As Russia’s economy enters recession and its political stability starts to weaken, there is increasing speculation about the possibility of a regime change in the country. Donald N. Jensen, resident fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations, discusses Russia’s political climate and the options currently confronting Vladimir Putin.

 

Although Russia’s President Vladimir Putin appears firmly in charge, any threat to him at the moment lies in the corridors of power. Depicted above is Putin with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (left) and Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration Sergei Ivanov (right). Photo: Reuters

 

After more than twelve years in power, Russian president Vladimir Putin is facing what is likely his most difficult and turbulent period in office. The Russian economy, in dire need of restructuring, is shrinking due to Western sanctions and the collapse of international oil prices, and the inflation rate has risen to more than 10 percent. The country is plagued by corruption and bureaucracy and finds itself diplomatically isolated due to its occupation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine.

Throughout 2014 the Kremlin claimed it would spearhead a challenge to the existing global order, a system of power dominated by the U.S. But although sympathetic, Moscow’s putative allies in that campaign—China, Brazil, and India, among others—have found their interests better served by maintaining relatively constructive ties with the West. Inside Russia, there have been few street protests against the country’s deteriorating prospects, but unease among the elites, key players in Russian politics, is growing.

Putin has long dominated Russia, but today the challenge he faces in retaining his power is twofold. First, he must effectively manage the popular mood in society. Second, he must ensure the loyalty of the elites and avoid situations that might cause those groups to abandon him. On December 18, 2014, at his end-of-year press conference, Putin permitted a rare question about the possibility of a “palace” coup. “We do not have palaces here,” he answered unconvincingly, “but only official residences.” In modern Russian and Soviet history, however, the putsch has been a favored method of leadership change. They were undertaken against Khrushchev and Gorbachev. Court intrigue may have pushed Yeltsin into retirement.

Although Putin appears firmly in charge, any threat to him at the moment lies in the corridors of power rather than in the streets. Western sanctions and the drop in oil prices demonstrate that Putin is no longer able to protect the economic interests of key members of the ruling class. Some top oligarchs have lost between 20 and 70 percent of their fortunes. In a system where money and political power are intertwined, this is a political blow to the regime. According to press reports, the ruble’s plunge has heightened opposition to the war in Ukraine among Putin’s wealthiest allies, prompting him to shrink his inner circle from dozens of confidants to a small group of hardliners from the power ministries. These critics do not want Putin’s personal ambitions to destroy their fortunes but believe that if they openly opposed him they would be crushed.

There is little doubt these disaffected oligarchs have begun to quietly consider a change in the regime’s leadership. Putin’s increased dependence on hardliners could also be dangerous, as Mikhail Gorbachev found out a generation ago when he tried to balance polarized political forces during the Soviet twilight. It diminishes Putin’s freedom to maneuver and increases the risk that he will become their political hostage.

If Putin’s regime becomes too unstable, his ship could list quickly and start taking on water. A single triggering event could lead to social unrest, the emergence of new leaders, and an overt split in the elite.

Putin is thus vulnerable, but he seems to be taking no chances. There is no sign of a strong political figure breathing down his neck, tempted to push him aside and take over. Prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is in line to become president should Putin depart the scene, is a relatively weak political figure. He lacks the clout to rule the country. In recent months there have been reports that Putin might replace interior minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, who has a reputation as an independent policeman, with his deputy, Viktor Zolotov, former head of the Federal Protective Service—Putin’s personal security detail. (In the past, Zolotov also served as the bodyguard of Putin’s mentor, St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak.) Zolotov’s appointment would put at the top of the Interior Ministry someone directly loyal to Putin, who could prevent a coup or put down domestic unrest. Zolotov also reportedly has strained relations with the leaders of the other power ministries. This may reflect Putin’s intent to foster rivalry among these bodies so they are less likely to combine against him. Putin nevertheless needs their collective support and seeks to act as their arbiter.

Finally, Putin reportedly attempts to stay better informed by receiving his daily intelligence briefings from competing agencies. But their track records are questionable. Since the Kremlin apparently underestimated the strength of the Maidan movement in Ukraine last year, the power ministries’ ability to fully appreciate the force of grass roots movements is in doubt. Also doubtful is their willingness and ability to fully report back to Putin on developments in the upper echelons of power, especially on masters who may wish to undermine the Russian president.

For now Putin has important strengths that may carry him through. These include significant popular support, the legitimacy derived from being elected at the ballot box (manipulated though the results may have been), control over the regime’s resources, and the nominal loyalty of the country’s various armed groups. Putin’s power and the system he rules are brittle, however, and susceptible to rapid deterioration. Events in the coming months—especially if oil prices fall below $40 per barrel for a prolonged period of time—are likely to put both to the test. If the current crisis continues, Putin will have only two real options: He can launch political reforms, which would be resisted by the hardliners who might seek to replace him, and which, if successful, would unleash pressures for change that would undermine his grip on power. Or he can crack down, thereby risking destabilization and chaos.

If Putin’s regime becomes too unstable, his ship could list quickly and start taking on water. A single triggering event could lead to social unrest, the emergence of new leaders, and an overt split in the elite. What no one yet knows is which forces are best poised to take advantage of the economic crisis and exploit Putin’s weakness. “Russia is a hostage to the regime,” political analyst Nikolay Petrov said at a Moscow conference recently, “the regime is a hostage to Putin, while Putin is a hostage to his decisions, which have left him without an exit strategy.”

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