Is President Putin in trouble? As tens of thousands of Russians braved Arctic winds this January to rally against his rule, some wondered if this marked the beginning of the end for the Kremlin’s strongman. For others, the sight just triggered a dispiriting bout of déjà vu.
Nine years earlier, Moscow’s squares had filled with similar crowds. To the dismay of many, Putin was planning to reclaim the presidency after four years as prime minister. To make matters worse, officials had been caught fiddling the parliamentary election. As cellphone pictures of ballot-stuffing circulated online, Muscovites took to the slush-covered streets to protest.
That winter’s demonstrations felt to many like an awakening. From 2000 to 2008, an economic boom had helped spread consumer culture, international travel, and the Internet. Russia’s big cities suddenly looked like modern metropolises. Jolted by the global financial crisis, a post-Putin community seemed to be emerging.
In fact, its time had not yet come. The Kremlin successfully squeezed opposition back into the margins. Draconian laws cracked down on liberal media and activists. Putin unleashed a cultural revolution against the hippies and slackers of Moscow with their white ribbons and postmodern sensibilities. The real Russia, he suggested, lay in the company towns of the taiga, where old-fashioned men pumped oil and beat steel into tanks. To emphasise the point, he made one tank factory foreman his regional envoy. The final stroke came with the occupation of Crimea, which set off four years of national celebration.
That history looms over the current moment. There are some echoes. The same activist, Aleksei Navalny, spearheaded both protest waves. The 2012 demonstrations transformed Navalny from an anti-corruption blogger into Putin’s main political opponent. Since then, he has fought an often lonely campaign against the Goliath in the Kremlin.
What sparked the latest rallies was Navalny’s arrest when he returned after recovering in Germany from an attempted assassination. He had been poisoned in Siberia with the rare neurotoxin Novichok, first developed by Soviet military chemists.
A remarkable investigation by the group Bellingcat identified a set of security service operatives who had trailed Navalny on his Siberian itinerary. Even more remarkably, Navalny, posing as a Kremlin official, tricked one of the agents into discussing the operation on the phone. This agent described how a colleague had smeared the poison into Navalny’s underwear. With Navalny jailed, his team struck back by releasing a video showing drone footage of a $1.3 billion palace on the Black Sea allegedly built for the Russian president’s use.
These revelations have not moved Russia’s political dial much. According to a poll by the independent Levada Center, only 17 per cent of those who knew of the Black Sea palace video said it had worsened their view of Putin. Just 22 per cent of respondents said they had a favourable view of the January protesters. The demonstrations were not as large as those nine years ago and Navalny’s chief of staff Leonid Volkov has already called a pause.
And yet, this wave, although weaker, may actually prove more ominous. It comes after a decade of economic stagnation. During that time, discontent has spread from Russia’s urban enclaves to vast stretches of the country.
In the Far East, protesters have been demanding the reinstatement of Khabarovsk’s popular governor, Sergei Furgal, whom Putin fired and arrested last July. Support for the Kremlin has softened in Siberia and even the Urals. The tank factory foreman is no longer Putin’s envoy. He has accused the authorities of juicing up their salary statistics.
The rallies nine years ago occurred mostly in Moscow and St Petersburg. The latest ones erupted in more than 100 cities, across 11 time zones. The earlier hopeful vibe has changed to an angrier energy. The iconic image of 2012 was of Muscovites holding hands in a human chain that stretched the 10 miles of the capital’s Garden Ring road. The viral video from this January is of protesters pelting riot police with snowballs.
None of this means Putin is imminently threatened. He has plenty of teargas and riot shields and there is no sign of a split within the regime. The government has cash reserves to boost social spending as next September’s parliamentary election approaches.
Still, little by little, his image is eroding. Most Russians are cynical about corruption and lavish lifestyles at the top. Putin’s fans have come to accept the Patek Philippe watches and Botox cheeks. Few even feign ignorance. Almost two-thirds of Russians approve of the president’s performance, according to the latest poll. But only 3 per cent classify him as “an honest, decent, disinterested person” when asked to pick Putin’s attractive qualities from a list.
What struck observers most about the Black Sea estate was not its opulence but its relentless tackiness, with a hookah bar, “aqua-disco,” and glitzy, overpriced furniture. Russia’s emperor is not naked – Brioni, Kiton, Valentino, and Ferragamo see to that – but his palace does contain a pole-dancing stage for strippers.
As for the security services, the shocking thing is their apparent incompetence. Despite a no-fly zone and round-the-clock surveillance, they cannot stop drones snapping pictures of the president’s retreat. The underwear poisoners left travel and phone records behind for journalists to trace. A supposedly experienced agent fell for the kind of prank phone call favoured by YouTube tricksters. Less KGB, it seems, than Keystone Cops.
From the start, Putin’s popularity has rested on two foundations – economic performance and nationalist rallies behind decisive military actions, first in Chechnya and more recently in Ukraine. After seven years, the Crimea euphoria has dissipated. And there is little low-hanging fruit left to seize.
The economy, meanwhile, is stagnant. Real disposable income fell in five of the last seven years. Russians took home less in 2020 than in 2013. A post-coronavirus global recovery might push the oil price up, restoring a few percentage points of growth. But Putin has no encouraging vision of the future to offer, only a grinding struggle to keep from slipping backwards.
In this context, thinly supported protests also present dangers. Even those who do not like Navalny read his posts. The Black Sea palace video has been viewed more than 112 million times and polls suggest one-quarter of adult Russians have seen it. State TV, with its strident narratives, is losing the population’s trust. Gradually, the public conversation is moving to social media.
In response, Putin does not have great options. He could step up the violence, like Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. More radically, he could gamble on a Tiananmen-style crackdown, followed by years of severe repression and tighter international isolation. The risk is that escalating violence would make Putin a liability to his colleagues. They could seek a new start by jettisoning the leader behind the bloodbath. Putin’s claim to fame is as the man who brought stability and modernised Russia. Destroying that would destroy his authority.
So far, he has tried to balance on the knife-edge between deterrence and open intimidation. In Belarus, a more overt dictator helicopters around in a bullet-proof vest, brandishing a Kalashnikov. Putin has stuck to the Brioni suits and legalisms. While flooding Moscow with police and detaining thousands, he still tries to reassure his base. State TV presents the policemen as polite professionals who help disabled residents across streets in between handing out hot tea and anti-Covid masks.
Another option is to repeat the Medvedev gambit, first used in 2008. Putin could retreat to a role behind the scenes while a trusted ally – perhaps Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin – takes over the presidency in 2024. A similar manoeuvre seems to have worked for Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev. However, it is not clear Russians would go for this a second time.
So the Kremlin will probably have to continue with no long term plan, managing political pressures day by day and month by month. Although violent repression is dangerous, alternatives are getting scarcer. The team can probably wait out the latest protests and get through September’s Duma elections. The oil market might even bail Putin out. But, as the challenges grow more sophisticated, Putin’s agents will have to be on top form. The danger of mistakes is rising.
Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at UCLA. He is the author of The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev and editor of The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin’s Russia.