Russian president Vladimir Putin and the country he leads are far weaker than Moscow propaganda suggests and, what is equally important, far weaker than many in Russia and the West think, the result of a successful combination of propaganda and dramatic action against those within his country and abroad who are intimidated or unwilling to stand up to him.
And while it would be a mistake to underestimate either, it is also a mistake to overrate Putin’s power and that of Russia because to do so gives him and it victories they do not deserve because it leads the population of his country and the leaders of Western countries to underrate their own powers and to assume that there is little or nothing they can do.
Moreover, to fail to understand the weaknesses of Putin and those of Russia is to ignore one of the major drivers of the Kremlin leader’s behaviour and thus to fail to anticipate or respond appropriately to Putin’s actions, which, in the past and even now, are driven less by his and its real strengths than by his and its profound weaknesses.
The effect of wars quickly exhausts itself
Russian political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin says Putin has nothing to offer his people to gain their support and to consolidate public opinion except “militaristic rhetoric and short victorious wars”. But the effect of those wars – and there have been three so far – quickly exhausts itself.
Not only do Russians grow bored but they also discover, to their horror, that these wars cost money as well as lives, and at a time when even their leaders tell them “there is no money” and when they are seeing their standard of living decline, ever fewer of them are prepared to support such adventures or the authors of such adventures for long.
Putin’s standing in the polls declining
That is reflected in the decline in Putin’s standing in the polls. Two years ago, some had him garnering 89 per cent; now, he is getting 74 per cent. Still high but not as high as it was – the result, Oreshkin says, “of the natural disappointment of the people” that “neither the annexation of Crimea nor the war in Ukraine has brought Russians anything good”.
Valery Solovey, an MGIMO professor who comments frequently on politics, is even more blunt: “…the powers that be in Russia are not very firm. They try to give the impression of a strong, self-confident and even brutal state. But this is an exaggeration, an attempt to frighten the external world and Russian society.”
Indeed, he adds, he is “not certain in the ability of the Russian powers that be to withstand many serious challenges. If such challenges occur, then we will see that all those who show their absolute, even lackey-like devotion to the supreme power will suddenly turn out to be disloyal and even members of the opposition.”
Infighting within the elite
Solovey says there are essentially two challenges ahead: “…the probability of mass social dissatisfaction which can combine with political protests” and “destabilization in the elite and splits in the elite in the vent of mass pressure from below”. There is already evidence of infighting within the elite over resources and even distancing from the Kremlin.
So far this infighting has not led to direct splits. Members of the elite are still afraid of Putin even if they believe he is ineffective or wrong. One major entrepreneur supposedly was told recently to stay in line because “Khodorkovsky’s prison bed is still available”. Fear matters to many, but there are still “some sincerely loyal” people, although even they “are beginning to express doubts about the future of the country and their own well-being”.
Putin has miscalculated in Syria: he didn’t get the grand bargain from the West about Ukraine he expected, and members of the Russian elite can see this. “But the main challenges to the Kremlin,” Solovey says, “will come not from outside but from inside the country.” Once the domestic scene begins to shake, then the impact of foreign events will matter even more.
Russian military might “a media product”
And Kyiv military expert Aleksey Arestovich states bluntly that “Russians for a long time already do not have any chances to seize even a small piece of Ukrainian territory let alone cities of a million people” or more like Odessa. Suggesting otherwise simply plays into Russian propaganda.
“One must understand,” he says, “that Russian military might doesn’t exist. This is a media product.” Even its military buildup now is not about an attack but about defence against what some in Moscow expect will be a NATO advance. That is clear if one looks at the situation of the Russian army.
It has about 330,000 soldiers in the land forces. Ukraine has 400,000. To change that equation, Arestovich says, “Russia would have to declare a general mobilization and rearm the military. But they will not do this because as soon as such a mobilization began the Russian economy would collapse, the West would introduce additional sanctions and all the couch lovers of ‘the Russian world’ would begin to run away.”
An enemy of the civilized world
Moreover, the Kyiv military analyst says, Putin has been backing down repeatedly in recent months as any examination of his words about Novorossia, then LNR and DNR and then Ukraine show. He faces more opposition abroad and at home. And “if Russia clashes with the US in Syria, it will lose.”
“The result will be a strong hit to the image of Putin as a strong politician. After such a defeat he may try to do something in Ukraine or in the Baltics. But all the same, his military opportunities remain limited and that means that his attacks would have the character of local operations.”
But while they would be local operations, they would be interpreted in the West as indications of Putin’s “complete insanity” which “for Ukraine would mean a further rapprochement with NATO and the receipt of lethal weapons”, things that would raise the costs to Russia of any action.
Moreover, this would mean that there would not be any politicians left in the West who could defend Putin and he “would become an enemy of the entire civilized world”. That too “would accelerate the defeat of Russia”, something that the Ukrainian analyst suggests people in the Kremlin are well aware of.
The opinions in this article are those of the author. The article was originally published by Paul Goble on his Window on Eurasia blog. Cover: Russia’s ageing and unreliable aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, billowing clouds of black smoke, while sailing through the Dover Strait on 21 October 2016 (courtesy of Dover Marina.)