As public support of Vladimir Putin’s policies skyrockets, political analysts observe increasing discontent among Russian elites. Rumors of elite efforts to oust Putin are being discussed behind the political scene. However, as Donald N. Jensen, resident fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Studies, argues, despite systemic tensions, Putin has a number of advantages that will likely see him through these difficulties.

 

 

Russian president Vladimir Putin failed to achieve his goal of stopping Ukraine’s association agreement with the European Union, signed by Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko and EU officials on June 27; but at home, Putin’s meddling in Ukraine has propelled his popularity to nearly unprecedented heights and completely reformatted Russian politics.

Although Ukraine seems to be slipping inexorably westward—ultimately a defeat for the Russian leader—there is no longer any debate inside the country about a different path for Russia or alternative national leaders. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and war by proxy in Ukraine, as commentator Vladimir Frolov has pointed out, has transformed the national conversation “from a healthy debate on Putin’s presidential performance into a toxic discussion on war and Russia’s enemies.” If Putin is fighting “Nazis” and “fascists” in Ukraine, then, by extension, anyone who disagrees with him could be a Nazi or fascist collaborator and an enemy of Russia. This closes the political space for voices that would challenge the dominant view of Russia as a revisionist empire hostile to the West. “With an ‘enemy at the gate,’” Frolov asks, “who would debate pension reform?” Any challenge to Putin’s rule is seen as anti-Russian, rather than as a normal political act.

Today more than 80 percent of Russians, including many so-called liberals or members of the political opposition, approve of Putin’s performance as president, according to a study published by the Levada Center in late May. This is an 18-point increase since the beginning of 2014 and just 8 points short of his record high (88 percent), which he reached in September 2008 after Russia’s war with Georgia. By contrast, this January, before the fall of the Yanukovych government, popular opinion of the Russian authorities was quite negative. People described them then as selfish, disregarding of the welfare of citizens and the rule of law, dishonest, and incompetent. Official corruption was a major concern of Russian voters.

In addition to the usual surge of patriotism that accompanies a military campaign in any country, factors peculiar to Russian society explain the boom in Putin’s popularity. Identifying Russia as a great power compensates for Russians’ inferiority complex toward the West, and their dependence on arbitrary state power. Putin’s aggressive tone toward the West and Ukraine increases their self-esteem as citizens of a strong state.

Sociologist Alexei Levinson has argued that Russians’ current hatred of Ukraine reflects their envy that a transformative event such as the Maidan Revolution could not happen in Russia. Moreover, widespread acceptance of the Kremlin’s invented narrative of “fascists in power” in the orchestration of the Ukrainian revolution by Kiev and the U.S. plays into the conspiracy-sensitive mindset shared by many Russians. The country’s Soviet legacy has made it easy to imagine enemies everywhere, virtually killed social idealism, and sowed cynicism. These attitudes were strengthened in the 1990s by reforms that were not really reforms, and have been maintained by puppet political parties and fake civil society institutions. Today the Kremlin is skilled, therefore, at turning popular skepticism to its own political advantage.

Public support for Putin’s adventure in Ukraine does not appear to run deep. Wartime mobilization cannot be indefinitely sustained—even by political technologists as skilled as those working for the Kremlin—in the absence of actual warfare. Without the sustained whipping-up of passions, support is likely to fade in the face of rising prices, the depreciation of the ruble, and economic slowdown. Support for intervention in Ukraine is also not necessarily the same as support for Putin. After all, if Putin is responsible for all the people in the country, illusions about his ability could turn into irritation if the economic situation continues to deteriorate.

Public opinion data published in March, before the peak of the crisis, already suggested that Putin was no longer exempt from criticism. Russians increasingly saw him less as the father of the nation than the leader of a corrupt clan focused only on self-preservation and enrichment.

In the arena of elite politics, which is as crucial to Putin’s political position as his broader popular standing, Putin remains the master. Elites who disagree with his aggressive course in Ukraine and are unhappy with Western sanctions remain too intimidated to speak out. But despite his dominance of the political scene, Putin cannot feel secure—he has to satisfy several antagonistic constituencies at once. Nationalists and members of the security services, encouraged by the annexation of Crimea, want Putin to go further in Ukraine and be more confrontational with the West. More moderate forces, including business executives, members of the independent middle class, and diplomats, although they largely support the taking of Crimea, want Putin to avoid rupture with the West and the strong sanctions that would accompany an overt embrace of the Ukrainian separatists or an invasion of the whole country.

So far Putin has followed a middle course. On the one hand, he has pursued negotiations in recent weeks and called for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. On the other hand, he has continued to provide Ukrainian insurgents with heavy weapons, reversed a withdrawal of Russian military forces from the border, and insisted that Ukraine neither affiliate more closely with the European Union nor join NATO. He thereby has painted himself into a political corner: he has dismayed some Russian nationalists by being unwilling, in their eyes, to back up his aggressive rhetoric in Ukraine with broader military action; and at the same time, oligarchs with assets overseas have quietly grumbled that their fortunes are in jeopardy. Although sanctions have been relatively mild so far, the Wall Street Journal reports that some Russian elites have turned up at Western embassies to lobby pre-emptively against being put on future lists.

Since he formally came to power in 2000, Putin has acted as the guarantor of elite interests, regulating the conflicts among elite clans and between elites and society at large, as well as legalizing the Russian elite and their assets in the West. This arbitrating role prevents tensions from exploding and potentially destroying the entire system. But strains have arisen on occasion. In a recent provocative essay, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky argues that since the Ukraine crisis and Western imposition of sanctions, Putin has ceased to be the guarantor of the interests of the people who brought him to power. He thus faces the possibility of a coup—either by nationalist forces dissatisfied with his reluctance to more assertively pursue the Russian imperial project, or by oligarchs unwilling to cut ties with the West.

Rumors of elite efforts to oust Putin have occasionally surfaced in the past. Indeed, they appeared during the protest movement of 2011–12, when Putin’s ability to protect the elites and provide the system with legitimacy came into question. Despite systemic tensions, though, Putin has a number of advantages that will likely see him through this time, too. These are popular apathy; the amorphousness of civil society; the widespread sense that there are no alternatives to Putin’s leadership; and the Kremlin’s ability to manipulate public opinion. According to recent sociological data, middle-class Russians are less likely to take to the streets to protest compared to middle-class citizens in Western societies, because they are more dependent on the state for their standard of living. Nevertheless, whenever the euphoria from his Ukraine adventure wears off, Putin will have to find new ways of igniting the country’s fervor—either by inventing new enemies abroad or “discovering” threats at home.

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