War and economy could weaken Putin’s place as leader

NEW YORK (AP) — As Russia’s military retreats from the outskirts of kyiv and faces condemnation for its brutal tactics, the harsh political repression at home and the economy rocked by Western sanctions, the Opponents and allies raise the same question about President Vladimir Putin: Can he keep power?

The answer: for now, but maybe not forever.

After 22 years in power, Putin has built a powerful phalanx of loyalists surrounding him, both in the Russian military and in the secret service. He also enjoys significant support among the Russian people, who are steeped in pro-Putin propaganda thanks to the Russian leader’s near total control over television and other mass media. Even today, many Russians consider his leadership to have brought more prestige, prosperity and stability to the country for two decades.

This protective edifice, the vast wealth controlled by Putin, and the absence of any significant history of palace coups in Russia make either of the obvious ways to topple Putin – a military mutiny or a people’s revolution. mass “color” – almost inconceivable at this time.

Yet all strong states are inherently vulnerable to the unexpected, especially when they become deaf to the society around them. Ask Hosni Mubarak.

“For the love of God, this man can’t stay in power,” President Joe Biden said of Putin last month in Poland. It was an off-the-cuff but heartfelt comment as the bloodshed in Ukraine escalated.

Putin, 69, is up for re-election in 2024, and changes to Russia’s constitution would likely allow him to remain president until 2036. But the imprisonment of Russia’s best-known opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, is just a sign. that Putin is not confident enough in his popularity to put himself to a true democratic test.

While there may be no credible poll in a country currently under martial law, the number of Russians knowledgeable and brave enough to protest the war in Ukraine so far numbers in the thousands, not the hundreds. thousands.

Tens of thousands of wealthy citizens, intellectuals and political critics have abandoned Russia rather than remain under Putin’s strict controls, finding refuge in Istanbul, Tbilisi or Western cities. This brain drain will undoubtedly harm Russia in the future. But for now, their departure removes a possible link of opposition from the company.

Of course, history is unpredictable. Few anticipated the rapid dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If Russian casualties in Ukraine are as high as reported – 15,000 or more dead and three times as many injuries in the space of six weeks – these results will eventually begin to filter into society despite official censorship.

The fate of the USSR could be said to have been sealed in 1986 after its then leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, loosened the Communist Party’s iron grip on information and set his sights on restructuring the stagnant economy of the Soviet Union in order to better compete with the West. It was the year of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, when the Politburo – after initially trying to cover up the disaster – was forced to disclose it to the Soviet public. The Soviet war in Afghanistan, meanwhile, had turned into a quagmire, leading to withdrawal in 1988-89.

In 1988, when Polish workers loyal to the independent Solidarity trade union movement launched a series of strikes in the coal mines and shipyards, Gorbachev signaled that he would not intervene in one of the main satellite states of the Soviet Union. The Polish leader at the time, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, whose imposition of martial law in 1981 had gotten that country nowhere, chose instead to open talks with the leader of the strikers, Lech Walesa. The result: partly democratic elections.

This in turn set off a series of dominoes in Eastern European countries, with Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria, Romania and Albania all seeking to escape the Soviet domination and communist rule. Before long, the fever had spread to the Baltic countries that were part of the Soviet Union itself, and nationalistic emotions flared across the union.

Hardliners in Moscow who had seen enough attempted a coup against Gorbachev, but they were too late. This was quickly reversed by the popular outpouring of support led by Boris Yeltsin. On December 31, 1991, Gorbachev and the Soviet Union had been swept away by the end of the Soviet Union.

Putin, at the time an intelligence agent in East Germany, lived through the events and drew the appropriate conclusions to maintain control now. Even before the war in Ukraine, he worked to shape public opinion by portraying Ukrainians as Nazis who threatened Russia. Then it cracked down on the independent media and the few remaining civil society groups.

More recently, he imposed draconian anti-media laws that prohibit telling the Russian public anything about the war that conflicts with the Kremlin’s chosen narrative of the “special military operation.” Dissenters and skeptics were branded as scum and gnats, worthy only of being spat out.

Apart from Gorbachev, the only Soviet leader to be deposed was Nikita Khrushchev, whose 11 years in power ended in 1964.

He was expelled by his closest Communist Party associates. Troubled by a series of disastrous economic decisions, a failed initiative to install nuclear weapons in Cuba and signs that Khrushchev intended to build a cult of personality, fellow Communist Presidium members denounced him during a a closed meeting during his absence.

Upon his return, realizing he had lost all support, Khrushchev agreed to step down on the fictitious grounds of ill health. He quickly became a non-person within the Soviet Union, when his successor Leonid Brezhnev took over leadership. But again, the bloodless elimination of Khrushchev was unique.

Could such a thing happen to Putin as economic conditions deteriorate, or if the Ukrainian invasion spells disaster for Russia?

Unlike the Soviet Union, there is little institutional party structure that could intervene to overthrow him. Putin has cronies, yes men, and a coterie of “siloviki” – people in power steeped in the hardline nationalist thinking of the FSB and the military – none of whom so far dare to show any independence from vis-à-vis Putin’s “plan” for war in Ukraine.

Yet battlefield casualties have already led to an apparent reduction in military targets, angering and disappointing some anti-Ukrainian pundits on Russian television.

While Putin’s coterie had better stay close for now or risk losing their privileges and wealth, if the war in Ukraine drags on for months or years and Putin’s adventure turns into the gigantic disaster as it appears to be so far, it is almost certain that cracks will appear.

In the absence of a total Russian victory over Ukraine, it is already difficult to imagine that the world will start to act as if nothing had happened with Vladimir Putin. It could find itself locked in an overwhelming and endless conflict at its border and faced with the need to impose more and more repression at home to stifle dissent from a population that pays the economic consequences of the invasion.

Aging leaders rarely last forever or have the luxury to leave office at will. Whether through elections, revolt or internal mutiny, the long days of Putin’s rule may well be numbered.


John Daniszewski, former international news editor at the Associated Press, first reported from Eastern Europe in 1987 and has been based in Warsaw, Johannesburg, Cairo, Moscow, Baghdad and London. He is currently the AP’s Vice President for Standards and Editor-in-Chief. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jdaniszewski

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