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Putin’s Power Equilibrium Finds Itself in Troubled Waters

Maxim Trudolyubov
President Putin surrounded by military officers
Moscow, Russia—May 9th, 2023: Putin delivering speech at commemoration of the 78th Victory Day.

Historically, as a politician interested in holding on to power, Putin was good at doing two things. First, he could run ahead of both domestic and foreign actors, keeping everyone on their toes. He acted, everyone else reacted.

Second, he knew how to balance the characters and groups of characters around him. He would always juxtapose one official with another or balance one interest group against another.

Some of Putin’s critics called his first master skill badassery. Analysts called it agility. “Russia does not foster predictability in its relationships with neighbors,” François Heisbourg, senior adviser at the think tank IISS, and René Nyberg, a Finnish diplomat, have written. “The ability to make strategic decisions quickly and to implement them militarily and politically with great speed and agility sets Russia apart from the tsarist Empire or the USSR.”

Putin’s second master skill was often seen by analysts as his ability to play the role of arbiter, while his entourage could see it as a way of self-assertion. “Putin has constructed his image around the notion that he is the arbiter of order in the Russian system,” CIA director William Burns said recently.

Agility in Front-Running, Compromised 
The first skill, the ability to act ahead of all others, has been compromised twice. In the aftermath of Putin’s fatal decision to invade Ukraine, Putin lost to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, and to Ukrainians in general. Ukrainians, by putting Russians on the defensive and successfully isolating Russia internationally, proved more agile both on the battlefield and in foreign policy.

Domestically, Putin lost his game of agility to a long-time ally, Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner mercenary group. There is still no one “correct” explanation of the June 24 Wagner mutiny, its real goals, or its cause. But one thing is clear: Prigozhin and his men showed that they can run ahead of the rest. They acted, Putin reacted, and quite poorly at that.

According to the Washington Post’s intelligence sources, Putin was warned by his security apparatus that Prigozhin was preparing a mutiny. Yet Putin issued no orders for most of the duration of the rebellion. “When it began to happen, there was paralysis on all levels. . . . There was absolute dismay and confusion. For a long time, they did not know how to react,” a European security official told the Post.

The ability to run faster than others is important in any human endeavor, good or bad. Without it, new territories would not be conquered, new frontiers would not appear on maps, in science, or in business. This skill is also important in the criminal system of relationships. It allows the capo di capi to assert leadership in an environment where few rules are in force. 

Within the Russian state system, this skill of Putin’s made his government and governors act. They would rush to patch holes and save the day after each and every one of the Kremlin’s unexpected special operations, be it an illegal takeover of a large company or the annexation of Crimea.

While Putin’s first master skill has been compromised, he has probably kept his second skill, the ability to play the arbiter.

Putin’s New Balancing Act 
This past February Putin effectively acknowledged that he had failed to win the war by running ahead of everyone else, in one fell swoop. In his state-of-the-nation address at the time, he made clear that the default scenario for this war was for it to become Russia’s indefinite political reality.

Back in February 2023, Putin spoke about the war as a “difficult situation” that had “developed.” As opposed to his militant language one year earlier, he no longer took responsibility for the war. He shifted responsibility to the West: “They are the ones who started this war, while we are using force to stop it.”

“This is already a long war, and it is likely to become protracted,” military analysts Michael Kofman and Rob Lee wrote in May. “History is an imperfect guide, but it suggests wars that endure for more than a year are likely to go on for at least several more and are exceedingly difficult to end.”

Russia’s ultra-patriots and right-wing activists have long been musing about Putin’s unwillingness to order a nationwide mobilization and press harder with the war effort. These misgivings of many of Putin’s allies found their explosive expression in the Wagner mutiny, which, at least on the face of it, was one loud complaint about the top military and political leadership’s inability to prosecute the war properly.

When the Wagner mutiny betrayed a lot of discontent among the higher and middle military brass, Putin began to play his balancing game. He now could dispense with some of the troublemakers within the circles of war cheerleaders and disgruntled officers, knowing that, in its current state, the Russian army is incapable of any large-scale offensive operations anyway.

And Putin went for those war cheerleaders and disgruntled officers. Last week the Russian authorities arrested Igor Girkin, also known as Strelkov, an FSB veteran who some years ago acknowledged that he was the one who helped annex Crimea and start the war in the east of Ukraine in 2014. In November 2022, he was among the three men sentenced to life in prison in absentia by a court in The Hague for the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014, killing 298 people.

For the past year, Girkin was one of Putin’s harshest critics over the inadequate political and military leadership.

Putin has gotten rid of some capable generals, too. One of the top military brass, Army General Sergei Surovikin, who is officially still the deputy commander of Putin’s entire “special military operation” in Ukraine, has been missing since the day of the mutiny.

In mid-July, Major General Ivan Popov, who commanded the Russian 58th Army, said in a voice message published on Russia’s top messaging app, Telegram, that he had been dismissed after telling the truth to the top brass about the situation at the front. Many other army leaders are reported to have been purged in the aftermath of the mutiny.

Ultra-patriots may not understand this, but capable generals and war supporters are to Putin the same as liberals and war opponents, just with a different marker. This is an extreme that needs to be balanced with something to avoid distortions and revolutions.

Maintaining Equilibrium Now Leads to Stasis 
From the point of view of retaining power, both skills are equally important. If you have to choose between the two, it is already a defeat. Because if you do not run ahead, the balance will start to fall apart, which seems to be the case.

That is why everything looks outwardly stable. But without the first skill, the second leads to stasis, a situation in which all forces are equal and opposite and thus nullify one another.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on 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 South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more