Putin’s Blackmail Works Domestically As Well As Internationally
In the course of the Kremlin’s stalled war against Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s regime has undergone multiple crises. Against expectations, the president has emerged out of them almost unscathed. This is because his opponents at home and abroad are cautious. Through blackmail, he has led them to believe that he is a dangerous player who will stop at nothing to retain power.
The first crisis was the failure of the February–March “blitzkrieg” and the transformation of the assault into a protracted war. Prior to February 24 the majority of Russia’s elites were not even aware of the impending invasion. Putin’s gross miscalculation, which resulted in heavy casualties, seemed destined to undermine the president’s position in the eyes of his entourage. It did not.
The second crisis was the initial wave of sanctions, which caused an economic shock—a powerful spike in inflation, the departure of Western brands, and the collapse of imports. This crisis imposed significant costs on the population. It was bound to raise questions about the war’s meaning and price. It did not.
The third crisis was the Ukrainian forces’ counteroffensive in August and September, which demonstrated that the Kremlin, during the six months of war, had failed to develop a competent military strategy, failed to bring order to troops and logistics, and failed to strengthen the army’s morale and discipline. It did not cause much stir domestically.
The Kremlin’s “partial mobilization” was the fourth crisis. Its very announcement, which Putin had tried to avoid for as long as possible, and its course, filled with chaos, lawlessness, and haphazard repression, were scandalous.
None of these crises, which exposed Putin’s strategic errors, resulted in regime destabilization. Both at the beginning of the war and after the announcement of mobilization, public opinion polls showed a shocked and confused populace. But after each crisis the Russian public quickly returned to its previous state of indifference to the dramatic events of the day.
Putin Gets Away with It, Again
The fact that the Kremlin has successfully overcome these four crises is evidence of the regime’s strength and its long-term stability. Russia’s citizens and the country’s elites alike have noticed the absence of resistance and the fact that Putin has, once again, gotten away with heinous actions. This has nudged Russians to choose a strategy of getting used to the circumstances, which they now view as insurmountable.
The very fact that Putin has not been punished by citizens or the political elites for his defeats and managerial lapses is not, in terms of theory, surprising. The literature shows that defeat in a war is usually critical for those authoritarian leaders whose positions are shaky in the first place. For example, that was true in the case of the Argentine dictator Leopoldo Galtieri, who lost the Falklands War. If a dictator’s position is stable, even an extremely difficult conflict that does not achieve its goals or a lost war does not undermine his position. Saddam Hussein after the 1990–1991 Gulf War can serve as an example.
However, the fact that Putin’s regime has successfully navigated four war-related crises does not mean those crises went unnoticed. The failures were impossible to miss. Back in March and early April, Russia’s average citizen was convinced that the war would not last and that Putin would be hosting a victory parade in Kyiv on May 9. This was the “Putin is always a winner” mantra. That did not happen. Since then, the war has absorbed more and more resources, human and material, unnerving the Russian majority with its brutality and frightening the public with uncertainty. A quick and victorious end to the war is no longer touted.
Administrative fiascos in both military and civilian spheres were impossible to overlook. The reality of the “partial mobilization” did not bear out Putin’s promise that only carefully selected people with military experience and of certain age would be drafted. Discussions of the chaos of mobilization, the state’s inability to house, organize, and equip the mobilized, and unfulfilled promises of compensation to the draftees and their families flooded Russia’s social media.
The sham referendums in the occupied territories and the hasty incorporation of these territories into Russia looked no less scandalous. Russians’ perceptions of this campaign and of the overall balance of current losses and gains are clearly visible in their answers to the question about the main memorable events of the month in the Levada Center’s polls. In September, 47 percent of those polled mentioned the partial mobilization as a “memorable event,” while only 9 percent remembered the referendums. In October, 36 percent of the respondents named the “special military operation” as a memorable event, 27 percent mentioned the mobilization, 16 percent remembered the explosion on the Crimean bridge, and only 6 percent spoke of the incorporation of four new regions into Russia. In other words, the theatrics of “reunification with ancestral Russian lands,” which Putin flaunted to override the sight of Russian troops fleeing their positions, were ignored or pushed to the periphery of the public’s attention.
Russian Society’s Value-Free Pragmatism
Those who believe that the Russians are seized by imperialist zeal or share the television propagandists’ jingoism are wrong. When talking to pollsters, the Russians agree with the clichés of the official military narrative out of compliance with the rules imposed on them. In reality, the war is felt as an uncomfortable and unnerving burden, one that must be borne so as not to have to confront the system head on and not to lose some perceived guarantees of relative well-being. The Russian public’s relationship with the regime is built on pragmatics, not on values. This pragmatic cost-benefit analysis holds the key to understanding Putin’s relationship with his domestic audience.
There are two aspects to Putin’s image in Russia. He is seen as a successful strategist who knows how to achieve his goals and distribute the benefits to his loyalists. He is also known as a vindictive player, always ready to use violence against an opponent. Of these two aspects, the first one has been significantly devalued while the second one, a readiness to use violence and an obstinate refusal to recognize losses and costs, has been brought into sharp focus by the war.
Paradoxically, attitudes toward Putin on the domestic front and international political scene echo each other to a much greater extent than is commonly thought. Putin’s defeats and failures in this war are obvious to any objective observer. Western experts and politicians routinely speak of Putin’s lost war. At the same time, in their perception, he remains a dangerous player who is capable of further escalation and therefore should not be provoked.
Putin’s nuclear blackmail, which has had a significant effect on the Western coalition’s caution in expanding arms supplies to Ukraine, appeals not only to external but also to domestic audiences. Both abroad and at home, Putin is seen as a player who is capable of unacceptable escalation. Despite his losses, he is not seen as a loser because he has a reliable insurance policy against ultimate defeat, which he is ready to use in case of emergency.
To the population and the elites, Putin no longer looks like someone who can lead to victory or provide a strategic perspective, like someone to whom it is worth linking their future. At the same time, the imagined costs of rebellion look so high that the population and the elites take up adaptation strategies despite the long-term costs associated with them.
A staged video recently circulated in Russia shows a man, a fighter with the Wagner Group, a private mercenary outfit, who has allegedly been captured by the group after a desertion attempt and cruelly executed—his head smashed in with a sledgehammer—for “treason” without trial. In Russia, this is taken as Putin’s signaling. It is the domestic version of the nuclear blackmail Putin threatens internationally, and works just as well. Both are signals of readiness for unlimited and appalling violence.
Both Western and domestic strategic visions seem to accept that a complete victory over Putin is unavailable at this stage. Both seem to be suing for compliance and acceptance. Putin’s military and economic failures should at some point spark an internal resistance to the regime. They should, but they do not.
Those same failures should lead to a more intensive supply of weapons to Ukraine. They should, but they do not. These two attitudes toward Putin—domestic and international—run in parallel, but they recognize each other’s presence, reflect each other, and, who knows, may even influence one another.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
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The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more