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At 70, Is Putin Still The Russian Public's Irreplaceable Man?

After nearly 23 years at the helm in Russia, is public support for Vladimir Putin finally beginning to falter? (file photo)
After nearly 23 years at the helm in Russia, is public support for Vladimir Putin finally beginning to falter? (file photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin marks his 70th birthday on October 7. The jubilee comes at a time when the increasingly authoritarian leader faces some of the most daunting challenges of his two-plus decades in power, having gambled all his achievements on an increasingly costly and troublesome war against neighboring Ukraine.

Despite a relentless crackdown on dissent that has driven most active opposition figures out of the country, there are signs that Putin’s years of high public approval ratings could be in peril, as the war in Ukraine continues to expose weaknesses in the highly personalized political system that he has honed over 23 years as president or prime minister.

“The situation, as far as I can tell, has radically changed,” said Lev Gudkov, a sociologist with the independent Levada Center polling agency, suggesting that the military mobilization Putin decreed on September 21 may have decisively altered the atmosphere irreversibly.

“Mobilization is affecting everyone…. The declaration of mobilization has changed the situation fundamentally -- the war has come to Russia,” he said.

The invasion of Ukraine met with what for many was unexpectedly strong resistance from the Ukrainian government and people, as powerfully exemplified last month when a lightning Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region sent Russian forces reeling in retreat and prompted Putin to announce a mobilization after months of denying he would ever do so.

The Kremlin’s unprovoked war has also sparked a fierce reaction from the West, which has imposed wave after wave of sanctions against Russia and provided billions of dollars worth of lethal and nonlethal assistance to Ukraine. Sweden and Finland, after decades on the fringes of NATO, have officially thrown in their lots with the transatlantic alliance.

Russia has rarely, if ever, been so isolated and estranged from so much of the international community.

“Putin has been in zugzwang since February 24,” said former State Duma Deputy and opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov, referring to the date of Russia’s mass military incursion into Ukraine. “Eternal zugzwang – that is, a position in chess in which any move that can be made simply leads to a worsening of the situation.”

'No Outrage, No Mass Protests'

But at home in Russia, Putin’s standing has until recently seemed nearly as solid as ever, in part because the Kremlin has spent more than a year driving the most organized and active opposition underground or out of the country.

“Russia’s criminal war in Ukraine has highlighted such features of Russian society that even the most notorious Russophobes have not asserted,” wrote academic and Estonian parliament member Mikhail Lotman in an essay for RFE/RL’s Russian Service. Widespread reports of looting and war crimes have left the Russian public unmoved, he argued.

“How has Russian society reacted? It hasn’t. Or hardly at all,” he wrote. “No outrage, no mass protests.”

Although polling in Russia is highly constrained and must be interpreted cautiously, the Levada Center has recorded Putin’s approval rating at consistently above 80 percent for most of 2022. In August, the figure was 83 percent.

“After the war in Ukraine began, all [approval] indicators went up,” Gudkov said. “People felt confident, experienced a sense of pride at the demonstration of strength and of might as a military power.”

But in September Putin’s approval dipped to 77 percent.

More Russians still approve of Putin now than in the months just before the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, but the military setbacks and the mobilization, in particular, are having an effect, Gudkov emphasized.

“After mobilization, I think the situation will change rapidly,” he said.

'A Feeling Of Hopelessness'

Undoubtedly, coming out publicly against Putin’s government is a huge psychological step for most Russians. In the early years of his rule, Putin used the massive state propaganda machines to promote values of strong, centralized government and the “dictatorship of law” while demonizing the chaotic 1990s, when democracy, media freedom, and self-determination were watchwords.

In more recent years, however, Putin “has fashioned a new script that uses Russian exceptionalism, Russian nationalism, the projection of Russian power in the international system, cultural conservatism, and criticisms of the United States as a destabilizing force in the international system as the touchstones for mobilizing political support,” wrote Cornell University politics professor Valerie Bunce in a 2017 analysis titled The Prospects For A Color Revolution In Russia. Such tactics “have divided the Russian opposition by forcing them to choose between being patriots or traitors.”

Since 2012, the Kremlin has been using a series of increasingly strict “foreign agent” laws to tar all political dissenters as traitors. The emotionally charged, Stalin-era term has become a wedge in a divided society, despite the efforts of some liberals to turn it into a badge of honor. Political dissenters in Russia can expect, if not imprisonment, scorn and condemnation from neighbors, relatives, coworkers, and employers -- and harassment from pro-Kremlin vigilantes.

And, in recent weeks, by falsely depicting the Ukraine war as an existential fight between Russia and a “satanic” West, Putin has rhetorically raised the stakes of opposing him even more and given tacit free rein to right-wing radicals who have been attracted by his nationalist and traditionalist messaging.

Timur Saifulmulyukov, a 35-year-old married fire-safety engineer in the Siberian city of Tomsk, personifies some of the processes going on within the Russian public conscience since the invasion. Before February 24, he was adamantly apolitical, so much so that he didn’t even hear about the invasion of Ukraine until the following day. When he did hear of it, his response was not outrage, but “some sort of apathy.”

Timur Saifulmulyukov
Timur Saifulmulyukov

“A feeling of hopelessness,” he recalled in an interview with RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities. “You feel unable to do anything. You don’t feel your own role in any of it. I heard about those who disagreed with the Putin regime. And I heard criminal cases were filed against them, and they were put in prison. It provoked two feelings – on one hand, you think that nothing can be done, but, on the other, you think something must be done.”

Throughout the summer, he remained passive and silent.

On September 24, after hearing Putin’s mobilization announcement, Saifulmulyukov marched to the middle of a main street in Tomsk, blocking traffic while holding a handmade sign bearing antiwar slogans. He was detained after about two minutes and later charged with a traffic violation and with “discrediting the armed forces.”

Siafulmulyukov said his wife did not support his decision to protest.

“It is psychologically hard for her,” he said. “We had previously discussed our personal responsibility for what is happening in our country, and we came to differing conclusions. I feel this responsibility, but she -- well, she feels some, but she things that nothing should be done. We have no levers of influence, and there is no point in risking one’s life.”

'The Authorities Understood The Threats'

In the period before the large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s government had energetically dismantled all forms of organized political opposition. Charismatic opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was imprisoned after being targeted in a near-fatal poisoning that he says evidence shows was carried out by Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives acting at Putin’s behest. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and his network of regional offices were branded “extremist” and shut down. Many of his most active supporters fled the country under the threat of criminal prosecution.

Other independent public organizations that had previously served as loci of dissent or opposition networking, such as the Memorial human rights society, were similarly targeted and affiliation with them was equated with treason.

“The main problem for active protests is that they require not only individual action,” said Russian political scientist Vladimir Gelman, who teaches Russian politics at the University of Helsinki in Finland, in an interview with the Russia-oriented media outlet Meduza. “Protests demand coordination and cooperation among various people. And the situation in this regard [in Russia] is bad.”

Local protests can be organized on the authority of individuals known in the community and by using local information-sharing networks. “But the potential of these protests does not move beyond particular instances,” Gelman added.

“The potential for coordination was sharply curtailed even before February 2022,” he said, referring to the date of the invasion, which dramatically escalated an eight-year-old war in eastern Ukraine. “The authorities understood the threats that stem from any organized structures and tried to weaken them in any way possible. And they succeeded.”

This situation also seems to be in flux. On October 4, Navalny’s chief associates announced that they were reactivating his network in Russia as a sort of underground coordinating center for opposition to Putin and the war. The Telegram channel Sirena reported that Navalny’s team made the decision because “of the weakening of the position of the Putin regime after seven months of war and the mobilization.”

Additionally, Gudkov said the Levada Center’s research indicates a growing number of Russians still inside Russia are accessing information from sources not controlled by the Kremlin such as Telegram channels, consciously seeking to circumvent state censorship. Gudkov says the percentage of respondents using “alternative channels” has risen from 7-8 percent just a few months ago to 22 percent now.

'A Split Will Definitely Happen'

Mass popular uprisings rarely occur on the basis of moral outrage alone. The so-called color revolutions of the post-Soviet era have been largely driven by disappointed expectations surrounding disputed elections. They are fueled by divisions within the ruling elites, with some factions calling on the public to come to their support against authorities that refuse to relinquish power.

This has been the pattern in Russian history as well, when large-scale popular uprisings in 1905, February 1917, 1991, and in 1993 were effective against weakened and divided governments, with the protests themselves being supported by factions within the social and political power structures.

The phenomenon was seen again in Putin’s era, when pensioners and others across Russia took to the streets by the tens of thousands in late 2004 and early 2005 against a government plan to reform key social subsidies. Many of the protesters called for Putin’s resignation and “revolution” at demonstrations that were either tacitly or explicitly supported by regional governors, the Communist Party, and other forces.

The benefits crisis prompted the Kremlin to take strong measures to shore up the so-called power vertical. When evidence of widespread government fraud in 2011 parliamentary elections brought Russia as close to its own “color revolution” as it has come under Putin, the authorities already had in place all the tools they needed to tamp down the uprising, and no one of significance within the ruling elite broke ranks.

Now, however, opposition politician Gudkov says, the situation seems different, far from the “euphoria” of Putin’s 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

“When I looked at the pitiful faces of the bureaucrats and deputies who gathered in the Kremlin Palace of Congresses at Putin’s invitation, I didn’t see any joy there,” Gudkov told RFE/RL, referring to Putin’s September 30 speech formalizing Moscow’s baseless attempt to annex an additional four partially occupied Ukrainian regions.

It is too early, Gudkov said, to speak of a “schism within the elites,” but Putin’s system is “shaking.”

“A split will definitely happen,” he added, “because we are now already seeing the formation of competing centers of power.”

For now, however, “everything still revolves around Putin,” Gudkov said.

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