From Russia with(out) Putin

Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Vladimir Putin is evil, no doubt. But what of the elite which support him, what of the Russian public? What of a future without Putin? 

First, some history: Vladimir Putin rose to power in the midst of the war in Chechnya and during a period of economic decline. Importantly, his ascent followed a staged apartment bombing assumed to be orchestrated by the Russian government, and subsequently blamed on Chechen rebels. The reason for its significance lies in the fact that the outgoing leader, Boris Yelstin, planned it. Why? To catalyze Russian hatred for Chechnya and confuse them into voting for Putin. Putin, in turn, handed Yelstin criminal immunity, sparing him from the wrath of the Russian elite, which Putin quelled with a promise to stay out of Russian business if they stayed out of politics. 

That promise stands to cripple Putin. While the beginning of the war in Ukraine saw Russia’s economy exceed expectations, recent events have been less rosy. Unable to rely on India and the central Asian countries to sure-up supply chains, prices are rising and consumer confidence is in the toilet. The widely held idea that the war would not impact the general public has been torn to shreds. In Moscow men have been press-ganged into service. The mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, announced recently that conscription was over. In doing so the burden will fall to less wealthy regions that lack elite lobbying power. 

Putin’s god-daughter, Ksenia Sobchak, fled ahead of arrest this week, signaling how deeply the crisis has permeated in Russian society. While Putin’s closest allies remain close to him, business leaders are up in arms. A member of the Russian business elite said in October that there could be a negative dynamic in the coming months as the dead bodies return from the front. State officials have spoken of a potential leadership change for the first time in 20 years. 

Who that will be remains to be seen, but it is not unthinkable Putin pulls a Yelstin, and replaces himself with a loyal supporter, which he did 2008 when termed out. Without elite support, such a decision may not be his to make. Abbas Galyamov, a political scientist that has spent time in the Kremlin, suggests the elite will be forced, out of a sense of self preservation, to put forth their own candidate. Mr. Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow who put an end to the press-gangs in October, or idealogue Dmitry Patrushev, who is seen as a fresh face amongst Russian voters and a malleable figure amongst the elite, are atop Mr. Galyamov’s list of possible successors.

With this said, reports suggest that Putin is surrounded by “yes men” and in dire health. This could embolden Putin in the face of insurmountable odds, both at home and abroad in Ukraine. This begs the question: if pushed far enough to the fringe would Putin order a nuclear strike on Ukraine? There is no concrete answer to this question, but its mere consideration in this conversation illustrates how imperative action to remove Putin is.

The likelihood that anything will change in Russian politics, regardless of whether or not Putin is absent, is slim. Business oligarchs appointing an autocrat is a far cry from democracy, and the only real opposition leader, Alexi Navalny, remains in jail. And yet, the world is not so easily divided.