Is the Ukraine war weakening Putin’s position in Russia?

While increasingly isolated, analysts say the Russian leader is unlikely to be removed from power by a mass uprising or coup.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with government members via a video link in Moscow, Russia March 10, 2022 [Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via Reuters]

Despite ongoing peace talks, an end to Russia’s war on Ukraine appears nowhere in sight.

And as Ukrainian cities are being attacked, a quieter pressure is growing in Russia, which is increasingly isolated on the international stage.

Punishing sanctions are taking effect and dissent – which authorities are determined to crush – is rising, reportedly even in the Kremlin.

As the war rumbles on, observers are asking: is Vladimir Putin’s position shaking?

The Russian president enjoys a solid level of support among legislators, as evidenced by a recent vote days before the war began to recognise the separatist, self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics of Ukraine.

Of 450 members of the Duma, 351 backed the move, in line with Putin’s approval.

At the same time, Putin’s United Russia party has been accused of vote-rigging, keeping him in power for more than 20 years.

However, some observers have suggested that with sanctions hitting the economy hard, a push to remove Putin from power may gather pace.

Volodymyr Ishchenko, a Ukrainian sociologist who has studied revolutions in the post-Soviet arena, disagrees.

“I don’t think that the revolution is the likeliest outcome of the sanctions,” he told Al Jazeera, arguing that increased grievances are not enough to start a revolt.

Rather, “a split among the elites, unity of the opposition, coordination and mobilisation structures” were needed.

In the early 20th century, the Russian Empire went through two revolutions linked with unpopular wars – one in 1905 after the humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, and another in 1917 during World War I.

After the Soviet collapse, other newly-independent republics went through a string of popular uprisings, with governments overthrown in Georgia, Armenia, and Moldova. There were three revolutions in Kyrgyzstan and three more in Ukraine.

Putin has spent a large part of the past two decades preparing himself against a so-called “colour revolution” such as the Orange Revolution of 2004 in Ukraine, which he thought to be planned from Washington.

This includes marginalising opposition figures such as the now-jailed Alexey Navalny, whose political movement has been outlawed but continues to operate and is helping organise the protests.

“As for the opposition, it’s in a bad shape,” Ishchenko said. “Navalny’s movement is repressed. Besides, the opposition is split by the war. The Communists and many other parties who could ally with the opposition strongly support the war now.”

Ishchenko told Al Jazeera that the exodus of mostly anti-war Russians – estimated to be more than 200,000 people since February – has made mass revolt even more unlikely.

Such a scenario would require exiles to keep effective contact with their homeland, which may prove difficult as travel is restricted and Russians without VPNs are blocked from social media.

“The palace coup is more likely than a revolution now. Although, I am not sure that a possible elite conspiracy against Putin would make a move before a major defeat in Ukraine.

“So, in the end, the balance of forces on Ukrainian battlefields would determine the possibility of either a coup, or revolution, or the survival and consolidation of Putin’s regime. Not the other way around.”

If not a mass uprising, perhaps the oligarchs and officials in Putin’s inner circle, frustrated at the sanctions and unable to enjoy their yacht cruises off the south of France, may try to unseat the president.

‘Everyone knows what Putin does to traitors’

On March 1, the independent Russian journalist Farida Rustamova said sources within the Russian elite close to Putin had told her that they were as shocked at the start of the war as everyone else, with one describing the situation as a “clusterf**k”.

The sources reportedly claimed that Putin has grown out of touch with reality over the past two years, isolating himself in a bunker and only meeting face-to-face with his closest confidants.

But after that initial shock, Russian elites are accepting the new reality, Rustamova, who has worked for the BBC Russian service and independent outlets TV Rain and Meduza, told Al Jazeera.

“Many have now made their peace with it,” she said. “There’s a sense that there’s nothing that can be done, and until this ends they need to survive somehow. They can’t leave, because if you resign or refuse to work during wartime, you’ll be a traitor, and everyone knows what Putin does to traitors.”

After coming to power, Putin quickly reined in the oligarchs, who had dominated Russian business, media and politics in the 1990s. He called the country’s top tycoons to a meeting and warned them to stay out of politics.

Those who did not comply, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Boris Berezovsky, were either imprisoned, forced to leave, or both. Those who made their fortunes in the 1990s and were allowed to stay largely accepted the status quo. They have little sway over the Kremlin.

“While it’s logical to expect an anti-war position from the liberal side of the Russian elite, Putin has thoroughly cleansed them over the years and keeps them on a tight leash, and they certainly won’t step forward,” Rustamova said.

Putin, an ex-KGB officer, instead surrounded himself with security officials and installed loyalists in key positions, such as Viktor Zolotov, head of the National Guard tasked with domestic security. But he has made sure none of these so-called siloviki, or “men of force”, gets too powerful: the Federal Security Service (FSB) and military directorate (GRU) handle intelligence, while the Federal Protection Service are the president’s bodyguards.

According to political scientist and Russian armed forces expert Pavel Luzin, “There is a kind of political sect that consists of some generals and other high-ranking officers around Putin and they believe in the restoration of the Russian Empire – it is a type of religion for them.

“Then, there are acting and former law enforcement officers who were engaged in mid-level business within the state-owned and formally private corporations before the Russian aggression, and they are losing almost everything today; there are the armed forces, who were not happy about the aggression because they understood the awful consequences; and the police, who do not have much influence.”

He said that the Kremlin was “scared” of the army and the police, and does not trust either one.

“In this way, I don’t wait for Putin’s forced departure within the current circumstances. The situation may change in case of a further escalation.”

The siloviki may also be afraid of catching the blame if the war goes horribly wrong.

There have been unconfirmed reports that Colonel General Sergei Beseda of the FSB has been placed under house arrest after apparently telling Putin that the war in Ukraine would be a quick victory. Speculation was also rising over Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, who had not been seen in public for almost two weeks. As rumours swelled, he was shown on state media again on Thursday attending a video meeting of officials, including Putin.

But aside from people power, a businessman’s revolt or a military coup d’etat, Luzin suggested a fourth possibility: as Russia’s social and fiscal woes grow as a result of the war, local government and bureaucrats, previously sidelined, will be left to pick up the slack while Putin allegedly sits in his bunker, detached from the world.

“Briefly speaking, Putin has distanced himself from the governance. In this way, the bureaucracy may start to act without Putin, just ignoring him,” Luzin said. “If this type of action will be realised, the results will change the Russian political regime even without any coup.”

Source: Al Jazeera