opinion | War crimes charges could help Putin, not hurt him

The truth is, now as in the past, Putin’s regime has been remarkably stable. Moreover, many of the forecasters who are predicting Putin’s demise today have done so before and have fared poorly.

When the global financial crisis shattered Russia’s economy in 2008, observers of Russia predicted “the end of the Putin era.” When a nationwide wave of anti-corruption protests denounced the re-election of Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party in 2011-12, experts called it “the beginning of Putin’s end”. The 2014 Ukraine Dignity Revolution and Russia’s subsequent war in Donbass were “the end of Putin”. Or maybe it would be Russia’s economic sanctions and crumbling economy that would crush Putin. In 2017, it was Alexei Navalny who might finally have Putin’s number. In 2018, it was the pension reform that was “the beginning of the end of the Putin regime.” In 2019, we were told that the election of Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Ukraine “could lead to the overthrow of Vladimir Putin’s regime” by demonstrating the emptiness of Kremlin propaganda. By 2020, it was disaffected youth and a botched national response to the Covid-19 pandemic that would “overthrow Vladimir Putin.” Now it’s the war, the sanctions, and the popular backlash that “could be its downfall.”

And yet Putin persevered.

Of course, political forecasts are difficult. The future is contingent, unpredictable, and unexpected surprises are lurking everywhere. Also, Kremlinologists are particularly angered by our famous failure to foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union a generation ago. Still, I’ve joked to other Russia watchers that, objectively speaking, they’d be far better off predicting that’s the case not The end of Vladimir Putin. That way they would be wrong at most once instead of being wrong every time.

Even if the smart money is on keeping Putin in power, that doesn’t explain why we continue to expect it to fall. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking or karma or a belief in some cosmic justice that comes at a price must be paid commensurate with the horrors he unleashed.

I would propose another alternative: one that reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of Russia’s political dynamics, influenced by what President Joe Biden, in a recent speech, called our belief that there is “a great struggle for freedom: a struggle between… Democracy and autocracy, between liberty and liberty oppression, between a rules-based order and one ruled by brute force.”

The drawing of lines between us and them, good and evil, the West and Russia, and freedom and oppression creates a binary worldview that puts Russia on the wrong side of history. Autocracy, that goes without saying, will fail in the long run.

But it is important that we understand that Putin’s Russia is not a fully autocratic regime: it is not a personalist monarchy like the Romanov Empire, nor a totalitarian dictatorship like Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, despite frequent Western analogies. In fact, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was right when he dismissed Biden’s ad lib rhetoric that Putin “cannot stay in power,” saying, “That’s not for Biden to decide.” The President of Russia is elected by Russians.”

The role of popular elections as a source of ruling legitimacy is just one way the Russian political system is difficult to categorize. For all the talk of Putin’s dictatorial personality and wide scope for suppressing civil liberties, the institutions of Putinism were built by his democratic predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, and enshrined in his 1993 constitution. Flawed and imperfect in practice during the turbulent 1990s, these foundations were democratic in principle: grassroots civil society thrived alongside a vibrant media environment as lawmakers and leaders were chosen from a multitude of candidates. Even as these freedoms have subsequently been eroded and independent media restricted, the institutions still pretend that Russia’s leaders serve the will of the people. Indeed, the fueling of Kremlin propaganda is primarily intended to reassure Russians that Putin’s leadership is worthy of their continued support. In a classic, run-of-the-mill dictatorship, such popular insults would be unnecessary.

As a result, political scientists are divided on how to describe Putin’s Russia. Some call it a “competitive authoritarian” regime, in which democratic institutions and procedures give the dictatorship only a facade of legitimacy. Others refer to it as an “information autocracy,” in which the power of state media is channeled to build a public image of Putin as a competent leader worthy of political support, and it works to generate the popular support he needs. What these differing perspectives have in common is what Peskov said: that Putin’s political sovereignty ultimately rests with the Russian people, however manipulated or misinformed.

While such neither-nor-hybrid regimes confound our orderly typologies of a world of democracies versus autocracies, they tend to be both pervasive and surprisingly long-lived. Indeed, the litany of hasty eulogies for the Putin regime over the past decade are just additional data points on the staying power of Russia’s hybrid regime.

In fact, recent reports from Russia suggest that instead of plunging the Kremlin into partisan strife or alienating the Russian state from society, Putin’s war so far has had the opposite effect: consolidating and strengthening the regime.

Western hopes that the Russian people would rise up and overthrow Putin in a popular revolution seem further from reality today than they were at the start of the war. The isolated protests across Russia in the first weeks of the war have largely fizzled out. Between the Kremlin’s propaganda machine in overdrive and the criminalization of opposition speech, Putin’s approval rating in nationwide polls is now 83 percent, with 81 percent backing the “military special operation.”

In addition, the Russian elites appear to be banding together behind Putin. Instead of diversifying internationally and finding safe havens abroad, powerful oligarchs and cosmopolitan elites – many of them under Western sanctions – now understand that they are personally linked to Russia and Putin. Once-enemy factions realize they are all in the same boat now. Few will seek greener pastures in Europe or the US, even if they could.

In a revealing report by independent Russian journalist Farida Rustamova on the sufferings of Russia’s political elites since the war, she quotes a senior source at a sanctioned Russian company as saying: “All these personal sanctions cement the elites. Anyone thinking about a new life understands that at least for the next 10-15 years his life will be centered in Russia, his children will study in Russia, his families will live in Russia. These people feel offended. They will not overthrow anyone, they will build their lives here.”

Before the war, the dominant narrative of the Kremlin-controlled media was that Russia was a powerful superpower – besieged on all sides by enemies and conspirators, both Western and domestic – and only Putin could lead it. Unfortunately, the coordinated international response to Putin’s bloody war has only cemented and reinforced this us-versus-the-world narrative and largely rallied the Russian people behind Putin.

In this context, the Russian reaction to the allegations of genocide in Ukraine was predictable: It’s all a western”fake‘ is intended to further attack the dignity of Russia and its leader. Pro-Russian social media accounts have claimed the bodies are either fake, are actors, or were killed after the Russians left. The Russian Defense Ministry has claimed that “not a single local resident suffered acts of violence” while Bucha was under Russian control. These are all claims that could easily be refuted. By parroting the State Department’s official line that it cannot have been Russia that committed such atrocities, but that the United States is orchestrating a “provocation,” the Kremlin-ruled media only strengthens and weakens the “us against the world” . Narrative, which is already widely accepted among the Russian people.

Unfortunately, the revelations about massacres in Bucha and beyond – and allegedly tightened Western sanctions – are unlikely to lead to Putin’s ouster. Like everything else we’ve seen in this war so far, Putin’s brand of autocracy is most likely able to use these allegations of atrocities to further mobilize Russian public opinion against the West and further entrench Putin in power.

About Ellen Lewandowski

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