In politics, even the inevitable can take you by surprise, turning victory into disaster. This is what Vladimir Putin has yet to understand.
The Russian system of personalized power has demonstrated an amazing knack for survival, by changing its costume and pretending to be its opposite for a while, after which it returns to its predatory ways. Beginning with Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Russian system has been reincarnating itself in this way: first it was the Communist power; then in 1991 it dumped the Soviet state and proclaimed liberal slogans; and then in 2013–14 it hunkered down once again in the Besieged Fortress. Ironically, Vladimir Putin chose to prolong his rule, shifting Russia to a model that had already led to collapse (of the Soviet Union) and thus embarking on the path of state suicide.
Russia’s leader may have hoped that he could cheat destiny this time. His Ukrainian “adventure” shocked the West; since the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, it has been trying to stop the war in Ukraine, having settled for now on an unconvincing de-escalation of the conflict. The Minsk agreement brokered by the Merkel-Hollande tandem is based on a tradeoff that works in Moscow’s favor: ceasefire in exchange for Russian leverage over Ukrainian statehood. Nevertheless, Putin’s victory at Minsk has failed to conceal his domestic quagmire.
The Kremlin’s use of annexation and war as a means of renewing the regime’s legitimacy was already a sign that its field for maneuver had narrowed. Feeding Russians the great power drug, in the form of an obsession with Ukraine, might have proved clever—except for the fact that the Russians who want to take this drug don’t want to pay for it.
The Kremlin could have limped along enjoying the West’s wobbliness, if not for the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. It brought an unexpected and catastrophic end to the Kremlin’s game of “Let’s Pretend,” revealing not only its cynicism and flare for telling grand lies with a straight face, but also its fear of responsibility and its leader’s indecisiveness. The flurry of bizarre theories about Nemtsov’s assassination emerging from the Kremlin tell us something: that the leader known for his steely-eyed resolve in previous crises is losing control, can’t give his entourage clear orders as to how to respond, and is having problems pacifying the Kremlin’s warring clans. Nemtsov’s tragic murder shattered the mirrored window concealing the Kremlin; now everyone can see the mess within.
Putin’s week and a half disappearance and the bizarre explanations of his absence by his team struck another blow to the system. When a hands-on leader like Putin vanishes, the state finds itself paralyzed. In the documentary shown on Russian television on March 15, Crimea: The Return to Motherland, Putin attributes the success of the annexation to the fact that “I was controlling everything!” This is an implicit judgment against the Russian system: it only works if the leader is pressing buttons and pulling levers non-stop. If for some reason he falters, everything starts to unravel. When the leader is the only institution in the country, he can’t show any weakness. He can’t get sick. In other words, he can’t be a mere mortal. Putin’s disappearance after March 5, paralyzed political Russia in anticipation of the end of an era. This demonstrates how fragile the Russian system really is. The Kremlin’s entourage looked lost and pathetic; the state apparatus held its breath in anticipation. The paralysis was not feigned but real! One could only imagine the anxiety the elite felt given the fact that its security guarantees were suddenly up in the air. The speculations about what was really going on centered on several possibilities: an internal struggle for power, a hardliners’ coup, a future dictator waiting in the wings. But there was something “off” about all of these theories: namely, why would Kremlin nonentities chosen precisely for their loyalty and their mediocrity dare to fight for power? Patrushev, Bortnikov, Ivanov, and Shoigu hardly look like candidates for the Pinochet role; they’re more like passengers on the Titanic, waiting for most propitious moment to jump ship (at least for now…).
The key explanation of Putin’s disappearance—that it was part of his struggle to resolve the conflict between his siloviki and powerful Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov—also looks like an intentionally simplified narrative and sends a worrying message that, in the Russian spider web, the Chechen praetorians are the “Absolute Evil” that must be contained. As one Russian observer close to the Kremlin wrote, “There must be rich irony in the fact that the FSB, Russia’s ruthless security service, is now acting as the last best hope for Russia’s democracy.” Really? Perhaps the whole story, and even Nemtsov’s murder, will serve as justification for the new Russian consolidation under the siloviki against this new “Absolute Evil.”
The really revealing detail about Putin’s disappearance, however, was the dog that didn’t bark. Despite Putin’s having an 85 percent approval rating and despite widespread rumors of his ouster, Russians didn’t take to the street to demand his returnRussians didn’t take to the street to demand his return! It was almost as if they didn’t care what happened to him. This is a lesson that won’t be lost on anyone in Russia—and it should be lost on anyone in the West.
There was worry, albeit of a different kind. Quite a few people in Russia watching the Kremlin’s disorientation in Putin’s absence shuddered at the thought of a nuclear accident, terrorist attack, or some similar disaster occurring. What would have happened then? What price will Russia play for replacing strong institutions with strong individuals?
In the end, Putin finally reemerged and did his best to look vigorous and jovial. But the spell of his machoism and invincibility has been lifted. Doubt about Putin’s fitness to rule, whether he controls the levers of power or not, will continue to spread. Russians, having a long history of rulers who either die in office or hang on until they are thrown out, will continue to suspect that something is wrong in the Kremlin. Now that they have speculated openly about his political death and his potential successors, they will begin to look at Putin as a commodity to be leveraged or locked away when of no further use. He will have now to deliver a really convincing proof of his power in order to restore his strongman image. What form will that proof take: a new war? A crackdown on his internal enemies? The logic of a bobsled racing to the end of the track will push the Kremlin in this direction. Putin has to convince the world, and his own gang that, he is still fit to rule. That is why, immediately after resurfacing, he ordered military exercises across Russia. This was a very revealing gesture on his part.
The general thrust of Putin’s interview in the Crimea documentary—in which he admits that the annexation was his own idea down to the last detail (one could easily imagine this as a confession before a tribunal in The Hague)—is: “I don’t care what the world thinks of me! I’m going to go on making my own rules!” In the current Russian context, we could interpret this not as evidence of Putin’s self-assuredness, but rather as a sign of desperation, or the suicidal cockiness of a leader who is dancing on the edge of the precipice.
There is, however, another process at work that could stymie any coup or any effort to return to the “Besieged Fortress” or kick over the global chessboard: the fact that Russia has become a consumption-oriented society, whose people are unwilling to sacrifice well being for any reason. The Kremlin surely must understand this.
The Russian President’s frequent “Rome vacations” (which in all probability have a medical reason) have triggered deliberations on the post-Putin era. Indeed, he himself has invited this discussion. Putin’s legacy will be a frightening one, hardly ready for liberalization. But a dictatorship scenario looks doubtful too: there would first have to be an animating idea, a repressive apparatus that would enforce this idea rather than its own interests, and a population ready to make sacrifices. Russia lacks all of these components. Indeed Putin will most likely leave behind a corrupt and decaying system that will pose an even greater threat than a dictatorship.
In the Crimea documentary, Putin still looks like a victor, one who is enjoying threatening the West in his role as the Global Terminator. The paradox is that this documentary aired at just the time the world began to wonder whether Putin was dead, proving just how treacherous his position really is.
Russia’s agony has begun. It could be a nasty ride not just for Russia, but for the rest of the world as well.
Former Brookings Expert
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme - Chatham House
This article originally appeared at The American Interest.