Will Russia Turn on Putin?
As Putin outlaws public dissent in Russia & gags foreign journalists, is it too little too late to stem the growing tide of Russian revulsion at this war?
Is the unthinkable about to happen in Russia? Is what Putin had called ‘ the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the (20th) Century’ about to happen again in the 21st Century?
The truth is, of course,no one knows. Trying to discern what is going behind Putin’s growing iron curtain MkII is something akin to guesswork; a bit like trying to see a digital image with most of the pixels blanked out!
Russians in the diaspora seem convinced Putin has shot himself in the foot (for example, 1.,2.) with possibly end points being postulated from the disastrous to the optimistic to everything in between (3., 4., 5.).
But if Russia is once again about to descend into the mire of geopolitical tragedy only one man can hold himself truly responsible.
After decades of military stasis, the West is rearming in response to Putin’s aggression…
Across the West we see our world changing before our eyes. The speed of change is dizzying; the depth of that change far more dramatic than we could have thought possible just a few short days ago.
Can any of us even recall what it feels like to stress over Covid-19?
All round the world a sea change of opinions, of long-standing policies and attitudes, have turned our world upside-down in response to one man’s increasingly paranoid delusions, unrealistic grievances and out-sized, inhuman ambition.
Yet, though it’s hard to quantify or qualify, the biggest change of all may be going on in Russia itself. Hidden behind that oppressive, growing, grey opaqueness that Putin has cultivated this past decade and set to refining in the last few weeks with the passing of new, draconian laws and the strongest clampdown yet on both international and national free media.
This is a curtain behind which I myself have long hankered to look with my love of Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, Tchiakovsky and Shostakovich; my enduring fascination with Lenin, Trotsky, Marx, Stalin and the faux communist regime they constructed; and a gathering preoccupation with the glitteringly sad, often tragic lives of the Czars and the human tragedy that was the Russian Revolution just over 100 years ago.
Yet to look, to peer, to read, to watch even, behind that curtain is not to understand what Russia is, what Russia has been or what Russia has now become under iron heel of Vladimir Putin.
I doubt even many Russians would dare to suggest they can predict what goes on in the dark reaches of Putin’s head. Even those who sit at the far end of that interminably long table an inhuman mile from the man they all fear — from the man whose grievous geopolitical ambitions have brought the world to the brink of WWIII and complete annihilation — would bulk at venturing an opinion on Putin’s state of mind.
Since 2007, and his now infamous speech at the Munich Security Conference, where Putin dismissed the liberal world order as little more than a flimsy US construct that was irrelevant and outwardly pernicious in its outlook to nations that saw the world through a different prism.
Signalling his intentions to trample over the 1994 Budapest Memorandum (which guaranteed Ukraine’s sovereign borders in exchange for Ukraine giving up what was then the 3rd largest nuclear weapons stockpile in the world) and the 1997 Founding Act (an agreement between NATO and Russia that signalled the West’s intentions to try and bring Russia into the warmth of a more prosperous, more democratic future ) Putin’s plan, I would suggest, was already taking shape in his head as he made that speech in 2007.
At the time perhaps, few in power in the West foresaw the ominous undertones present in Putin’s words, though some did speak out, their opinions fell on deaf ears; Russia was after all a has-been power that was too corrupt and broken to ever threaten the West again.
Putin had already begun openly building up the Russian military in contravention of the Vienna Convention, and with little or no rebuke from the West, this tacitly insipid response was taken by Putin as an indication of a growing Western degeneration and demise.
Within months of that speech Putin began testing Western resolve and found it wanting, just as he had expected. In response to NATO’s announcement Georgia and Ukraine would ‘one day’ join NATO, he marched his troops into Georgia to cease such provocative Western talk and end the ambitions of all Russian neighbours to join the Western security bloc.
And whilst the West’s response to the invasion of Georgia was muted, Ukraine got the message and immediately drew back from NATO, effectively putting their chance of joining NATO on ice.
But that weak response to Russian aggression probably served to further embolden Putin and so he began to strengthen Russia’s hand.
As I wrote just before the invasion began, Putin began “assassinating and poisoning enemies on European soil, interfering in the democratic process and disrupting elections, launching cyber attacks against government agencies, private companies, electrical grids and banks, supported and aided other strongmen in Venezuela, Syria and Libya, has moved troops forcefully and illegally into the Crimea, the Donbas, and parts of Georgia and Moldova.”
And all the West could muster was a few weak sanctions amounting to little more than a slap on the wrist.
All in full view of a West increasingly divided both politically and socially, and preoccupied with problems of its own, Putin saw only a green light and he took full advantage.
Waning popularity at home & increasing subjugation and repression of Russians point to a regime in danger.
All this Russian adventurism saw Putin’s popularity at home soar. But the cracks were already beginning to appear beneath the thin veneer of authoritarian stability that Putin broadcast to the world.
Back in 2000 when Putin came to power he had promised to restore Russian greatness — sound familiar? — words that were welcomed at home and abroad, though the meaning and portent of the words have perhaps only become apparent to most in the past 10 days.
Post-Yeltsin Russia was awash with corruption, political chaos and economic instability. The people were desperate and Putin came in as the anti-dote to all the woes of the Russian people. Within a few years he brought stability back, and with it became a Russian hero. He was all but untouchable!
And he did it by subtly shunning the Gorbachev/Yeltsin path to greater democracy, by building up the military and the intelligence services, he slowly tightened up state control of the media, brought major industries under state control, eliminated political opponents and replaced Yeltsin’s 90’s era oligarchs with ones of his own.
To all intents, he was rebuilding the Soviet era system with a more modern, structure centred around his own cult of personality.
But as the saying goes, ‘you can’t fool all of the people all of the time,’ and Putin’s growing detachment from reality, most likely accelerated by his self-imposed isolation during Covid, has started to crack and it is suggested the Russian people can see the change.
Independent polls would tell us that even up to a week ago Putin still remained inordinately popular among the proletariat. And then they woke up on Thursday 24th February to the news that Putin had launched his war with Ukraine, a war that most Russians it seems, never thought would happen, never wanted to happen.
Writing in the NYT Russian Alexey Kovalev says ‘the invasion of Ukraine is a waking nightmare, horrible and absurd,’ and that ‘Russia has already suffered a crushing moral defeat.’ Already reeling under the bone crushing weight of the unprecedented sanctions Russia has incurred, Russians are now looking at both Putin and Russia differently; ‘Russia is not the same as it was last week.’
But state run polls in Russia can also be highly manipulative and shows that deriving any concrete conclusions from polls alone is a highly risky enterprise. Independent polls do the advantage however that they have not been angled in such a way as to prove points, or so-called ‘facts,’ that have no evidential basis.
“According to a state-owned pollster, 68 percent of citizens support the war. But there’s a big caveat: The survey never mentioned war at all. Instead, it asked people whether they support what the government calls a ‘special military operation,’ aimed among other things at ‘preventing a NATO base in Ukraine’ and ‘denazification of Ukraine.’ What the poll really shows is how state media dominates public opinion.”
Alexey Kovalev NYT op-ed
That said, there is no doubt increasing repression at home other polls have indicated that Russians are becoming worried and scared at the loss of their few freedoms. In 2021 a Levada Centre independent poll showed that 52% of Russians fear mass repression and 58% fear arbitrary arrest or harm from local authorities.
And increasing repression is a common trait of long-term autocrats who see their tenure on the wane.
“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.”
The Beginning of the End for Putin, Foreign Affairs, March 2nd 2022
And that repression extends even to those closest to him. Putin was at pains to ensure both his State Security Council and ‘his’ oligarchs were forced to pledge support individually in front of him in what were highly choreographed meetings designed to limit any individuals hiding behind collective disapproval for his unfettered ambitions.
And with a 15 year prison term now hanging over anyone who speaks out against the ‘special military operation’ the personal costs for protesters on the street are high, and yet they continue and may even be gathering pace.
But in the end, what may bring Putin would be a dirty, long drawn out insurgency that would see a growing death toll in Russia, something that even the harshest repression would struggle to contain.
A plummeting Ruble, a devastated economy and increasing strife for the Russian people, and perhaps even the Russian military, may all serve to cause ripples of discontent and dissent that the state may be able contain. But I have no doubt the strongest reaction will arise in response to the loss of young Russian lives in what may yet turn out to be a horribly costly war in Ukraine.
A voice in the dark begs to disagree…
All this said, the traffic is not all one-way here. Some analysts have voiced caution in the race to condemn Russia to a defeat of any kind. One of those voices in the dark is The Long War Journals Bill Roggio, who together with his colleagues at the LWJ were ringing alarms bells in Afghanistan long before the government started collapse, and now Bill calling out what he calls ‘The Minority Report’ is once again warning the West against over optimism with regard to the Ukrainian defence, and also against under estimating the strength of Putin’s Russian forces.
Just as in Afghanistan, Bill is saying the West’s inability to understand an enigmatic and resourceful enemy may be deluding Western analysts and military advisors into believing that the enemy is weaker and more shambolic than it actually is. Bill suggests that the Russian advance is, in fact, far from stalling, and the myths of low troop morale and poor logistical management are misjudged and may ultimately lead to the West preventing it from saving Ukraine.
Bill does, however, qualify his advice though, confirming that he not a Russian or Ukrainian expert, but even so, such advice coming from someone with his reputation, is a sobering thought to be sure.
However, now to re-balance the equation I return to my go-to Russian expert Brian Whitmore of the Atlantic Council and The Power Vertical Podcast. Brian, who has many friends and contacts across Russia and Belarus, reports growing social unrest in Belarus with social hacker groups working overtime to disrupt the Russian advance and on this weeks podcast he sticks, in large part, to the more upbeat narrative.
And on that note…