligence branch—Sergei Beseda and his deputy in the Fifth Service of the FSB—under house arrest. Roman Gavrilov, the deputy head of the National Guard recently resigned—or was sacked and possibly arrested. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu disappeared for nearly two weeks amid rumors of health problems and political disagreements, and eight generals were reportedly replaced as the Russian invasion floundered.
Of course, it wasn’t just the military problems on the ground that spooked Putin. It was also how much Western intelligence agencies seemed to know about the invasion in advance, which suggested that someone near to Putin was leaking information to the outside. The failure of three assassination squads to kill Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky has also been attributed to the actions of anti-war members of the security services.
The paranoia that Putin currently exhibits is reminiscent of the latter days of Stalin, who imagined that a group of doctors, many of them Jewish, were determined to kill top government officials. Only Stalin’s death in March 1953 put an end to the extensive purges that were planned in connection to this fabricated “doctors’ plot.” Of course, Stalin’s paranoia may well have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, judging by the evidence of poisoning (most likely by the head of his secret police Lavrenti Beria) that led to his death.
Will the siloviki likewise turn against Putin? There has been a shake-up, to be sure, but so far there’s no proof of any serious splits within the president’s true inner circle, which consists of fewer than a half dozen people. But that was the case with the cabal around Stalin, too, until he ordered the construction of new gulags to house all the “saboteurs” he was planning to arrest because of the “doctors’ plot.” If Putin goes off the deep end, and figures like National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov fear for their lives (or even just their status), Putin’s days may well be numbered.
A Liberal-Conservative Coalition
It’s hard to imagine a free and fair election in Russia at this point. In the last presidential election in 2018, Putin “won” around 77 percent of the vote, with the Communist Party candidate and Zhirinovsky coming in second and third respectively.
Much of the so-called opposition basically falls in line behind Putin, including the Communist Party and Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party. A Just Russia, a supposedly center-left party, has largely supported Putin as well, endorsing the invasion of Ukraine and earning an expulsion from the Socialist International. The center-right Civic Platform, formed by oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov in 2012, also supports Putin. Only the centrist liberal party New People voted against the recognition of the breakaway republics in Ukraine. The social-liberal party Yabloko, once the great hope of Western powers as the vehicle for the political transformation of Russia, no longer has much influence.
In Hungary, where Viktor Orbán has not (yet) succeeded in eradicating a political opposition, the liberals and conservatives finally came together behind the candidacy of Péter Márki-Zay to challenge Orbán in the most recent elections. Yet Orbán won again, for the fourth time.
Putin faces nominal opposition in the Duma and on the streets. It would take a massive sea change in popular sentiment inside Russia for a viable opposition to emerge. Even so, as the Hungarian example demonstrates, such a movement would face an uphill struggle against a Putin-controlled state apparatus.
Saudi Arabia of the North
Russia’s future: the Saudi Arabia of the north.
A small ruling elite will go to great lengths to remain in power by ruthlessly suppressing the opposition, killing dissidents if necessary, and funding its operations through the sale of fossil fuels. It will launch wars—Yemen, Ukraine—to maintain regional dominance. It will thumb its nose at the international community because it believes, ultimately, that oil is its get-out-of-jail-free card.
Yes, women can drive in Russia. But otherwise, Russia is well on its way to becoming an isolated, male-dominated, hyper-conservative, autocratic society that increasingly resembles the illiberal Middle Eastern kingdom—just substitute taiga for sand. Putin is making the same bargain with the population that the Saudis have done. He promises a measure of economic security in exchange for political dependency, and he offers, like the Saudi monarchs, to protect citizens from the disruptive influences of the modern world, like homosexuality and freedom of speech.
The next generation of neo-fascists wouldn’t take Russia in a different direction. A change at the very top, with a member of the siloviki substituting for Putin, might make some accommodation with the international community, but he wouldn’t fundamentally alter the current Russian order. Perhaps a modern-day Gorbachev lurks somewhere in the hinterlands, biding his time until Putin passes before making a play for power. Perhaps Putin will prove so self-destructive a leader that a political opposition could somehow organize itself in the ensuing anarchy.
The most likely scenario is this. A “reformer” will come along promising some type of modernization—chiefly economic—that attracts some support from the West. But remember: Mohammed bin Salman styled himself as just such a reformer in Saudi Arabia. The Russian version will likely turn out just as ruthless as MbS and just as corrupt as the political system that produces him. I only hope that the Russian people will prove me wrong.