The Russo-Ukrainian is bound to place political pressure on the Russian regime’s internal solidarity as well as state-societal solidarity but only over the long-term and only in conditions of failure in the war. Russian political culture highly values the country’s national political solidarity, and any decay in solidarity is likely to be a long-term prospect even in war time, given the extent to which Russian President Vladimir Putin has succeeded in restoring Russia’s traditional cultural and authoritarian-induced solidarity after the divisions incurred during the Soviet collapse and extending throughout the 1990s. There are three potential fissures along which Russian solidarity or unity can be undermined: (1) between hardliners and the Putinist balance between hardline siloviki and regime liberal economic and financial officials; (2) the defection of regime liberals from the regime; and (3) the rise of a societal opposition that rejects the war in Ukraine or its outcome and extends its dissent to the nature of the political.
The war was bound to consolidate Russian state and society around Putin for some period of time, likely of significant duration. Russian political and strategic culture is dominated by strains — comprising a security vigilance culture — that incline Russia towards hyper-vigilance against both domestic and foreign threats, especially those emanating from the West, as I tried to demonstrate in my most recent book, The Russian Dilemma. There are periods when Russian recessive strains of Westernization and liberalization temporarily predominate, such as under Tsar Alexander II, during the Romanov dynasty’s decay under Nicholas II, and during the Soviet demise and aftermath from 1987 to 2003. This security vigilance culture is not the product of Russian ‘paranoia’, though there is some of that; rather its is a product of centuries of political interference, military invasion, and other forms of unwanted Western intervention in Russia’s domestic affairs and against its national security interests. This is the perceptual-historical prism through which NATO expansion and Western meddling in Russian and Ukrainian politics produced Putin’s ‘special military operation,’ and it is the perceptual prism through which Russians will view the war for some time to come. NATO expansion and Western meddling in Russian and Ukrainian politics also brought a re-authoritarianization, which accompanies periods of the security vigilance culture’s ascendance. Putin strengthened that culture’s dominance by way of an effective authoritarian hegemony — not monopoly — over media, art, and science. The result is the return of Russia’s traditional but not always dominant security vigilance culture along the lines seen under Nicholas I and Alexander III, not the Soviet totalitarian hyper-vigilance culture. This culture rejects societal divisions and seeks to enforce national solidarity. Therefore, any rifts that could result from the present war –either through military failure or excessive costs for the economy — will have to be long in the making and occur within a context of deep crisis at the front or at home.
The possibility of a move by hardliners against the Putin’s balance of power between hardline soliviki and regime liberal economic and financial officials or even against Putin himself is the most likely of the three possible, though still highly unlikely scenarios. One observer, Mark Galleotti, sees in a recent Rossiiskaya gazeta interview by Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev a hardliners’ “manifesto,” engendered by the Russian armed forces’ alleged attempt and failure to take Kiev (https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/04/29/russias-hardliners-present-their-manifesto-a77537). Patrushev condemned the West’s “empire of lies”, defended Russian traditional values, and called for a more mobilizational style of economic organization (https://rg.ru/2022/04/26/patrushev-zapad-sozdal-imperiiu-lzhi-predpolagaiushchuiu-unichtozhenie-rossii.html). This is a dubious interpretation. Patrushev has been something like the Putin regime’s chief ideologist, articulating if not formulating an emerging state ideology – one ultimately determined by Putin himself – ever since Vladislav Surkov’s departure from the Kremlin and high politics. As a gray cardinal reminiscent of Konstantin Pobedonostsev, Patrushev has given numerous such interviews putting forward a same hard line that reflects parts of many Putin speeches. For example, on 11 November 2019, Patrushev published a programmatic article in Rossiiskaya gazeta, a 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 2020 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). In the wake of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalnyis return to Russia after his poisoning and departure to Germany, Patrushev gave another interview to the weekly in January 2021, 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). Patrushev’s views tend to track closely with Putin’s statement and did again in this so-called manifesto: again, Russian traditional values, a mobilizational economy, reorientation from the Western ‘empire of lies’ to the east and south, and Ukraine and Russia as a “single nation.”
New rumors are unlikely to have any basis in reality; Patrushev is supposedly designated to take Putin’s place when soon the latter will undergo allegedly planned cancer surgery ( and https://t.me/s/generalsvr, 28 April 2022). Naturally, Western media ran with the Russian rumor (https://nypost.com/2022/05/02/vladimir-putin-to-undergo-cancer-surgery-transfer-power/ and http://www.newsweek.com/russia-ukraine-putin-war-illness-cancer-1702870). First, we have seen numerous such claims of Putin’s illness, insanity, and imminent fall from power ever since his return to the presidency in 2012 (https://gordonhahn.com/2015/09/19/putin-is-crazy-and-sick-the-lows-of-american-rusology/comment-page-1/ and https://gordonhahn.com/2015/11/11/the-myth-of-an-imminent-anti-putin-coup-rusological-fail-or-stratcomm/). Second, the Russian constitution stipulates that the prime minister would replace the president under such circumstances, and for all Putin’s authoritarianism he is always careful to follow or appear to be following the letter or spirit of the constitution under what two decades ago I referred to as his ‘stealth authoritarianism’ (https://gordonhahn.com/2017/06/21/republication-stealth-authoritarianism-setting-the-stage-for-the-federal-election-cycle-in-st-petersburg/). Therefore, such a move would likely spark rather than prevent an internal Kremlin crisis.
There is in fact little reason for or evidence that a hardline faction is lining up against Putin and is preparing to pressure the president to make a hard turn to the ‘right’ and become more aggressive in his Ukrainian war strategy. There is in fact little reason for them to do so, aside from perhaps someone’s personal ambitions. Putin is now aligned with the hardliners, and the war is likely only to further cement that alliance. There is far less daylight these days between President Putin and the hardline faction of former FSB and St. Petersburg ‘siloviki’ tha there was a decade and more ago, when Putin balanced more evenly between that faction and the more liberal St. Petersburg economists, financial, and legal ‘civiliki’ of the likes of Medvedev, Kudrin, and others.
Putin still values the regime liberal civiliki economists and financists for their ability to weather the Russian economy through crises as they have successfully done several times in the past. The liberal economic faction will have limited influence on domestic and foreign strategy and will confined to the tactical element in that strategy of buttressing the Russian economy and guiding it through a transition in a world not just defined by massive Western sanctions but one of two separate civilizational, political, economic, and financial orientations, in which Russia is firmly hitched to the Chinese wagon and Eurasia writ large. Should the war become a quagmire and be part and parcel of a perfect storm in which Putin’s decision to escalate the Donbass civil war to a limited but now entirely inter-state war, indeed an international conflict is viewed inside Russia as a failure and and the Russian economy does melt down, then one cannot fully exclude a hardline coup, especially if his health begins to fail. The rumors that Gneral-Colonel Sergei Beseda, the head of the FSB’s Fifth Service of the FSB, its Service of Operative Information and International Ties, and its Department of Operative Information (DOI), essentially the FSB’s foreign intelligence apparatus, had been arrested supposedly for his faulty intelligence on Ukraine proposing that Russian troops would be greeted as liberators by large swathes of the population across Ukraine. Whether this is the first of the kind of fissures that might be provoked by the war and could lead to a significant regime split is hard to tell, especially as it remains unclear whether Beseda in fact has been arrested (https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/04/29/russias-hardliners-present-their-manifesto-a77537 and (https://cepa.org/putin-places-spies-under-house-arrest/). In the event such a split among hardliners does develop, any ensuing power struggle is more likely to occur between hardline siloviki sub-factions – SVR versus FSB, FSG versus MVD, RosGvardiya versus any of the aforementioned, and other combinations – rather than between the siloviki and the embattled and relatively weak regime liberal civiliki. In any near-term power struggle or coup scenario, Patrushev likely would be a main player and might even seek to parlay any coup to elevate his son, Agricultural Minister Dmitrii Patrushev, to a position near the apex of power. But such scenarios remain a long way off—at least a year.
The regime liberals are unlikely to be able to mount any meaningful challenge to Putin or the hardliners. Moreover, there is no evidence to date that their likely opposition to the war has prompted any of them to mobilize in any concerted way, as they are a small, embattled faction within the regime and their influence is confined to economic and financial issues. Even if some were to defect from the regime by resigning, none will any longer be welcomed by the pro-democracy opposition in the way they were during the white ribbon protests of 2012. However, their defection could the opposition would damage the appearance of regime invincibility and might bring sme additional resources to the opposition, which is in great need of such given the mass exodus of liberals from Russia in the ongoing brain drain and postwar panic.
Those relative liberals and neutral technocrats – Aleksei Kudrin, Elvira Nabibullina, — who remain inside and outside of the state apparatus are isolated by the pressure of new repressive laws punishing anti-war sentiment and protest and the end to any mid-term hope for Russia’s return to the West politically, financially, and economically. Regime liberals and business leaders are now tied to the Russian regime, dependent on it for political and economic, if not yet physical survival. As state factions and allied oligarchs have coalesced together, semi-autonomous business interests have united behind the Kremlin and the war as well (https://faridaily.substack.com/p/now-were-going-to-fck-them-all-whats?s=r).
An example of the potential ostracization and even repression of regime liberals who oppose the war or engage in any open dissent is Former Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, who expressed opposition to the war in March. Then president of the International Chess Federation was compromised when the federation banned Russians from competing under the tricolor. Following his own statement, Dvorkovich was criticized by Council of Federation deputy speaker and close Putin ally Andrei Turchak, who accused Dvorkovich of “national betrayal” and called for his removal as the Skolkovo government fund’s chairman. Dvorkovich was also attacked by RosKosmos chief and his former comrade in Medvedev’s government, Dmitry Rogozin (www.rbc.ru/politics/15/03/2022/6230512b9a7947d0f28e87b0). Dvorkovich soon resigned as a result. Presidential adviser on sustainable development and former RosNano chairman Anatoly Chubais has resigned and remains abroad. But these figures were already on the fringes of the power elite and falling further. The first defection from the regime by a currently sitting official came from the Russian ambassador to the UN mission in Switzerland, who denounced the war and declared his shame for his country — hardly a major fissure (https://twitter.com/HillelNeuer/status/1528668629482541057).
Some near-regime liberals are using the potential of deep economic crisis by pushing for a radical liberalization of the economy in opposition to the state-based instinct to move to an even more state-managed and state-owned ‘mobilization’ economy. Oleg Deripaska issued a call for such a liberalization – “a transition to free market economy” – in a detailed manifesto for economic reforms to include: “the primacy of private property…the privatization of shares of state companies and the transfer of the rest to management by pension finds, the removal of massive administration barriers, the departure of confused regulatory procedures, and the coercion of the siloviki.” Deripaska’s manifesto was endorsed by chief editor of Nezavismaya gazeta Konstantin Remchukov, who is close to Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a potential Putin successor – at least before 24 February 2022 (www.ng.ru/editorial/2022-04-17/2_737051_red.html). This ‘movement’ might be called ‘stealth dissent’ or ‘dissent with dissidence.’ This is all that remains available to regime liberals, who will have little influence over the country’s direction in the short- to mid-term at least.
The rise of a substantial societal opposition that rejects the war in Ukraine and extends its dissent to the nature of the political system is very far over a distant horizon. Regime change is unlikely as long as Putin’s health holds. The early manifestations of protest against the war have died down as a result of emigration and repression. Russia’s national security vigilance culture, NATO expansion, and Putin’s hegemony over media in Russia ensured that the war would be met with popular support. That support remains high, according to Russian public opinion surveys. VTsIOM polls show Putin’s trust rating has benefitted from the war. If on February 20th Putin’s trust rating was 67.2 percent, then VTsIOM’s most recent poll for May 1st registers Putin at a 81.5 trust rating, by far the highest for any politician in the country (https://wciom.ru/ratings/doverie-politikam/). Levada Center polling showed Putin’s approval rating at 61 percent in November last year. As he confronted NATO and Ukraine his rating rose to 71 percent by February. After the war began, approval rating rose further and stood in late April at 82 percent percent. Those like Schwab transhumanist Yuval Noah Harari, who think it is only a small circle of Russians around Putin that supports the war, are ignorant (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQqthbvYE8M&t=1467s&ab_channel=TED). And there are many such knowledge-challenged ‘experts’ afoot, and they have brought us to the brink—with Putin’s help, of course (www.levada.ru/2022/04/27/odobrenie-institutov-rejtingi-partij-i-politikov-2/).
Factors that might help forge a new societal opposition over the mid- to long-term could be a national military mobilization to secure victory or more ambitious gains in the war and a significant harshening of the regime that inevitably began following the ‘special military operation’ in February. A national mobilization could motivate youth opposition, and if body bags mounted significantly, then parents — on the model of the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee — might also emerge as a political force.
In terms of regime hardening, Russia has passed laws punishing the spread of “fake” information about the Russian army with fines or jail terms of up to 15 years. Dozens of people have been indicted under such laws, and several are now behind bars. The Duma is now considering a law on combatting “foreign influence,” which will expand the already wide open door of harsh and arbitrary laws Russian security police have to walk through (www.ng.ru/editorial/2022-04-26/2_8427_editorial.html). As I have written previously, the war began with the closure of opposition-oriented newspapers and radio stations such as Novaya gazeta and Ekho Moskvy. The regime could reach such a level of high authoritarianism that the rise of any societal or even state-based opposition will become practically impossible. Regimes subject to instability are arranged in a U-curve, with weak republican and soft authoritarian regimes being most vulnerable to instability and highly pluralistic and free democracies and harsh authoritarian and totalitarian regimes being least vulnerable. Russia at war will likely be on the road to a harsh authoritarian regime, breaking with Putin’s decades-long record of stealth, then soft, and now mid-range authoritarianism. No matter how many regime liberals and perhaps even oligarchs – all of which is unlikely at any rate – the societal democratic opposition is so trapped by law enforcement and weakened by emigration that there is virtually no short- to mid-term chance of a democrat-led coor revolution.
What is also possible, though still unlikely, is a communo-fascist revolt from below instigated perhaps from above by some hardliners in the siloviki and allied oligarchs like Konstantin Malofeev. Such hardliners would be likely to move to co-opt and subordinate any autonomous revolt from below. These hardliner scenarios could occur in response to a perceived utter failure of the special military operation to achieve its goals or any complete collapse of the war effort. This, like the hardline regime faction scenario, would be consistent with the dominance of the security-vigilance norm in Russian culture today. As a significant aside, in removing monuments to Soviet soldiers and the like, the West is committing a ‘sacrilege’ against the highest symbol and sacrament of Russia’s security-vigilance culture — the memory of the Great Patriotic War. Russia’s worship of this historical experience unfortunately overlaps with a key aspect of the present war — denazification of the tens, even hundreds of thousands of neofascists, armed and unarmed, in Ukraine. Therefore, in turn, the West’s attack on Soviet monuments will only reinforce public support for Putin’s war effort and harden Russia’s security-vigilance culture all that much more.
In sum, cracks in the present order are only likely to emerge when Putin’s health begins to visibly fail — not necessarily a near- or mid-term proposition. Despite rumors and stratcomm operations over the years and more recently claiming the Russian president suffers from one or another disease, the fact is Putin appears to the eye to be healthy for his age. A regime-confounding split is still a long way off and will require a major defeat in the Russo-Ukrainian War or an economic collapse perhaps sparked by the war. Neither is in the cards any time soon, if at all.
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. Websites: Russian and Eurasian Politics, gordonhahn.com and gordonhahn.academia.edu
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Thought, Culture, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022). He has authored four well-received books: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 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 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 was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.