RUSSIA – Predictions of Vladimir Putin’s demise should be taken with a grain of salt. An autocrat can stay in power with the support of just 30% of the population, according to a rule of thumb often used in discussions of international relations. He will have the manpower necessary to manage the state bureaucracy, control society, collect taxes (or bribes) and protect the country’s borders. After the brazen blitzkrieg of Yevgueni Prigojine’s Wagnerian mercenaries less than 200 km from the Russian capital, President Vladimir Putin certainly appears more vulnerable. Wow, what a stroke of luck. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pointed out on CNN on Sunday that sixteen months ago Putin believed his rapid invasion of Ukraine would lead to the fall of the government within days.
This was a monumental mistake in military strategy. Putin thought that with his soldiers at the gates of the city, he could simply take Ukraine off the map and reintegrate it into the Russian Federation. Blinken shifted the focus to defending Russia’s capital, Moscow, against mercenaries of Putin’s own design. The implications of this are considerable. However, assuming what will happen next can be risky. Putin’s future and the direction of his government depend on four major questions. First, in March, a year after his invasion, Putin’s popularity remained above 80%, according to a poll by Levanda, Russia’s oldest independent research organization.
It is in a country traditionally famous for its blind nationalism. Despite his ruthless destruction of Ukraine and the crushing death toll, that is the consensus of other polls. According to John Kirby, a retired admiral and current spokesman for the National Security Council, Russia has lost 20,000 fighters since December, and another 80,000 have been wounded. (Last week, President Biden’s approval rating was 41%, well below even half. And a Gallup poll just three days before Trump left office found that only 34% of Americans approved of him. Putin can believe some things (and know some things) about his popularity at home.
Putin is not a graceful loser, which is the second point. Unlike former President Mikhail Gorbachev, who faced the same political, economic, security and global problems as the Soviet Union in 1991, he is unlikely to take the high road. Putin showed the kind of cruelty usually associated with Attila the Hun, the fifth-century Hun who plundered Europe and crucified traitors. He used the same murder strategies as the maniacal and ruthless 16th century warlord Ivan the Terrible. And like the first dictatorial czar of all Russia, Peter the Great, he is obsessed with Western Europe and has imperial territorial ambitions to expand Russia’s borders to the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Caspian in the 18th century.