Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine — cutting off his own nation of nearly 150 million and torpedoing its economy in pursuit of a delusion — marks the start of a final act for Russia’s president. Not yet the end.
Swept up by the charm of Ukraine’s comedian-turned-president, the bravery of the country’s defenders and the blunders of Russia’s armed forces, some may think that a miscalculation on this scale will trigger the swift demise of the longest-serving Russian leader since Josef Stalin.
The unprecedented breadth of sanctions imposed means pain for both oligarchs and ordinary households, and opposition to the war is emerging from unusual quarters. We know that dictators are, more often than not, felled by their own mistakes — and those errors have often been far less consequential than this one.
Nothing is impossible in a crisis of this scale. But for now, the result is less likely to be an elite coup or popular revolt than it is a dramatic ramping up of repression to smother critical voices and maintain the illusion of overwhelming popular support. In fact, this is already under way, in a display of short-term thinking from a system that is out of options, with no party loyalty or ideology to fall back on and its social pact in tatters. The question is how long that can last.
Putin still holds the primary instruments of control. For one, that’s a firm grip on the message that reaches the vast majority of Russians, making it easier to sell the current cataclysm as an attack on Russia, directing popular anger toward the West — not the Kremlin. State television is providing wall-to-wall Putin-friendly coverage, with angry pundits berating “Nazis” in Ukraine or curated news bulletins that avoid mentioning a “war” or any Russian losses. In overdrive,
Moscow has silenced even long-tolerated opposition voices like liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, which has broadcast for over three decades, and imposed a strict censorship law that has prompted even Western outlets to suspend work on the ground. There’s a tight rein on social media, particularly dangerous given how many families have direct ties to Ukraine and how loud the voices of soldiers’ mothers can be. Russians are turning to VPNs and short wave radios — but only some.
Unsurprisingly, there is also zero tolerance for even the most benign, single-person demonstrations against the war, as the Kremlin is all too aware that criticism against its “special operation” can rapidly turn against the regime. Since the invasion began, OVD-Info calculates more than 13,200 people have been detained, an extraordinary number given the constraints on protest, some for offenses as minor as hanging a banner.
Putin, a former KGB man, still has the loyalty of the security services and of a roughly 400,000-strong National Guard, Rosgvardia, which he created six years ago, reports directly to him and is run by his former bodyguard. He still controls the upper levels of government too, including the siloviki (security service veterans), who are far less united than is often assumed and intervene extremely rarely — as in August 1991, at a time of state collapse. Yes, there have been expressions of discontent among the oligarchs, but this is not the 1990s. In Putin’s Russia, billionaires are recipients of rents, not the power brokers they once were.
Crucially, Putin has ensured there is no obvious alternative to his leadership, no easy replacement. Ben Noble at University College London, who studies Russian domestic politics, points out that it’s by design that there is no modern equivalent of the politburo, which enabled Nikita Khrushchev to be removed in 1964 — a rare event in the Soviet Union, and in part because of his mishandling of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
On the battlefront, meanwhile, Russia has deployed only a fraction of its resources. Its army may be ill-fed, drive poorly maintained vehicles and suffer confusion about its mission, but it has the weaponry and manpower to keep going and to inflict far more damage.
But how long can this continue? There are antiwar — if not quite anti-Putin — voices from emerging hard-to-silence corners. Usually apolitical celebrities have spoken up, directly to fans. Regional officials, journalists with state-friendly media, even students at a prestigious university that trains Russia’s diplomats have signed open letters. Most crucially, as the economy disintegrates, workers are angry.
Tatiana Stanovaya of R.Politik, a political analysis firm, points to deep resentment within the Russian elite, now unsure of what to expect for the future. That discontent is largely silent. Under pressure, however, hairline fractures are appearing. These are not yet dangerous to Putin’s survival, but the more repression is exercised, the more fragile the system, the less able it is to deal with the social strains that will emerge as state finances fray. And it’s these strains, Stanovaya points out, not foreign policy, that will ultimately force change.
Russia is, for now, missing the crucial ingredients for the end of the current regime, says political scientist Lee Morgenbesser at Griffith University in Australia, who researches authoritarian systems: There’s no transitional leader in the wings, no mass mobilization. He points out Putin has little incentive to drive off into the sunset given that any exit — with all the security and financial guarantees autocrats require — would be negotiated today from a position of weakness.
But there will be a tipping point, a trigger, he says, that will eventually set off expressions of already simmering economic and social discontent, on a scale the Kremlin cannot ignore. As Hosni Mubarak demonstrated in Egypt, it doesn’t take a lot when the moment comes.
This prospect should spur the West to continue supporting independent media, even in exile, and open access to information for ordinary citizens. It should prompt only increases in the economic pressure already crushing Russia. None of this guarantees democracy — the immediate alternative to Putin is not necessarily a liberal democratic one — but the priority today is halting the wanton destruction.
Until then, this is a period of darkness. In Ukraine, if Russia continues to meet heavy resistance, as seems likely, a long period of struggle lies ahead. When I see Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kyiv, I think of the damage Russia did on its own soil in the southern breakaway region of Chechnya. In 1994, Pavel Grachev, then defense minister, vowed he would crush rebels “in a couple of hours with a single regiment of paratroopers.” He didn’t. By the time I got there in 2002, there was barely an intact building in the capital Grozny. The once-busy Minutka Square was a mountain of rubble. People lived in corridors, because the external walls of their housing blocks had been blown apart.
And it’s gloom for Russia’s isolated, autarkic economy too, its youngest and brightest leaving fast. In Moscow in the chaos of 1998, for all the despair, there was still openness, a sense that improvement was possible. That is gone. With no long-term vision, this regime is able to promise its people only survival and its willingness to resolve every problem with a fist.
Russia is now in uncharted territory, controlled and cut off to an unprecedented extent; few Soviet comparisons are useful. But we know from that history that while brutal repression is effective as a means of control, it does not — and cannot — last.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist
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