Commentary: Does domestic pressure within Russia pose a threat to Putin's regime?
With large-scale protests against the invasion of Ukraine sweeping across Russia, a professor delves into who the opposition is and whether Putin will face enough resistance to be ousted.
LONDON: Vladimir Putin’s military aggression against Ukraine is meeting more opposition from Ukrainians than he expected. The Russian president also saw the widespread condemnation of his military’s aggression in Ukraine at the UN General Assembly.
But the opposition that Putin faces domestically in Russia is also likely giving him cause for alarm.
There are clear reasons, however, to be sceptical of claims that Putin will soon be deposed in a palace coup – or that the existing elite could be removed by mass protests.
There are three broad categories of Russians who have voiced their opposition to the war, albeit in different ways. It helps to visualise these as three concentric circles, starting from the largest and closing in.
Anti-war street protests attended by regular citizens have swept the country. Within the first week of Russia’s full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, at least 7,669 people were detained by police at anti-war protests across Russia according to OVD-Info, a Russian human rights organisation.
Those detained include people all the way from primary school children to an elderly pensioner in St Petersburg.
Jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny has called for daily anti-war protests in and outside Russia, referring to Putin as an “insane tsar”.
CULTURAL ELITE AND THE INTELLIGENTSIA
Portions of the intellectual and cultural elite have also voiced their opposition to war – from TV celebrities to sportspeople and scientists. Beyond individual statements, a flurry of open letters has been signed, including by 44 of the country’s top chess players and by academics.
There are already cases, though, of signatories facing negative consequences, including losing their jobs. As well as the detentions at protests, this serves as a clear reminder of the bravery of those publicly opposing the war.
ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL ELITE
What about important economic actors? With the enormous fortunes that stand to be lost because of the West’s unprecedented sanctions on Russia, it is plausible that they might speak out.
Some already have. A few of Russia’s wealthiest people – for example, the oligarchs Mikhail Fridman and Oleg Deripaska – have called for peace. One of the country’s largest oil companies, Lukoil, has also called for an end to the war in Ukraine.
But there is clear caution. Calling for peace is not the same as directly criticising Putin, as Fridman has acknowledged.
Some public dissent has also been shown already by minor political officials: For instance, a Russian adviser to the World Bank and a Russian delegate at a UN climate conference.
What about people higher up the political food chain? Today’s Kremlinology has begun to resemble that of the Soviet era, when the opacity of politics forced Western analysts to scrutinise material like photographs of official events to glean insights into the intra-elite dynamics.
In a similar fashion, people are now trying to read the body language of senior officials during meetings with Putin for signs of disquiet.
One notable example relates to an image of Elvira Nabiullina, the head of Russia’s Central Bank, who was captured looking glum with her arms crossed and eyes down at the opposite end to Putin of a comically long table.
So far, however, there are no signs of significant cracks at the top. And that’s no surprise – Putin has surrounded himself with hyper-loyalists, the inner circle of which share his impression of a West intent on undermining Russia and his rule.
Even if members of the broader political elite are deeply shocked by – or disagree with – Russia’s assault on Ukraine, the costs of voicing dissent or trying to exit the system are overwhelmingly high. For the moment, at least.
THE TRUE DEPTH AND BREADTH OF OPPOSITION
It’s very difficult to measure the true extent of opposition to the war – and to Putin personally – across these three groups, as well as to work out how this might change over time.
The Russian president’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, has said that the “level of support for the president, for his decisions, and his actions is very, very high”.
According to the Kremlin-friendly VTsIOM polling agency, 68 per cent of Russians support Russia’s activities in Ukraine, with another Kremlin-aligned agency, FOM, reporting that 71 per cent of Russians trust in Putin following the start of Russia’s military operation, up from 60 per cent just before the invasion.
How can this be? Russian state media continues to portray a very different reality to the coverage in Western media.
Rather than a full-scale assault, the narrative is of a “special operation” to protect ethnic Russians in the so-called “republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk from “genocide” being carried out by Ukraine’s “neo-Nazi” government.
Words like “invasion” and “war” are banned in the Russian media. Independent outlets have been blocked or shut down. And Russians face the prospect of harsh punishment for challenging the state’s line on the conflict.
A BLEAK OUTLOOK
The degree of opposition going forward depends on a number of factors, including the Russian military’s ability to subdue Ukrainian forces. The scale of economic hardship in Russia will also influence public opinion.
But a lot will also depend on the Russian state’s capacity and willingness to repress dissent at home and continue to control the narrative. We’ll see economic problems and the deaths of Russian soldiers continue to be blamed by the Kremlin on the West.
Putin has staked his survival on this. And we’ve seen what he is capable of doing to critical voices: The incarceration of Navalny and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 being just two examples.
Given the steps that have already been taken to respond to domestic opposition, it is likely that – in the short term, at least – we will see a doubling down of repression, including to prevent any cascade of dissent that might shake the very foundations of the regime.
Ben Noble is an Associate Professor of Russian Politics at University College London. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation.