Putin Unbound

How Repression at Home Presaged Belligerence Abroad

Before he started massing troops, few expected Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine, and even once he did, few expected him to behave the way he has. In a shocking act of aggression, the Russian leader sent troops to bomb cities such as Kharkiv and Mariupol and to attack schools, hospitals, and apartment buildings throughout the country, killing hundreds—if not thousands—of civilians. His extreme demands—calling for Ukraine to disarm, formally recognize the loss of Crimea, give up large swaths of territory in the eastern part of the country, and renounce any intention to join NATO—have stunned the world, as has his repeated nuclear saber rattling. Instead of winning over the Ukrainians, Putin has quickly turned the population irrevocably against him. And he has grossly overestimated the strength and speed of his military, which stumbled badly in the early weeks of the war. How could a leader regularly hailed as a skilled tactician, if not a strategic genius, make so many rash and seemingly counterproductive moves?

Viewed purely in foreign policy terms, Putin’s invasion makes little sense. There was no prospect of Ukraine joining NATO anytime soon, and Putin could have achieved some of his other objectives, such as securing independence for the self-declared Donbas republics, with a far more limited and less costly intervention. Even if the Russian army were more effective, it would still lack the troops to occupy and subdue a country of more than 40 million people. Poorly planned and with no clear endgame, the whole operation seems almost nihilistic in its violent riskiness.

Seen in light of Putin’s evolving style of rule at home, however, the assault on Ukraine fits into an emerging pattern—one that features anti-Western nationalism; angry, self-justifying speeches; and increasingly open uses of force. Starting about four years ago, and even more insistently since the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has been reshaping the system through which he exercises political power. Gone is the soft authoritarian regime of his early years, administered in part by a team of liberal economists and technocrats who favored Russia’s integration with the West and sought to attract investors with a show of commitment to the rule of law. Now, Russia is a brutally repressive police state run by a small group of hard-liners who have imposed ever-harsher policies both at home and abroad.

Putin’s turn to force in Ukraine reflects the wholesale transformation of his inner circle—and, with it, his view of the world. Deeply disillusioned with the United States and Europe and faced with an increasingly restive Russian public, he has jettisoned much of his old approach to governing. Convinced that Western leaders aim to overthrow him, and alarmed by protests that have erupted both in Russia and in surrounding countries, he is less confident than before that he can control Russian society with sophisticated methods. In response, he has retreated to the comforting certainties of a small group of yes men and reactionary security officials, members of the so-called siloviki, who see Russia as besieged by foreign forces and view hard power and ruthless social controls as the only way to protect Putin’s regime. Repression at home did not cause the Kremlin’s embrace of blitzkrieg abroad. But each supports the other. In this environment of insularity and insecurity, war helps justify domestic repression, and the fear of Western influence at home helps justify war.

A CLIMATE OF FEAR
As Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine in late February, the Kremlin was already launching another offensive, aimed at the forward-looking, freethinking part of Russian society that refused to rally behind the official line. Putin’s agents quickly closed almost all liberal media outlets—including Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) and Dozhd (TV Rain)—and restricted access to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. A new law threatened critics of the war with 15 years in a labor camp. And in just the first two weeks of the invasion, the police detained more than 13,000 antiwar protesters.

All of this seemed like a radical departure from Putin’s characteristic methods of soft authoritarianism. In fact, it marked the climax of a four-year-old trend toward harsher state repression. Even before the invasion, almost all genuinely independent politicians had been jailed or forced into exile. Putin’s subordinates poisoned the outspoken opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2020; when he miraculously survived, they imprisoned him on trumped-up charges. They designated Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation an “extremist group” and banned it, prosecuting its members or driving them abroad. Between 2015 and 2022, the number of political prisoners in Russia jumped from 36 to 81, according to the Memorial Human Rights Center. And many more people—from Jehovah’s Witnesses to members of banned Muslim groups—were jailed for their religious beliefs.

Civil society has been almost completely destroyed. In late 2021, the Supreme Court of Russia ordered the closure of Memorial, the human rights group founded by the Soviet dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov. Putin publicly accused it of defending international terrorists and of including Nazi collaborators on its list of Stalin’s victims. Open Russia, a foundation created by the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky to promote the rule of law and freedom of the press, was also shuttered, as were many other groups that the Kremlin branded as extremist or undesirable. Many of the few surviving liberal nonprofit organizations, such as the Levada Center, a well-respected independent polling firm, and the Russian chapter of the anticorruption group Transparency International, must now identify themselves as “foreign agents.”

Why, almost 20 years after first taking office, did Putin switch from spin to fear?
Using COVID-19 precautions as a pretext, officials effectively banned all political demonstrations—even one-person pickets. Those defying the restrictions were arrested en masse. Just in the first ten days after Navalny’s arrest in early 2021, the police detained more than 17,000 protesters in almost 200 cities, according to official figures. The first six months of 2021 saw more than 14,000 people convicted of violating rules regarding public events, more than six times the annual average over the preceding 15 years. The security services also began acting preemptively. Police officers paid warning visits to hundreds of Navalny supporters, often late at night. To finance this tougher line, the government increased funding for Russia’s three main internal security agencies—the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Ministry of the Interior, and the National Guard (also known as Rosgvardia)—by 23 percent between 2018 and 2021.

Antigovernment criticism is scarcely freer on the Internet, where social media posts—and even the mere sharing of posts by other people—have led to prison time. Between January 2019 and June 2021, the Russian authorities requested that Google remove 833,000 items from its platforms—many more than any other country had tried to censor. Russian government requests to YouTube to delete material on that site surged in 2016 and have remained high ever since. In recent years, the Russian media conglomerate Gazprom-Media, which is owned by a close associate of Putin, has sought to lure bloggers to its more easily controllable video-hosting service, Rutube, as well as to its TikTok replica, Yappy.

Even before 2018, repression had been on the rise, ratcheting up after Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, and even more so after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea. A key moment came in February 2015, when the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered on a bridge outside the Kremlin, signaling to all the dangers of challenging those in power. The squad of FSB agents who—according to the unwitting confession of one member—smeared the nerve agent Novichok into Navalny’s underpants in 2020 may well have targeted other opposition members before then. Startling research by the investigative group Bellingcat suggests that the same operatives could have been involved in the 2015 and 2017 poisonings of the anti-Putin activist Vladimir Kara-Murza.

Still, the greater intensity and brazenness of the Kremlin’s repression over the last few years have been remarkable. And polls by the Levada Center indicate that Russians are growing both more cynical and more afraid. Almost half of those surveyed in 2021 who knew about the law requiring many nonprofits to identify themselves as foreign agents thought it had been introduced to pressure independent organizations rather than to protect the population—up from 26 percent in 2016. Similarly, nearly half of respondents who had heard of Memorial in December 2021 thought it was being liquidated for political reasons. Between 2017 and late 2021, the share of respondents who feared “a return to mass repression” increased from 21 percent to 47 percent. By 2021, 84 percent of Russians polled said they would not express opinions about the forthcoming parliamentary election in a public place. And in focus groups, young people have become afraid to talk about Navalny.

THE SPIN DICTATOR
What explains the Kremlin’s scorched-earth strategy? One might think that violent intimidation is just what authoritarian regimes do: the essence of dictatorship is to deter and punish opposition. The twentieth century abounded with brutal leaders. The classic autocrat was a “fear dictator,” who controlled the population through harsh repression, often rationalized by an official ideology. Some, such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, remain in power.

Yet in recent decades, another model has been spreading. Lee Kuan Yew’s successors in Singapore, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, and Viktor Orban in Hungary began dressing in business suits rather than military uniforms and cultivated an image of worldliness and competence. Such leaders enjoy high approval ratings, sustained in part by friendly coverage on state-controlled or co-opted media, and they hold carefully managed elections that they almost always win. Instead of executing rivals, they mostly harass them with defamation suits and other charges and fines, while demolishing their reputations on television and online. Like so-called spin doctors in democracies, they manipulate information to build support and discredit rivals—that is why, in our recent book, my co-author, Sergei Guriev, and I call them “spin dictators.”

As fear has lost ground to spin, overt repression has become rarer. Politically motivated killings by state agents were common under dictators who came to power in the 1980s; almost two-thirds of those regimes oversaw more than ten such killings per year. But among authoritarian leaders who took office in the first decade of this century, only 28 percent have had rates of politically motivated killings that high. At the same time, fewer recent dictators have jailed large numbers of political prisoners. Indeed, the latest crop of autocrats is not only less overtly violent but also prone to cast their liberal opponents as themselves dangerous revolutionaries or even terrorists.

In his early years in office, Putin exemplified this approach. Except for in Chechnya, where he used force to crush a regime of criminal warlords, Putin mostly employed nonviolent methods to consolidate his power, while preserving the trappings of democracy. Far from banning Memorial, he initially gave it and other human rights organizations grants. As recently as 2017, he denounced “the tragedy of [Stalin’s] repressions” and approved a monument to honor the dictator’s victims. Rather than jailing Navalny, Putin’s prosecutor general intervened after the activist’s conviction for embezzlement in 2013—a conviction the European Court of Human Rights called politically motivated—to get him freed on bail with a suspended sentence. (Navalny’s brother, Oleg, however, served time on the same charge.) The Kremlin even let Navalny run for mayor of Moscow that year, perhaps underestimating his appeal (he won 27 percent of the vote). He was harassed and imprisoned multiple times for short spells, but the regime worked hard to camouflage its political motives.

Where old-style dictators censor comprehensively, Putin began with a softer touch. The Kremlin acquired direct or indirect control of all of the country’s major TV networks but tolerated considerable independent journalism so long as its audience remained small. The liberal television channel Dozhd was blocked only after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, and the daily Novaya Gazeta continues to publish, although perhaps not for long. Such outlets seemed to pose little danger to the Kremlin-coordinated media, which project distorted visions of reality to both Russia and the outside world. Electronic media, Putin admitted with unusual frankness in October 2014, have turned “news reporting . . . into a formidable weapon that enables public opinion manipulations.” Against this history of grudging toleration, the Kremlin’s turn to comprehensive censorship since the invasion of Ukraine is striking.

As for the Internet, Putin mostly ignored it at first: in his first two terms, he even resisted efforts by his subordinates to draft intrusive regulations regarding online activity. As late as 2010, he dismissed the Web: “Fifty percent is porn,” he scoffed. Only in recent years has the regime sought to achieve a Chinese-style level of control and to criminalize anti-Kremlin posts. Since 2019, Internet providers have had to install equipment that can block, censor, or slow the loading of websites on the Kremlin’s orders.

Putin’s version of spin dictatorship worked exceedingly well. From September 1999 to March 2020, the president’s approval rating never dipped below 60 percent, allowing him to secure successive electoral victories and to marginalize the opposition. (These polls—and almost all the other ones cited here—were conducted by the Levada Center, the independence of which is demonstrated by the authorities’ repeated harassment of the firm, including by labeling it a foreign agent.) Putin’s popularity was boosted initially by years of rapid economic growth, but his ratings remained high even after the country’s economic performance deteriorated during the 2008–9 global financial crisis. State media also helped prolong the enthusiasm sparked by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, even as Western sanctions and international isolation began to take their toll. Evidence and research from multiple sources have suggested that until around 2018, few Russian respondents were afraid to express critical opinions in polls. The system worked via manipulation rather than fear.

Putin’s rule was never a typical case of the new soft authoritarianism in all regards. For example, although the overall level of repression under Putin was no higher than in other spin dictatorships, at least up until the end of 2015, state agents killed more journalists in Russia than were killed under any other such dictators, according to data from the Committee to Protect Journalists. And even before he invaded Ukraine, Putin acted belligerently at times toward Russia’s neighbors, in contrast to the usual preference of spin dictators for covert subversion. Still, until this year, he was careful to keep Russian casualties low in overseas operations, using proxy forces and mercenaries whenever possible and obscuring the number of military deaths during Russia’s intervention in Syria. And in almost every other way, he closely followed the spin dictator’s playbook.

FROM VELVET GLOVE TO IRON FIST
So why, almost 20 years after first taking office, did Putin switch from spin to fear? Some dictators become more repressive in response to an economic crisis: they worry that widespread discontent may spark political protests and even a revolution. At the same time, poor economic performance reduces government revenue, making it harder to co-opt opponents and leaving repression as the only feasible alternative. Yet economic decline cannot explain Putin’s shift. Although Russia’s economy has been stagnant over the past decade, the Kremlin hardly lacked the resources to continue buying off elites and manipulating the media. Government revenue averaged 36 percent of GDP in 2018–20, up slightly from 33 percent in 2012–17. In January 2022, the Bank of Russia’s gold and currency reserves, valued at over $630 billion, were higher than ever. Other recent economic shocks did not lead to intensified repression: during the global financial crisis, which saw Russian GDP drop by almost eight percent in 2009, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev continued to appeal for public support with a message of modernization and expertise. And recent waves of antigovernment protests—in 2011–12 and 2017—came not during economic crises but at moments of economic recovery. These demonstrations were triggered by electoral fraud and corruption, not economic grievances.

Another possibility is that the turn to repression has been driven by advances in technologies designed to surveil and manage citizens. Led by China, the world’s dictators have been developing sophisticated tools of control, from street cameras with facial recognition software to GPS trackers and Internet-monitoring devices. Russia has more closed-circuit cameras per capita than any country except China and the United States, and as of 2020, more than half of those cameras in Moscow used facial recognition technology. Russian police are working on computer programs that can identify people by their gait, tattoos, and other features. Hundreds of citizens who attended pro-Navalny protests in April 2021 were later traced by the police with the help of photo and video materials. Other techniques include slowing down social networks—Russia’s federal media regulator, Roskomnadzor, throttled Twitter in the spring of 2021, claiming the company had failed to remove banned content—and scanning posts for information about protests so the police can disrupt them.

Yet the availability of such technology cannot explain Putin’s turn to fear, either. The Kremlin could have used these same tools to quietly disable the opposition while preserving a democratic façade. For instance, after discovering activists’ plans by secretly monitoring their communications, the police could have preemptively closed intended protest sites for “road work” or detained organizers on unrelated grounds. Used smartly, the new tools could have substituted for mass detentions, police beatings, and terror.

For Putin, war helps justify domestic repression, and the fear of Western influence at home helps justify war.
But that is not how they are being used in Russia today. There, high-tech tools do not substitute for harsh repression; rather, they complement it in a synthesis close to that developed in China. The authorities both preventively detain activists and beat and arrest protesters by the thousands. They openly threaten to track down demonstrators using facial recognition and have sent intimidating emails to hundreds of Navalny’s donors and supporters, according to the opposition activist Vladimir Milov.

If economic crisis and new tools do not explain Putin’s embrace of tougher repression, then what does? The answer, in part, is that controlling political opposition with sophisticated methods is just getting much harder to do in Russia. Russian society has continued to modernize. Even as the economy struggled in the past decade, Russians were becoming better educated and more connected. And these days, most connect to the Internet via 3G mobile networks, which are fast enough to allow users to play videos on cell phones. Russia has become YouTube’s fifth-largest market, with 39 percent of Russian Internet users reporting that they use the app every day. All of this has begun to threaten state TV’s overwhelming dominance in news. By 2021, only 42 percent of Russians polled—and less than 20 percent among those under 35—said their main source of information about domestic events was television. Forty-five percent said it was the Internet, whether via social media, blogs, messenger channels, or news sites. The Internet could still include state TV, but the information ecology has clearly changed in recent years.

At the same time, support for liberal values has been growing. When asked which rights and freedoms they consider most important, more and more Russians say freedom of speech (61 percent in 2021, up from 34 percent in 2017), the right to receive information (39 percent, up from 25 percent), and the freedom to hold peaceful demonstrations (26 percent, up from 13 percent), according to Levada Center polls. Violent policing of protests increasingly outrages the public. Asked about the response of law enforcement to demonstrations in Moscow in July 2019, when police officers clubbed participants and arrested hundreds of those challenging the exclusion of opposition candidates from city elections, 41 percent agreed that it was a “harsh, unreasonable use of force,” compared with 32 percent who said they believed the police had behaved “adequately.” The Kremlin has even found it harder to sustain public hostility toward the West. Before the invasion of Ukraine, positive feelings toward the United States and Europe had been trending up for seven years, exceeding negative attitudes by late 2021.

Controlling political opposition with sophisticated methods is getting much harder to do in Russia.
Together, these developments have rendered the manipulation of information more difficult. The rise of Navalny was both a symptom of these trends and an aggravating factor. His YouTube channel’s audience grew from one million subscribers in the spring of 2017 to 3.5 million in the summer of 2020 and then to 6.4 million by early 2022. A number of his videos uncovering corruption within the Russian elite have received more than ten million views, and his exposé of a lavish Black Sea residence said to belong to Putin has been viewed more than 122 million times, with 55 percent of viewers inclined to believe the video’s claims, according to a Levada Center poll. In September 2020, more than 80 percent of respondents to another poll said they knew about Navalny, and 20 percent said they approved of him—an all-time high that later fell to 14 percent. Of course, far more disapproved, and many were indifferent or refused to answer. But the real point was not Navalny’s own popularity but rather the way he was helping erode Putin’s.

Putin’s ratings plunged after a controversial 2018 reform raising the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women finally ended the era of good feelings that had followed his annexation of Crimea in 2014. The president’s approval rating, which had hovered around 80 percent since the annexation, sank to just 59 percent in the spring of 2020—the lowest point of his four presidential terms—before stabilizing in the mid-60s. That may still seem high, but as political controls increased, more respondents likely felt nervous about answering a direct question about Putin with a negative response. The responses to other, less sensitive questions suggest a continuing erosion of support. When the Levada Center asked respondents to name politicians they trusted, the proportion mentioning Putin fell from 59 percent in November 2017 to 33 percent in January 2022, with an even more striking drop occurring among the young. When asked for whom they would vote in a presidential election, the proportion specifying Putin decreased from 57 percent in January 2018 to 32 percent in November 2021.

At the same time, the potential for antigovernment protests was rising. In 2018–21, 18 percent of poll respondents, on average, said they were ready to participate in mass political demonstrations, compared with an average of 11 percent in 2009–17. And major waves of protests broke out in 2017, 2019, and 2021. These were more widespread than the 2011–12 demonstrations, which had been mostly concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Although Russians remained split overall in their attitudes toward these demonstrations, an increasing proportion of respondents—41 percent in 2019, up from 27 percent in 2017—faulted the police for their harsh response. Perhaps most worrying for the Kremlin was an emerging split between young and older Russians: the young have grown more alienated, pro-Western, and supportive of protests.

RISE OF THE HARD-LINERS
These shifts in public opinion clearly presented a challenge for Putin. But there were still multiple ways the Kremlin could have responded. To understand why Putin chose overt repression over manipulation at this point requires a sense of how his regime’s internal composition has changed over time.

Putin’s initial entourage consisted of three groups: economic experts, most of whom believed in markets and integration with the West; cynical political fixers; and former and current security service and law enforcement operatives, known as the siloviki. At first, Putin maintained a balance among these groups and sought advice from all while prioritizing that of the specialists on a given issue. Gradually, over the last two decades, the first two groups have been almost completely eclipsed by the third.

This happened for several reasons. First, Putin lost faith in the vision promoted by the liberal economists. He had started out attentive to their views, appointing the libertarian economist Andrei Illarionov as his economic adviser. But their warnings that expropriating businesses and tolerating corruption would preclude growth and provoke market crises proved exaggerated. Markets turned out to be remarkably forgiving toward those rich in oil. In 2003, Putin’s then prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, tried to persuade him that arresting businessmen such as the billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky would shake investor confidence. Yet in the three years after Khodorkovsky’s arrest that year and the seizure of his company, Russian stocks tripled in value, and foreign direct investment inflows quadrupled. “Many things seemed sacrosanct,” recalled Putin’s early political adviser Gleb Pavlovsky. “But when they were removed, nothing happened.”

Over time, Putin not only stopped listening to once trusted economic advisers, such as Anatoly Chubais, Herman Gref, and Alexei Kudrin, but even ceased protecting them from his goons. One of Kudrin’s deputies at the Finance Ministry was arrested in 2007. By 2016, Putin was letting the siloviki arrest high-ranking officials such as Alexei Ulyukaev, then the economics minister, who is now serving an eight-year sentence in a labor camp for bribery. (He claimed that Putin’s close associate Igor Sechin set him up.) For the siloviki, the battle was about not just ideas but also money and power, as their various business empires expanded. Those economic technocrats who remain today, such as Anton Siluanov, the finance minister, and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, do not lecture Putin about market forces; they just do as they are told.

Putin likewise gradually lost confidence in his political fixers. When demonstrations erupted in Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2011 and 2012, that spelled the end for Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s top political aide, who had shaped the contours of his “managed democracy.” Later, in 2019, when Sergei Sobyanin, Moscow’s mayor, and Sergei Kiriyenko, Putin’s first deputy chief of staff, failed to quickly end major demonstrations that broke out in the capital over a city council election, Putin left the political team in place, but he transferred ultimate control over protest management from the civilian experts to the security services. Milov, who was involved in the demonstrations, was struck by how quickly all the different agencies acted in concert, suggesting new direction from the very top. According to the analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, Putin’s two most reactionary colleagues, Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Security Council, and Alexander Bortnikov, the director of the FSB, had convinced the president that the peaceful demonstrations had, in fact, been organized by foreign forces. From then on, the authorities did not manage the opposition: they criminalized it.

With Putin’s economic and political managers marginalized, the siloviki jockeyed for position, competing with one another to show toughness and loyalty by crushing the opposition and validating Putin’s suspicions about Western sabotage. The most hard-line advocates of state violence had a personal interest in nudging Putin toward harsher and more overt repression, thus making it difficult for him to pivot back to more politically sophisticated approaches. In addition to the siloviki, this group of hard-liners includes the leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has sent his security forces to seize critics or their family members in other parts of Russia and has made chilling threats against his and Putin’s opponents. At times, Kadyrov seems to deliberately overstep boundaries in order to challenge Putin or break some taboo—all while declaring himself to be the president’s loyal “foot soldier.” When Putin does not restrain or demote his subordinates, this emboldens both them and their rivals.

Events in the outside world also played into the hands of Putin’s hard-liners. The crushing of recent protests in Belarus, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Syria, and Venezuela suggested that autocrats who use brutal repression to squelch dissent tend to survive. The West has responded innovatively to human rights violations in Russia, establishing lists of individuals sanctioned for committing abuses. Still, it probably did not escape Putin’s attention that Russia was allowed to remain a member of the UN Human Rights Council in 2021, even after Navalny was poisoned and then sent to a labor camp. And Putin’s elite Western friends hardly blinked as Russian troops invaded Crimea in 2014 and rounded up dozens of political prisoners. The month after Russia’s annexation of the region, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder celebrated his 70th birthday with Putin in St. Petersburg. And the next year, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi joined the Russian president in Crimea to sample the region’s wine.

PUTIN’S GAMBLE
Having sidelined his old economic and political advisers, Putin surrounded himself not just with the siloviki but with the most extreme among them, men such as Patrushev, who believes the West is engaged in complicated conspiracies to undermine Russia. In 2021, judging by the official announcements on the Kremlin’s website, Putin met with his Security Council about twice as often as he did with the government, including the prime minister and other ministers. Less and less concerned with defending his reputation abroad, and impressed by the short-term success of harsh repression at home, he let the enforcers compete for his approval and for control of businesses, with all the state’s tools at their disposal.

Of course, this domestic shift did not make Putin’s aggression abroad inevitable. But it set the stage for growing belligerence. Replacing political manipulation with harsh tactics at home, changing from spin to fear, Putin opened the door to more violence in the international arena. As Guriev and I document, fear dictators initiate more wars and military disputes, on average, than do spin dictators. Even among the latter, Putin had been unusually conflict-prone. Emboldened by Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal and the unstable politics around his country’s borders, he had not shied away from confrontation. But the turn to control through fear at home allowed him to shrug off any remaining inhibitions about using force against Russia’s neighbors. As long as he was pretending to be a nonviolent democratic leader, violating international law and bombing civilians in another country posed a risk to his support among Russians. Once he stopped pretending and embraced repression, however, there was no longer any need to act the diplomat.

Some see Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a gambit aimed at boosting his popularity, a bid to rekindle the nationalist exhilaration that followed the annexation of Crimea. That explanation seems unlikely. If domestic support were the goal, Putin would have settled for recognizing—and perhaps annexing—the two self-declared Donbas republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, which might have been a reasonably popular move. But polls conducted before the invasion suggested no enthusiasm for a broader war. And had Putin believed that a full-scale invasion would boost his ratings, he would hardly have pretended for so long that Russian “peacekeepers” were intervening surgically only to stop a genocide in the Donbas. More likely, Putin’s sense of having effectively repressed domestic opposition is what liberated him to indulge in more grandiose international projects.

Putin’s task of political survival just got a lot harder.
Politics in Russia will now take place in the shadow of the war in Ukraine. Wars often rally citizens behind their leader at first. But they also destabilize domestic affairs, shifting opinion and power in unpredictable ways. Polls conducted by Kremlin-connected firms early in the war suggested that many Russians accepted the official narrative that NATO threats or Ukrainian atrocities forced Putin’s hand, although obviously polls taken in a harsh dictatorship by pollsters with government ties—in wartime, no less—should be treated with skepticism. Russian public opinion may well change as information filters through. Russians will learn that their troops have killed thousands of Ukrainians—not just in the east, in order to stop a purported genocide, but all over the country—and they will hear of Russian casualties. After years of living under mild sanctions, they now face wrenching economic disruptions. They will see their leader, who came to power promising stability—and for a long time seemed to provide it—transformed into an architect of instability. Those convinced that the threat from NATO had to be addressed will see the alliance reinvigorated and deploying more weapons along Russia’s western border. The new global isolation—with Russia’s sports teams and performers boycotted—will prove demoralizing. Even those ultranationalists who favored Putin’s war will probably be disappointed by the inevitably messy, bloody, and inconclusive aftermath.

Lacking resources and other tools, Putin will be tempted to ratchet up intimidation even more. But in economically developed, complex societies, where the public has access to communications technology and discontent is widespread, increased repression can backfire, sparking greater resistance. Putin is even more vulnerable because of the highly personal responsibility he took for the invasion, justifying it with a historical essay on the relationship between Russians and Ukrainians published in the summer of 2021 and with an impassioned speech delivered three days before the invasion began. A few hours before that speech was broadcast on state TV, he held a videotaped meeting with his Security Council, possibly to spread accountability to all its members, who obediently expressed support for his decision to recognize the two breakaway republics. But the heavy-handed choreography, with Putin sitting alone at a long table and questioning each member, in fact sent a message of dictatorial direction.

At the same time, as he moves to ever more repression, Putin will become more beholden to the siloviki. To retain control over the various agencies and factions of the Russian security state, he will have to continue balancing and pitting them against one another. He will need to move powerful individuals around, skillfully identifying any hints of disloyalty. Purges of the elite, which had already been on the rise, will become even more pronounced.

By attacking the postwar international order and changing his strategy of control at home, Putin has gambled with his own future. Initiating a war that does not go according to plan is a classic mistake that has undermined many authoritarian regimes in the past. The brazenness of Putin’s lie—sending forces to attack Kyiv while claiming that they were rescuing genocide victims in the Donbas—could also blow up in his face. The contradiction between his declared goal of uniting Slavic peoples and his method—bombing residential neighborhoods—may be too much for even a skilled propaganda machine to reconcile. Many Russians may instinctively seek to avoid cognitive dissonance by rallying behind their leader. But when that dissonance is too great, the result can be a paradigm shift. With a bureaucracy of repression as well equipped and practiced as that in Russia, Putin may feel reasonably secure, but his task of political survival just got a lot harder.

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