Is Putin Losing His Balance?

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by Gordon M. Hahn

Is the Vladimir the Great Balancer who has deftly mixed the carrot and the stick to maintain a tentative balance between the myriad regime, autonomous, and opposition elements that comprise Russia’s metastable politics losing his touch? I have noted several times in the past that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a soft authoritarian with a keen sense of how much repression is advisable to use in the mix of tools he deploys to maintain political stability and his own popularity. However, the crackdown on September 9th’s anti-pension reform demonstrations and other recent events seem to suggest that Putin is losing either that sense and turning to the types of repression that could help spark rebellion in Russia or, less likely, control over security organs who are demonstrating increased toughness enmeshed in a power struggle among themselves and with less traditionalist, more liberal elements. That the former seems to be the case, at least temporarily, is evident in measures other than the demonstration crackdown, including the recently adopted and increasingly implemented law that criminalizes the posting and re-posting of material as well as other activity on the Internet as well as the very pension reform proposal itself. Then there is the bizarre video message to opposition leader Alexei Navalnyi from National Guard commander and Putin associate Viktor Zolotov.

Although the marches in many cities went peacefully enough, Sunday’s crackdowns on the marchers in Moscow and St. Petersburg clearly went beyond the pale of propriety in police conduct. Some women and children were roughly handled and detained, and a few demonstrators were beaten by police and National Guardsmen. The detention of children is clearly not necessary in any case. Passers-by were often arrested along with alleged perpetrators of demonstration law violations. The targeting of women and children is a red line, which once crossed could likely lead to a public reaction against the regime. Should this practice continue it is certain to rile many in the mainstream who support Putin in lukewarm fashion or are largely indifferent to the president or politics. To be sure, Putin, Zolotov, and the police may have been led to the needlessly harsher than usual crackdown on the anti-pension reform demonstrators by a series of additional somewhat unusual attendant circumstances. There were clear attempts made to hijack the marches by increasingly radical opposition leader Alexei Navalny and others. They deployed children at the marches and in Moscow attempted to march on the Kremlin. In addition, Sunday was a countrywide election day, including voting in the Moscow mayoral election. The Kremlin is well aware of the color revolution pattern across numerous countries from Serbia to Ukraine to Kyrgyzstan of ‘regime-fatal demonstrations beginning on the eve or the day of elections, though usually the elections involved in such cases were presidential elections. In December 2011, Russia experienced a wave of anti-regime demonstrations that forced then-president Dmitrii Medvedev to institute a series of liberal election reforms. Given the much more tense and indeed dangerous international and even domestic economic situation, Putin is unlikely to be any more willing to risk such an outburst of unsanctioned popular will. This may be his pivotal mistake or lead to one that sparks anger that snowballs into rebellion.

The harshening of the regime towards Internet use bespeaks of general nervousness and tendency to overreact, also reflecting Putin’s fear of a color revolution, the success of which in other countries many attribute to the organizational and informational (propaganda) uses of the Internet. But it also seems another overreaction, something Putin has been successful in avoiding in domestic politics, if not always in foreign policy (witness: Crimea). Although the web is a valuable resource for terrorist, revolutionary and moderate opposition elements alike, with new restrictions on social web activity such as the posting, re-posting or even ‘liking’ of ‘extremist’ material will radicalize moderates and politicize the apolitical.

In what appears to have been another miscalculation — the one that sparked Sunday’s protests — the pension reform proposals themselves from the government clearly sparked a public backlash. The backlash is proof of miscalculation, putting aside conspiracy theories, such as a plot to undermine Prime Minister Medvedev or boost Putin’s rating by his playing the ‘good tsar’ who reins in the government liberals. The backlash’s occurrence and Putin’s softening of the reform proposal this week by adjusting the suggested pension age raises downwards demonstrate that the original proposal overshot their political mark. Despite Putin’s initial separation from the proposal’s announcement and long-lasting distance from the debate in order to maintain deniability of involvement, everyone knows that in Russia the ruble stops at Putin’s desk on any important issue and many are inclined to reject his de facto ‘denial’ of responsibility. Indeed, this attempt to maintain his distance from the pension reform may constitute a fourth miscue in his loss of balance.

Then there is Zolotov’s undignified, crude, and threatening tirade. The National Guard leader was responding to corruption charges Navalnyi recently made against him and the National Guard. Complaining about Navalnyi being an “a product of the American test tube” “waving around his (Zolotov’s) income declaration like a rag for a year,” Zolotov calls out Navalnyi to a fight: “I challenge you to a duel, where I promise to make from you a good juicy chop steak” (https://echo.msk.ru/blog/day_video/2275936-echo/). Whether Zolotov received Putin’s permission to issue this video or acted on his own is unclear. Perhaps, Putin thinks it useful to let vicious barking dogs off the leash now and then to support his own image as the prudent moderate. It’s impossible to tell. What is clear is that Zolotov gave a Trump-on-steroids kind of performance that only renders an image of the Kremlin as unprofessional, boorish, and, uncharacteristically, obviously nervous.

These four or five mistakes, coming in the wake of Putin’s easy re-election suggest that Putin may be becoming complacent and/or delegating to much activity to subordinates given his inevitable aging. This and the heavy foreign policy agenda may be having a debilitating effect on Putin’s previous ability to sense the limits of his power and that of the other competing and allied forces around him. Putin the ‘great balancer’ may be losing some of his feel for the balance, may be getting tired and unable to keep up with the information digestion he needs to inform his balancing act, may be intentionally going beyond limits delineated by perspicacity which he previously honored because he is in greater fear of color revolution, or perhaps all three of these factors are working simultaneously to confound the previous level of metastability.

None of this means that Putin’s sense of balance has declined to such a level that he is fundamentally destabilizing the regime, not less that Putin is about to fall from power. It does, however, suggest that in addition to the objective difficulty of the challenge of fashioning an effective transition from his constitutionally legal second consecutive term to the 2024-2030 term, there will be an additional personal test being in his mid-60s and after nearly two decades in power of continuing  to be up to the enormous challenge already inherent in running a soft authoritarian regime in an era of increasingly globalization, ‘post-fact’ informational diffusion and disparity high-technology, and international system transition from unipolarity to multipolarity.

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About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California, www.cetisresearch.org.

Dr. Hahn is the author of Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War (McFarland Publishers, 2017) and three previously and well-received books: Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002);  Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007); and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media and has served as a consultant and provided expert testimony to the U.S. government.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Kennan Institute in Washington DC as well as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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