Recent public pushback shows that Vladimir Putin could be meeting his match – not just with Ukrainians, but also his own people who are tiring of constant wars.
Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against Russia’s attack on Ukraine in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Feb. 27. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Russian President Vladimir Putin might not have predicted the resistance he has seen since he ordered an invasion of Ukraine.
Protests have sprung in Moscow and other Russian cities since the attack began in the early morning hours of Feb. 24. As of Thursday, more than 8,000 people had been detained at anti-war protests across the country, according to tracking by OVD-Info. And several billionaire oligarchs – arguably the most powerful group of people in Russia other than Putin himself – have spoken out against the attack.
The strong pushback, analysis from experts and separate polling data show that the 69-year-old authoritarian leader who has led Russia since 1999 could be meeting his match – not just with the Ukrainians his troops are attacking but his own people who are weary from living with war and the constant fear of war.
“Will the Russian people support Putin? Clearly many do not. But will Putin be able to stifle dissent?” John B. Bellinger III, an adjunct senior fellow for international and national security law at the Council on Foreign Relations, says. “The answer may depend on how successful Putin is in persuading the Russian people that Russia is really the victim and that the U.S. and the ‘West’ have started the fight.”
Putin losing support of the Russian people “could happen if many young Russian soldiers are killed in Ukraine and the Russian economy is wrecked,” Bellinger adds. Russia’s Defense Ministry said Wednesday that 498 of its troops had been killed, while the Ukrainian Armed Forces claim to have taken out 10 times that many. A senior U.S. defense official couldn’t verify either number but offered as advice to be “extremely skeptical over any information that the Russian Ministry of Defense puts out there.”
Resentment over the deaths – and the misinformation – has been building within Russia. Much like America’s involvement in Afghanistan, Russia in the last decade has deployed its military overseas in a manner that has led some to question whether Moscow overextended itself in trying to project power internationally. Russian troops have been sent to eastern Ukraine, Crimea, Syria, Libya and Belarus among other conflict zones in recent years, deployments that engendered frustration and bitterness in many Russians who saw them as costly and unnecessary.
The specifics of Russian losses are a closely guarded secret. While officially a few hundred troops were killed in conflict in Ukraine and in Syria, Putin is believed to have actively taken steps to conceal the extent of Russia’s involvement as well as the damage suffered and the numbers of war casualties. Reports from 2015 indicated that Moscow sent mobile crematoriums to the front lines of conflicts to quietly dispense with the dead – a practice Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts said after a 2015 trip to Ukraine that he was convinced had occurred.
“Russia is clearly having a problem with their home front and the casualties they are taking from the war,” he told Bloomberg News at the time.
While Moulton can’t speak to the specific practice in the current conflict, he says it’s consistent with Putin’s lack of credibility with or concern for the Russian people.
“It’s become more general understanding that Russia is going to do what it can to cover up its casualties,” he adds. “This is not backed by intelligence, but I would say that the general consensus is that it’s a very big deal that the Ministry of Defense admitted 498 deaths because they’re clearly preparing the country for many more, and if they admit it’s 498, they probably have a lot more than that already.”
In other cases, like in Libya, Russia has deployed mercenaries from a group aligned with the government, making it easier to disavow involvement and cover up costs. And while the sheer number of Russian soldiers that have been killed so far in the latest conflict in Ukraine is difficult to corroborate, it is undeniable that there have been significant losses. This fact alone could spell trouble for Putin.
“Despite the opaque, authoritarian state he attempts to run, there will be no way to hide – or very difficult to hide – those casualties coming back home to Russian villages and towns,” Bradley Bowman, the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy, adds. “And so grieving husbands, wives, children, uncles, aunts, parents – there’s no more sincere and genuine passion and political motivation than that.”
Surveys seem to confirm the idea that many Russians struggle with the tension of looming war and loss. January findings from The Levada Center, an independent, nongovernmental Russian polling organization, show that Russians’ second- and third-most common fears are “world war” and “abuse of power by the authorities,” respectively. The percentages of respondents in each category was as high as the poll has recorded during Putin’s presidency. Moreover, a strong majority of respondents said they were rather afraid or constantly afraid of world war, while only 29% said they were not afraid at all.
Moulton says the U.S. should exploit those concerns, capitalizing on “a broader question about Russian morale.” He says the U.S. should communicate directly with the Russian people to counter the misinformation provided by Putin and the media under his control.
“A lot of people are talking about the popularity of war back in Russia, Russian mothers and everything,” Moulton says. “We shouldn’t hesitate to tell the Russian people the truth about how costly this war will be.”
But with his control over Russian media and his history of going after any opposition, Putin is likely “secure politically at this time,” says William Pomeranz, the acting director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, a non-partisan policy forum for global issues.
“From his perspective, I think he believes that he is in a secure position,” adds Pomeranz, who spoke with U.S. News before the invasion.
Recent polling data backs this up: A Levada Center survey put Putin’s approval rating at 71% in February. His favorability may be benefiting from nationalist fervor that accompanies a foreign conflict – likely a part of the Russian leader’s calculus. The data was published before the invasion started, but his rating had climbed 2 percentage points since January – after even more Russian escalation on the Ukraine border.
A successful execution of the war effort will be vital, though. Putin, who engineered a change to the Russian constitution that allowed him to hold power indefinitely, has not yet announced his intention to seek the presidency in 2024. And that announcement itself could be contentious.
In 2011, after serving four years as prime minister because he had been term-limited after two terms as president, Putin’s announcement that he would once again seek the presidency sparked outrage among a population that thought he was manipulating the political system. The move triggered the largest – and arguably the most threatening – protests of Putin’s presidency.
“(Putin) can stay in power basically as long as he and the oligarchs want, but … he’s not immune from the consequences of these decisions.”
The movement lasted two years, at its height in 2012 drawing tens of thousands of marchers at a time to cities across the country, where they were often met with a violent police response. Putin, for his part, blamed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for what he believed was America’s role in fomenting the opposition against him. Analysts would later look to the demonstrations as a turning point at which Putin justified his meddling in American politics – and particularly solidified his desire to see Clinton fail in her bid to win the presidency.
Bowman challenges the premise that Putin is basically invulnerable, noting that the stakes for him are “huge.”
“He can stay in power basically as long as he and the oligarchs want, but I would say he’s not immune from the consequences of these decisions,” Bowman says.
The so-called “oligarchs” – Russia’s monied class, many of whom made fortunes when the Russian government privatized government assets belonging to the former Soviet Union prior to its collapse – have had a symbiotic relationship with Putin in which each has facilitated the other’s survival. But it was no coincidence that the Russian president met with business leaders in advance of the Ukraine invasion. Their stake in Putin’s war has only grown. President Joe Biden targeted them during his State of the Union address, pledging “to go after the crimes of Russian oligarchs” and seize their assets. And with Ukraine denying Russia an easy – and most importantly, swift – victory, the early financial impact of a wide range of sanctions levied by the U.S. and many other countries and alliances is becoming clearer by the day.
The measures are already putting a strain on the Russian economy. The nation’s currency, the ruble, fell nearly 30% against the dollar recently as interest rates in the country hit 20%. And giant Western private companies like BP and Shell are walking away from Russian investments worth tens of billions of dollars.
But for most Russian citizens, the fragile economic situation is deteriorating – with pictures of crowds outside grocery stores evoking Soviet-era bread lines. And that’s after a Levada Center poll in which just 8% of Russians said they viewed the country’s economic situation as “good.” Some 48% of respondents viewed it as “OK,” a number nearly matched by the 41% who viewed it as “bad” or “very bad.”
Nearly half, or 49%, said they expected economic deterioration in the next few months compared to 35% who expected improvements.
Those figures, from a survey conducted in January, predated the invasion but were collected even as much of the country was still recovering from the effects of the coronavirus, which spread far more dramatically through the country than Russian officials admitted. The government in the early days of the pandemic was less than transparent with its people then, reportedly suppressing information about the virus’ severity and threatening medical workers with retaliation for disclosures.
Now the dissent over the Ukraine invasion threatens to ignite that latent dissatisfaction with public health, economy and corruption.
In a similar manner last summer, Putin faced a swell of resistance in Khabarovsk, a city near the Chinese border in Russia’s far east with a population of about half a million. A popular local governor ran afoul of the Kremlin after defeating a candidate aligned with Putin’s United Russia Party. The governor was arrested on what most believe were trumped-up charges that he was involved in murders many years ago. But thousands ended up taking to the streets over several months, as demonstrations that began in support of a local public official bled into generalized anti-government protests expressing discontent with Putin – a template dangerous for the central government.
The Kremlin under Putin has cracked down on protests, outlawing even the most benign forms of political demonstration, yet it continues to face popular resistance that at times has seemed on the verge of combusting. Last year, the country was roiled by protests surrounding long-time dissident leader Alexei Navalny, who has worked diligently to sway public opinion by exposing corruption around Putin’s wealth and his retaliation against political opponents and activists.
A Russian court last year sentenced Navalny to a federal penal colony after he was charged with embezzlement and missing check-ins with Russia’s prison service while he was in Germany recovering from a poisoning attack with military-grade nerve agent that he and his supporters attribute directly to Putin’s orders. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied the accusations. Navalny spent weeks in a medically induced coma following the attack in August 2020.
In fact, Putin has shown a tendency to pursue foreign adventures when he feels threatened by domestic politics. Russia invaded northern Georgia in 2008 as it faced an economic recession at home. Amid another financial crisis beginning in 2014, Putin’s government again focused abroad, first in Ukraine and later in Syria. It was a trend that had U.S. military officials on alert last year, as the Navalny protests mounted.
“This adventures abroad is something that we pay close attention to. And obviously with what is unfolding as we speak with respect to the Navalny case, we’re very concerned about that,” Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, chief of U.S. European Command and NATO’s supreme allied commander Europe, told reporters a year ago in February 2021.
The Navalny protests throughout last year drew thousands, if not tens of thousands, to cities across Russia, where they were often met with force by police determined to disband them. And while that round subsided, Putin’s Ukraine war instead of distracting domestic critics is putting people back on the streets again – where any large gathering stands to create the momentum that could destabilize Russia and its heavy-handed government in much the same way as the Russian leader has sought to destabilize the West and its democratic systems.
“I think it’s safe to say if there’s a long, drawn-out, costly – both in terms of blood and treasure – war that he starts in Ukraine, he will feel the heat economically and politically, even in an authoritarian country like Russia,” Bowman says.