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28 September 2022

The unravelling of Vladimir Putin

Nuclear threats and mobilisation cannot hide the Russian president’s weakening grip on power.

By Katie Stallard

Vladimir Putin has a history of making other leaders wait for him. It is a crude power move intended to signal his own importance, and presumably to throw some of his interlocutors off balance. Among the figures the Russian president has kept waiting over the years are the late Queen Elizabeth, Pope Francis and the former US president Donald Trump. Once, in 2014, he kept the then German chancellor, Angela Merkel, waiting for more than four hours before a meeting. But at a regional summit in Uzbekistan on 16 September, it was Putin’s turn to wait. He was seen awkwardly shuffling his note cards ahead of a meeting with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Then he waited for the leaders of Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan.

Where Putin usually makes a point of striding purposefully into rooms and manspreading during meetings to assert his physical dominance, during the conference in the Uzbek capital, Samarkand, his typical swagger was gone. The Russian president is not a tall man, but he looked smaller than normal, and somewhat diminished. As he stood waiting for leader after leader, he pretended to study his remarks. He clasped and unclasped his hands.

The situation did not improve for Putin once the meetings began. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, scolded him in front of the cameras, telling him that this was “not an era of war”. At the beginning of his talks with China’s leader, Xi Jinping – the man who has previously called Putin his “best friend” – the Russian president was forced to admit that Beijing had “questions and concerns” over his faltering invasion of Ukraine.

[See also: What would happen if Russia used nuclear weapons in Ukraine?]

It is possible to read too much into these appearances. Perhaps the Samarkand conference was just badly organised, and Putin was repeatedly asked to enter the room ahead of time. The public remarks by Modi and Xi were directed as much to audiences outside the room as they were to the Russian president himself, and neither shows any sign of cutting economic ties. Yet power is a subjective concept and as Putin’s calamitous assault on Ukraine has unravelled in recent weeks, so too has his previously invincible-seeming facade. Where Western analysts have often viewed the Russian president as a wily former intelligence operative who was playing a bad hand well, increasingly it is clear that he is playing a bad hand badly. The poor decisions are stacking up. He has staked the future of his regime on a war that he cannot win, but instead of seeking to extract himself from the mess and cut his losses, he is doubling down.

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On 21 September, five days after assuring Modi in Samarkand that he would “do everything to stop [the war] as soon as possible”, Putin announced that he was preparing to annex as much as 15 per cent of Ukraine and drafting Russian citizens to fight.

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In his first televised address to the nation since the beginning of the war almost seven months earlier, he acknowledged that Russian forces were encountering difficulties. But he insisted that this was because they were up against “the entire military machine of the collective West”. In the parallel reality Putin conjured for his citizens, it is Russia that is threatened and reluctantly forced to defend itself, and the West that is resorting to nuclear blackmail. “Our country has different types of weapons as well, and some of them are more modern than the weapons Nato countries have,” Putin warned. If Russia’s territorial integrity was threatened, he continued, “we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us”. He did not make explicit whether this would apply to the four Ukrainian regions – Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia – that he seeks to absorb, but he added: “This is not a bluff.”

This is almost certainly a bluff. As Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, wrote in the New Statesman shortly afterwards, it is difficult to see how nuclear weapons would help Putin on the battlefield. The fighting is dispersed across a 1,000km-long front line, as both Putin and his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, stressed in their respective speeches on 21 September, which does not lend itself to a nuclear strike.

As well as breaching the normative bar on the use of nuclear weapons in war – which has held since the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 – and inviting international condemnation, Putin would also be irradiating territory that he is fighting to control. It is difficult to reconcile his previous insistence that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” with the idea that he might use nuclear weapons against the latter. There is also the significant risk of radioactive contamination in Russia itself.

Still, the possibility cannot be completely dismissed. “Russia has abundant stores of nuclear weapons, in a variety of shapes and sizes, and Putin might be desperate enough to use them,” Freedman warns. “Because he has already done some really stupid things, who can say for sure that he won’t do anything even stupider.”

Putin’s decision to draft hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens to fight in Ukraine also defies all but the most fantastical logic. It is true that the Russian offensive is running short of troops. US estimates in August put Russian losses – both killed and wounded – at between 60,000 and 80,000, or approximately one third of the initial invasion force. Mobilisation will force more Russian men to put on uniforms and pick up guns, but it won’t solve the problems that Russian units have consistently faced in Ukraine, such as bad tactics and intelligence, poor command, problems with logistics, low morale and an opposing force that is fighting for national survival and increasingly well armed.

Throwing more men on to the battlefield might enable Putin to prolong the war, but it will not bring him closer to winning it. Mobilisation could help Moscow to “stem the deteriorating quantity of the force, but not the deteriorating quality of the force and its morale” said Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at the Center for Naval Analyses, a US-based think tank, after the announcement. “Having used up its best equipment, officers and personnel, I don’t see how this can be recovered.”

Pro-war commentators and nationalist bloggers in Russia have for months demanded mobilisation and for the Russian military to scale up its efforts in Ukraine, warning increasingly volubly in recent weeks that if it does not adopt a new approach, Russia could face defeat. Putin’s announcement of a partial draft will placate these critics in the short term, but as the Russian offensive continues to founder, they will soon be back to demand more.

Meanwhile, the domestic political risks for Putin are building. From the beginning of the invasion on 24 February, he characterised the war as a “special military operation” that would be fought by professional soldiers and willing volunteers. He promised that conscripts would not be sent to fight. As recently as 13 September, eight days before Putin’s draft speech, his spokesman insisted that mobilisation was “not being discussed”. The conflict was a constant presence on Russian state television, where the usual steady barrage of propaganda went into overdrive, but it was possible, for those who wanted to, to turn down the volume and ignore it.

Russian public opinion polls – albeit carried out under increasingly challenging conditions – have consistently recorded a strong majority in favour of the war, but it is harder to measure the depth of that support, particularly when it involves meaningful sacrifices across more of the population. Support for the conflict has so far been primarily an intellectual exercise in Russia – outside of the handful of economically depressed regions that have supplied most of the troops – but that is now changing, as many more Russian sons, brothers and husbands are sent to fight.

As Denis Volkov and Andrei Kolesnikov, of the Levada Centre in Moscow and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, concluded in a study of the latest survey data on 7 September, the war had become a “routine backdrop to everyday life”. As long as the border remained open and there was no mass-mobilisation order, they predicted, “the feeling of basic normality is likely to continue”. But that feeling – that the war was happening somewhere far away – will be harder to maintain as the first draft orders are handed out and men are packed on to buses and trains. Delving further into the data, Sam Greene, director of the Democratic Resilience programme at the Center for European Policy Analysis, found that younger Russians were less enthusiastic about the war than older generations. In particular, young, married men were the most likely to avoid answering questions about their support for the war. In other words, it is the views of those who are now being drafted that are the least well understood.

[See also: Suddenly, Ukraine is winning – by Lawrence Freedman]

Putin repeated four times during his 21 September speech that he was only ordering a “partial mobilisation”, and his defence minister Shoigu announced that 300,000 people would be drafted. Yet the key paragraph of the order was redacted and already there are claims that as many as a million people will be called up. Within hours, there were protests in 43 cities across Russia, according to the human rights group OVD-Info, with at least 1,368 people detained.

In Moscow protesters shouted, “No to War!” and, “Send Putin to the trenches!” The price of flights out of Russia soared and long queues built up at ground border crossings as many of those who could afford it fled. It will be the poorest and the least privileged Russian citizens – long the core of Putin’s political base – who are made to fight.

This does not necessarily augur revolution. During his 22 years in power Putin has systematically dismantled all but the barest simulacrum of democracy in Russia, crushing civil society and shuttering the independent media outlets that offered alternative sources of news. Opposition leaders have been jailed, poisoned and shot. Protesting already involved the risk of being beaten by Putin’s thuggish security forces and thrown into a prison system that is notorious for physical and sexual abuse, but now there are reports that some of the protesters are being drafted, served with conscription orders in custody. Across the country, local officials will be ordered to suppress protests, fulfil their draft quotas and silence dissent. There will be new campaigns to root out “national traitors” and show-trials to punish the accused. Putin has already strengthened the laws on desertion and refusing to serve. The greater the political threat he perceives, the more he will increase repression.

Yet the longer this continues, the more Putin risks eroding public support and reversing the approach that has worked so well for him over the past two decades. His past popularity, with approval ratings in independent polls approaching 90 per cent at times, has helped to ensure his job security as he has perpetuated the idea that he alone can solve Russia’s problems and command genuine enthusiasm among the masses. He has long traded on the notion that there is no credible alternative to his leadership.

There is a Russian term that captures this idea: bezalternativnost, or the absence of alternatives. As Timothy Frye, author of Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia, told me in the days after the start of the war, “It is much easier to be a popular autocrat than an unpopular one.” Putin’s popularity had protected him against revolts and palace coups to date, Frye explained, but the first cracks had already appeared, with growing concerns among the elite about the economic consequences of the conflict. “Many more elites may be re-evaluating their attitudes towards Putin,” Frye said, “but it is difficult to see from the outside.”

On 29 December 1999, two days before his ascension to power, Putin published a long essay on the Russian government’s website, entitled “Russia on the Threshold of the New Millennium”, which articulated his vision for the country and the critical challenges that lay ahead. He set out what he called the “Russian idea”, which he characterised as a mix of patriotism, traditional values, the desire for a strong state over individual freedoms and a “belief in the greatness of Russia”.

However, he warned that Russia was experiencing one of the most difficult periods in its history, after the collapse of the Soviet Union eight years earlier – with living conditions becoming unbearable and poverty reaching a “mind-boggling scale”. If it did not act quickly, he warned, Russia was in danger of becoming a second- or even a third-rate power. “Everything depends on us, and us alone,” Putin wrote. “On our ability to see the size of the threat, to pool forces and set our minds to hard and lengthy work.”

Twenty-two years later, it is Putin’s actions that now imperil Russia’s future and risk transforming it into a second- or third-rate power. Under his rule, and thanks to his imperialist aggression, Russia is becoming an international pariah whose citizens are no longer welcome in many European states and whose economy will only become more dependent on China. As they did during the decade-long Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Russian families once again have to live with the fear that their children will be sent to die in an unwinnable war.

This does not necessarily mean that those around Putin will now summon the courage to remove him from power. The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ruled for almost three decades despite his increasingly deranged behaviour and died in office, the Cold War historian Sergey Radchenko points out in a recent essay. He explains that the situation had deteriorated to the point where Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s eventual successor, remarked that senior officials had come to expect that Stalin would one day “pull down his pants and relieve himself in front of us, and then say that this was in the interests of the Motherland”. Yet they did not challenge him. The risks of trying and failing to topple him persuaded his lieutenants that it was safer to comply with his tyrannical rule.

Khrushchev was the only Soviet leader to be ousted by his comrades, being overthrown in 1964, but only once those around him began to fear he was about to move against them, and only then at considerable risk.

“The plotters tolerated Khrushchev despite their dissatisfaction until he pushed them to move first to save their political lives,” Joseph Torigian, author of Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in the Soviet Union and China After Stalin and Mao, told me. “Up until the very end, the plotters were afraid that Khrushchev would still emerge victorious.”

Anyone plotting against the Russian president today would need to be similarly convinced that the danger of confronting him was outweighed by the risks of doing nothing. Yet those risks are growing. Certainly, they are greater than they were a year ago, and they may climb higher still, the longer this war continues. Putin knows this too. The more he begins to fear that his grip on power is weakening, the more paranoid and dangerous he will become.

[See also: Are the US and China destined for war over Taiwan?]

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This article appears in the 28 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Truss Delusion