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A weakened Putin is no use to Russia

AS UKRAINIAN troops probe Russian defenses along the entire front and only the Wagner Group mercenaries continue a small-scale offensive operation in the Donetsk region, the initiative in the Russo-Ukrainian war is firmly in the hands of the invaded, not the invader. While that can still change, perhaps more than once, it’s a good moment to consider whether the man who got Russia into this mess retains any legitimacy — domestically or internationally. To put it even more bluntly, who, if anyone, still needs a weak Vladimir Putin?

Putin’s claim to power has evolved over his nearly 22 years atop the Kremlin. In 2000, he was President Boris Yeltsin’s chosen successor, then the president elected in a vote that, while not problem-free, reflected the will of Russian voters. By the end of the first eight years of his rule, he was the architect of a corruption-plagued, but broadly beneficial economic upsurge; because Russians credited him for that, they cared little about the erosion of electoral democracy as he consolidated power. After the intermission of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, he briefly struggled to find a new source of legitimacy until he seized on the annexation of Crimea, an event so inspiring to a large majority of Russians that even a harsh pension reform four years later didn’t appreciably dent his popularity.

Putin went into the COVID-19 pandemic riding an ebbing Crimea wave of support while relying increasingly on a swollen, well-fed security apparatus — a full-fledged dictator now, with elections a joke and all major issues, and lots of minor ones, requiring his personal intervention. The pandemic, when most visitors had to quarantine for weeks before being admitted to Putin’s presence, seems to have shrunk his trusted entourage to a handful of yes-men. The Kremlin’s erratic policies made Russia one of COVID’s biggest victims, and only the disease and increasing oppression kept Russians from looking up too much. By then, Putin’s legitimacy rested on the general impression of undefeated, unbeatable strength, backed up by a military success in Syria and the steamrolling of domestic opposition.

As in the tough streets of any big city, however, be it St. Petersburg or Sao Paolo, the reputation of a strongman as the head of a country needs constant reinforcing by further feats of strength. For his next one, Putin chose Ukraine again, launching what he clearly thought would be a blitzkrieg ending with the swift fall of Kyiv and the annexation of a large swathe of Ukrainian territory. Even though the outcome of the war is far from decided, this show of force has failed spectacularly. Russia has revealed itself to be vulnerable militarily after years of bravado that deceived even the experts.

Russia’s weakness is not lost on foreign leaders, from once-cautious Western adversaries shipping increasingly deadly weaponry to Ukraine to neighbors like Azerbaijan’s leader Ilham Aliyev, who appears to see a new opportunity to improve his country’s position in Nagorno-Karabakh while Putin is bogged down in Ukraine. Putin may have hoped for more active support from China, but he’s not getting anything beyond discounted energy purchases; if he was winning, China would doubtless be more forthcoming.

The domestic audience, too, appears to be shedding its illusions of Russia’s greatness, no matter what one might say about the efficiency of Putin’s propaganda. His media mouthpieces Vladimir Solovyov and Margarita Simonyan no longer own the narrative. Even on state television, not to mention nationalist Telegram channels with hundreds of thousands of readers, Russia’s defeats are engendering much bitterness and hurt. The hard-core propagandists look lost, sometimes downright bizarre, with Simonyan retreating into sentimental memories and poetry and Solovyov appearing on the air with bruises and scratches on his face.

Putin himself, stubbornly maintaining a business-as-usual program of meetings of little relevance to the Ukrainian elephant in the room, looks like a denizen of “Pink Pony Planet,” as far-right commentator Igor Girkin (Strelkov) calls the distant realm of the Russian elite.

And what of Putin’s suppression machine, his vaunted FSB domestic intelligence and more than 300,000-strong Rosgvardia riot police? Despite its extensive network, the former failed to predict Ukraine’s stiff resistance. A large part of the latter was sent across the border, initially to police the conquered territories, but ending up in the meat grinder of trench warfare, something for which its personnel never trained. Whether they will return from the war with any respect for Putin is questionable; even the dictator’s faithful servant, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, whose fighting force in Ukraine is part of Rosgvardia, has doubted the campaign’s conduct, if not (yet) Putin’s leadership and goal-setting.

If a strong Putin was widely tolerated, often appeased, and, in Russia itself, feared and obeyed, what could be the basis of a weak Putin’s power? Certainly not sympathy: Russians aren’t known to respect weak leaders — witness the political fate of the last Soviet President, the late Mikhail Gorbachev, and many a Russian czar before him. A Ukraine-style popular revolution in Russia is unlikely, even if Western sanctions begin to bite in earnest: The new leaders needed for something like that will not emerge overnight from Russia’s thoroughly purged civil society. But you can at least expect popular indifference in the face of top-down change. Despite appearances, an unquestioning pro-Putin majority doesn’t exist, according to a recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace — and the number of the dictator’s diehard backers won’t increase with more defeats.

Internationally, what might prop up Putin even if he loses the war is a fear that what comes after him may be far worse. The far right, inspired by the same ideals of imperial greatness as Putin himself, can be much more ruthless when it comes to its choice of means to that end. Someone of Strelkov’s ilk with a finger on the nuclear button is indeed a scary thought.

Domestically, though, Putin risks losing control as soon as the fear subsides. Military and police commanders, spies, even the timid oligarchs will be scheming — and likely already are, as a matter of contingency planning — to put forward a figure who could maintain their positions while pulling out of the Ukraine nosedive and offering a calming alternative to the rest of the world. The tightening of Putin’s close circle during the pandemic has, as an unintended consequence, shortened his reach and provided more opportunity for plots and intrigues behind his back.

None of this means, of course, that Putin is about to be toppled. Speculation concerning potential replacements is being dribbled into Telegram and foreign media mostly as a way to damage specific figures. For now, the dictator is still in control: All his years in power have earned him the benefit of the doubt among Russia’s powerful, a group moth-eaten by negative selection. He must, however, realize that if military defeats continue, retaining his clout will require surprising, even drastic moves. The world might yet be treated to a re-enactment of the tired cornered rat metaphor from Putin’s childhood — something to keep in mind but not to fear: All dictatorships end someday, and few go out in a blaze of glory.

BLOOMBERG OPINION

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