Gordon M. Hahn
Vladimir Putin has had several opportunities over the course of his tenure as Russia’s leader to get out of that position and even steer his homeland towards a more liberal, even semi-democratic form of rule. Each time, he has missed it. The first came in 2008, when Putin stepped aside from the presidency and backed his prime minister Dmitrii Medvedev’s candidacy for the Kremlin office. Upon Medvedev’s certain victory, his ‘tandem’ partner now president engineered the famous ‘castling’ move appointing Putin as his prime minister. Even before he became president, Medvedev signaled he would begin a liberalization or ‘thaw’ in Russian politics. He followed through with numerous liberalization measures as president. After Putin announced fatefully that he would take Medvedev’s position as the Kremlin’s candidate for the 2012 presidential election, he alienated a large part of the younger members of the elite. After the December 2011 Duma election, riots, then mass demonstrations broke out, particularly in Moscow but also other cities in the so-called white ribbon revolution, aborted albeit. In response, Medvedev launched a series of major reforms of the electoral system, which if they had remained in place would lay the ground for a transition to democratic rule imposed from above, particularly in combination with Medvedev’s earlier reforms and liberalization. But Putin decided upon his return to the Kremlin to repeal those reforms and stop reinforcing earlier ones and gradually instituted modestly harsher laws regarding demonstrations, Internet activity, and others. In doing so, he began to back himself into a corner. Putin could have left in 2018 but did not.
Putin’s Position Today
Putin has another opportunity in 2024, but he and his elite has become ever more dependent on his hold on office and his protection, respectively, given their corruption. The elite and Putin need Putin to remain in office to retain that protection racket. At the same time, their ties to the population are badly attenuated and their attitude towards it increasingly distrustful and condescending. Like most elites, but in more hyper-form, they feel that only they know how to rule the country and therefore only they have the right to rule and for their labors they also have a right to enrich themselves. Massive corruption is the result, and any successful Russian opposition movement would be wise to hit that issue hard. The one who has done so the hardest is Alexei Navalnyi; hence his travails.
As I have discussed elsewhere there is some evidence in the institutional changes has been undertaking since his speech a year ago that Putin is leaving the option of leaving the president open, but increasingly one has doubts he will take. His speech kicking off these constitutional reforms originally hinted at a liberation that disappeared as specifics later emerged and constitutional amendments were adopted
(https://gordonhahn.com/2020/03/24/putins-constitutional-amendments-political-balancing-in-an-increasingly-traditionalist-russian-political-culture-divided-world-and-crisis-century/). His past decisions on whether or not to stay on in the Kremlin and his response to the 2011-2012 white ribbon demonstrations suggest that January 23rd’s demonstrations will only encourage him to stay on, if he had not decided to do so already.
Putin will view or at least characterize Navalnyi’s return to Russia as a CIA special operation. This will be used to justify a further ‘tightening of the screws’ against the still only potential threat that Navalnyi represents. This will also cast a shadow of doubt over Navalnyi’s patriotism by characterizing his return not as a patriotic act or at least a love of country or home that trumps apparent risks to his life. Putin cannot afford to have Navalnyi expand his small foothold among nationalist ranks.
But Western sanctions are likely to help maintain Putin’s approval ratings as will any foreign conflict with the West. Twice during Putin’s tenure as Russia’s president, the West has helped to spark a conflict in a post-Soviet state bordering Russia that in turn produced a ‘bump’ in Putin’s approval ratings: (1) Saakashvili’s brutal bombing of Tskhinvali on 7 August 2008 and the resulting Five-Day Georgian-South Ossetin/Russian War and (2) the Maidan revolt in winter 2013-2014, which saw a 20 point bump for Putin’s approval rating from October 2013 to October 2014 (from 40 to 60 percent). The facts that later emerged about the way Yanukovych was overthrown by the ultra-nationalist wing of the Maidan movement killing police and demonstrators on 20 February 2014 and the West’s repetition for years of the lie that Yanukovych ordered riot police to fire on the demonstrators prolonged the bump than otherwise might have been. The lie also reinforces Putin’s position today among those Russians suspicious of West writ large, given the long history of meddling, intervention, and invasion.
Thus, Navalnyi’s alleged poisoning and return alone have further distanced Putin from the West, if further distancing was possible. One cannot exclude that elements within Putin’s elite master-minded the poisoning of Navalnyi precisely to achieve such a result and even set the stage for Putin’s removal from power so as to institute a ‘real’ widespread crackdown and shift to a harsh authoritarian regime or to start talks with the West with an ostensibly clean slate but still from a traditionalist foreign policy position. The information Navalnyi leaked upon his return on what is allegedly Putin’s luxury presidential palace in Gelendzhik, Krasnodar, had to come from inside. It is important to note that since Soviet times Krasnodar has been gathering spot for vacationing Russian intel officials. (The palace could be an FSB mansion as likely as a presidential one.) Moreover, there have been additional recent reports about Putin family corruption, such as that regarding his daughter Maria Vorontsova (https://news-fancy.com/77575-doch-putina-vyshla-iz-teni-full.html). Or is all this a method to keep Putin from daring to leave the presidency? Video conferences of government meetings often show a Putin with a drawn face–perhaps a man feeling trapped as much any fear of a liberal or other uprising from below or a hardline coup from above.
Increasingly, Putin’s inner circle is, well, circling the tents. Putin just recently issued an order lifting the 70-year age limit on higher-ranking officials, with close associate Nikolai Patrushev due to turn 70 in July and
FSB chief Aleksandr Bortnikov due to reach 70 in November (www.ng.ru/politics/2021-01-22/100_polit22012021.html). It is interest that in the apparent telephone call with someone Navalnyi claims was a low-level perpetrator of his poisoning in Tomsk, he mentioned former FSB chief and now Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev. Patrushev, along with RosNeft chief Igor Sechin and FSB chief Aleksandr Bortnikov, head the siloviki faction in the Kremlin. After Vladislav Surkov’s departure Patrushev has emerged as something of the new Kremlin chief ideologist, a gray cardinal reminiscent in spirit of Konstantin Pobedonostsev. In 2018 he engineered the appointment of his son, Dmitrii, to the post of Minister of Agriculture, which has become a very profitable sector under de-collectivization and privatization in the 1990s and modernization and fields-to-shelves vertical integration under Putin. On November 11, 2019, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev published a programmatic article in Rossiiskaya gazeta, a Russian newspaper published by the government of Russia. In the article Patrushev underlined that a multipolar world order is emerging, and that the West, the once unipolar system’s superpower, is gradually declining (https://rg.ru/2019/11/11/patrushev-ssha-stremiatsia-izbavitsia-ot-mezhdunarodno-pravovyh-ramok.html). Then in June of last year he gave an extended interview to the popular Argumenty i fakty weekly in which he again touched on Russo-Western relations and discussed a very traditionalist, even hardline take on Russian history and culture (https://aif.ru/society/safety/kuklovodstvo_k_deystviyu_nikolay_patrushev_o_metodah_cvetnyh_revolyuciy). Now, in the wake of Navalnyi’s return and the January 23rd protests, Patrushev gave another interview to the weekly, in which he charged Navalnyi with being a puppet of the ‘russophobic’ and thus ‘decaying’ West (https://aif.ru/politics/world/nikolay_patrushev_rusofobiya_vedet_k_degradacii). It is just a hunch, but one gets the feeling that despite his age Patrushev is a man on the move.
Whether it is because of Putin’s greater inclination to crackdown and therefore more firmly ally with hardliners against the few remaining liberals inside the state apparatus or a sign of Putin being beholden and even vulnerable to a forming hardline cabal is difficult to determine. But there can be no doubt that Putin is protecting or at a minimum is responsible for the impunity of those within the intelligence organs or rogue elements within or outside them apparently involved in Navalnyi’s posioning. The audiotape of one of those whom Navalnyi has accused of participating in his poisoning, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, would be investigated, debunked or confirmed leading to detention and indictment in any normal legal system (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwvA49ZXnf8&ab_channel=bellingcat). The video offers a name of an agent, who apparently speaks and he confirms his involvement. In a rule of law state, such would force an investigation. Investigators and journalists would be asking: Who is this man? Is he a FSB or GRU employee? They would interview him as a ‘person of interest.’ But nothing of the sort has happened. Instead, Navalnyi was detained upon return from Germany. Putin and Kremlin spokesman Dmitrii Peskov claim Navalnyi is an agent of the West, receiving support from him. But despite the Investigative Committee’s FSB’s, GRU’s and SVR’s enormous resources, no official source has ever presented any evidence.
Despite the Navalnyi debacle, COVID, a stagnant economy, and disastrous relations with the West, Putin’s ratings still remain high. According to the Levada Center, Putin’s approval rating fell to a record low last May to 59 percent but rebounded and by December 2020 registered at 68 percent (www.levada.ru/en/2020/11/24/approval-ratings-17/). VTsIOM’s data shows Putin’s approval rating fell from 67.7 percent in January 2020 to 66.1 percent in January 2021 (https://wciom.ru/ratings/doverie-politikam/). But Russians can change their view of their leader and regime rather suddenly, as 1917 and 1991 attest, and Russians’ views of whether the country is moving in the right or wrong direction saw in December the highest result for the ‘wrong direction’ since 2013, hitting 43 percent. The highest sense of wrong direction was 50 percent in 2004 (https://www.levada.ru/en/2020/11/24/approval-ratings-17/). Russians’ general perception of massive corruption among the elite and the perhaps small hit Putin’s reputation has taken as a result of the Navalnyi poisoning and imprisonment, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg, could together with the corruption reports more seriously undermine Putin, whose position has seen some weakening in recent years. The next popularity ratings will reveal what the trend is.
Navalnyi’s Weak Position
Navalnyi has achieved some successes over the years, and he has smelled blood. Examples include his 29 percent take in the 2012 Moscow mayoral election and his ‘smart voting’ strategy which yielded some positive results for democratic (and communist) forces in recent elections, most recently in the municipal district council elections in Moscow and St. Petersburg last year. He also has had some small but bold successes since his return to Moscow, but they are unlikely to lead to a regime change before any of the upcoming elections around which many contemporary ‘color revolutions’ are made. The Navalnyi threat, despite its modest strength, will likely only push Russian President Vladimir Putin to somewhat harshen legislation regarding demonstrations and make permits more difficult to get in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The regime may be harshened overall. With Navalny in prison and unlikely to be released before trial, it is likely that his wife Yuliya will attempt to run for the State Duma in the autumn election. She is unlikely to be registered. Thus, any idea of repeating the Belarus scenario in the way of a female led color revolution is unlikely to materialize, but the opposition has announced it will try to repeat the Belarus (and Krasnoyarsk) scenario of demonstrations held on a weekly or even more frequent protests. For now, the strategy of Maidan-style tent city seems out of the question, given the large number of security forces Putin can and is willing to deploy. The September Duma elections could be the focal point for mass demonstrations depending on the extent to which the opposition can mount a robust vote with weaker candidates and the extent the regime responds with efforts to cheat.
Navalnyi may smell blood, but his position is weak. Navalnyi will likely be sentenced to several years in prison, provoking more Western sanctions. He needs an uprising to save him. Perhaps, he is calculating that by stirring the pot he can provoke defections of liberals like Aleksei Kudrin from the regime, sparking a regime split that could help bring Putin down. Perhaps he can push hardliners to organize a coup in order to set instill order in a regime plagued by debilitating corruption that might have been on display in the perhaps botched Novichok poisonings of the Skripals and Navalnyi, evidenced by the survival of the intended victims and one of the Navalnyi attack’s apparent perpetrator’s willingness to talk with someone (Navalnyi) about the alleged crime over the phone (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwvA49ZXnf8&feature=emb_title&ab_channel=bellingcat&fbclid=IwAR35M-FUZw9khNMNSKFtvoZHFvuHxEUv7h5Y1nAOP1WoZLYqVv_PyOLV0Tc).
It is impossible to know if or precisely how and why Navalnyi was poisoned and whether Putin had a role in it. This will remain true for some time, perhaps forever. What is important is how Navalnyi’s poisoning has been perceived and framed at home and abroad. It can only be said that the fact that Navalnyi’s poisoning was not investigated by Russian law enforcement, that Putin did not demand an investigation, that Navalnyi was immediately arrested on charges that had not been initiated until Navalnyi accused Putin of ordering his poisoning — all this cannot but support the view that Putin or someone high up in the regime that he needs to protect was involved. This will become the view of a few more Russians, but not many more. To this extent, the Navalnyi poisoning may have somewhat weakened Putin’s position even before the release of a long video asserting Putin’s personal corruption and revealing an enormous luxury palace in Crimea that houses a skating rink, casino, large pool and spa, chapel, cemetery, and much else, ostensibly ‘belonging’ to Putin. This is no surprise, as everyone around him has had their luxurious lifestyles and holdings exposed by Navalnyi and others. We cannot know whether this is state property of Putin’s personal property or whether Western intelligence or their various offshoots furnished Navalnyi with some of the video and photographs. What is important is any effect on public perceptions of Putin and any repercussions this may have inside the ruling elite, since some of the photographs had to have been obtained through access provided by insiders at some level, probably for a good deal of cash.
This points to a different risk if a pro-Navalnyi protest were to achieve some sort of shocking success: storming and freeing Navalny from prison, a storm of the Kremlin or White House in Moscow or Smolny in St. Petersburg, establishment of a permanent opposition autonomous zone, or some other action. Such could provoke a traditionalist backlash by the regime or the pro-Putin portion of the public with impunity. Again, it cannot be understated the extent to which Russians distrust Western media, which leads the reporting on Navalnyi and is reflected in the liberal opposition’s reporting as well as the way Russians perceive it. For a larger number of Russians to turn against Putin, a regime action will have to touch a broad base of Russians, including those who lukewarmly support him, such as the misbegotten initial pension reforms in 2018, which sparked mass protests. Over time, as Putin ages Putin fatigue among the populace will grow and that is more likely to be the time when the regime collapses, but the 2024 presidential election and fall’s Duma elections are opportunities for the opposition.
As I wrote in an earlier piece, in some ways Navalnyi’s political personality reminds one of Vladimir Lenin. His return to Russia from Germany and immediate attempt to foment a revolt only underscore the comparison. As I noted in the previous piece, Navalnyi is extremely driven to come to power and take revenge on Putin, he is a some authoritarian personality himself, and has usually been unable to engage in the kinds of compromises to build a broad-based democracy-centered opposition movement, preferring to insist on the lead role (https://gordonhahn.com/2019/09/09/alexei-navalnyi-lenin-of-today/). His strategy of focusing on corruption and calling intermittent demonstrations have produced some results, but ‘smart voting’ strategy, which was a step towards inducing cooperation between various opposition forces, needs to be built upon by actively pursuing an alliance of opposition organizations and more direct coordination of putting forward candidates in elections to the Duma and various regional public offices. Navalnyi’s prospects therefore are more limited than they otherwise might be had he been willing and able to forge a larger democratic opposition front. Although Navalnyi’s ambitions are to blame for this in considerable part, so Russian liberals’ historical inability to unite ever since the late perestroika era, certainly since the Soviet collapse.
The pro-Navalnyi demonstrations that occurred in some 80 cities at Navalnyi’s call was probably the most massive since 2013, with perhaps as many as 40,000 attending nationwide, 15-20,000 in Moscow and nearly as many in St. Petersburg (https://echo.msk.ru/news/2778858-echo.html and http://www.fontanka.ru/2021/01/24/69721026/). Moreover, they exhibited a growing level of commitment with more than 3,000 detained nationwide — including Navalnyi’s wife Yuliya, who was later released — 1,200 in Moscow, and some 350-650 in St. Petersburg (https://echo.msk.ru/news/2778922-echo.html and
This demonstrates a growing degree of support nationwide for Navalnyi, despite his isolated position politically as well as physically. Perhaps a consequence of his seeming martyrdom, it means that if he was free, he could indeed mount a real threat to the regime perhaps over time. At the same time, many will continue to distance themselves from a politician who was willing to mobilize through social media underage teenagers to attend demonstrations that can end in violence, provoked by one side or another. Reportedly, 300 underage demonstrators were detained nationwide this time, but there is still no social media or other evidence Navalnyi or his team mobilized them (https://echo.msk.ru/news/2778922-echo.html).
It is highly unlikely that Putin will live out his life as Russia’s president. Either from ‘below’ in society or ‘above’ within the state someone will move against the massive corruption, vulgarity, and excessive violence of the regime. If revolution is to come from below, then Navalnyi has the inside track to be its leader, but his personality could prevent him from building the broader coalition that will be necessary to challenge the regime, with its large number of police, riot police, National Guard, and domestic intelligence apparatus led foremost by the FSB. There are a host of scenarios that might involve Putin’s departure caused by actors inside the state, including the ‘Yeltsin scenario’ of a revolution led from above (least likely at present, given the weakness of liberals inside the regime), a ‘quasi-Yeltsin scenario’ in which a popular liberal leader defects from the regime and takes the lead of the opposition ‘from below’, and a hardline coup against Putin led by one or more of the security organs (FSB, GRU, National Guard). None of these scenarios are likely as of writing, but the last of these would become much more likely if Putin was to tap a liberal like Medvedev to run in his place or if, by some miracle, Putin was to decide to liberalize the regime himself. In short, Putin is likely stuck being president — if in fact he would like to leave — or will need to back a legitimate hardliner from within his team if he would like to change the power configuration and assume a different office in order to begin easing his way to a retirement.
The question is if a perfect storm will gather to undermine Putin’s not-so systematic ‘sistema,’ which for now — barring another black swan (beyond COVID) of some sort — still has considerable resources to maintain itself. It is almost impossible now to imagine that in a political pinch Putin will opt to liberalize the system or leave the presidency, no less the corridors of power altogether. One cannot exclude that in 2024 or even earlier that Putin will try to repeat the 2008 ‘castling’ in some configuration or another, setting up Medvedev again or a Mishustin or Sobyanin to be elected president. More likely, however, is that he will rely on his million-man National Guard to preserve the present order and his own power. In such a pinch, Putin has nowhere else to turn. There is little hope for a divorce from power. The Kremlin is not Ludmilla. Putin is in, until ‘death do us part’?
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of The Russian Dilemma: The West and the Making of Russia’s Security Culture (McFarland, forthcoming in 2021), Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018), The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.