Despite a show of strength and a charm offensive, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government is beginning to show its age. Russia is facing a dangerous protest movement against Putin’s system, and he has responded with heavy-handed crackdowns and winsome public appearances. The message from the Kremlin is clear: Putin is a strong leader and a man of the people. But the message is beginning to sound stale, and a reckoning may be peeking above the horizon.
Even before his rise to power, Putin and his elites had been shaping the story behind the Russian leader. In that narrative, while under President Boris Yeltsin, Putin pushed out an unruly pack of diverse politicians to be the man to stabilize a country in chaos. As the first head of the Federal Security Service and then prime minister, Putin reined in dissident regions, and with a troop surge, he quelled insurgency in the Caucasus. Leapfrogging into the presidency in 2000, he consolidated power by ousting noncompliant oligarchs and reclaiming strategic and lucrative assets for the state. Putin began rebuilding and reorganizing the military and security services, transforming them into key tools and decision-makers. He purged the political system of disloyal parties and politicians. Overall, during Putin’s first term as president, Russia emerged as a stronger and more stable country, and his esteem rose in the eyes of the people. The Kremlin’s message was clear: Putin had saved Russia.
Now, backed by a system he created and the support of the vast majority of the people, Putin began flexing Russia’s muscle internationally. In 2006 he cut off energy to Ukraine and Europe. In 2007, Putin gave an aggressive speech at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, condemning U.S. global dominance and its “hyper use of force.” Soon after, Russia pulled out of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, and the next year, Russia invaded Georgia. The Kremlin was sending the message that Putin had restored Russia’s power and standing in the world.
But Russia’s return to the global stage was met with strong pushback from the West and many former Soviet states. The West countered by meddling in Russia; uprisings and conflicts spread in Ukraine; the United States and the European Union imposed sanctions; and NATO built up its forces on Russia’s borderlands. The Kremlin promoted several nationalist and patriotic messages in response, rallying the Russian people behind Putin, who was seen as defending the motherland. This patriotism culminated in Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
The Message Wears Thin
Now the narrative has started to crumble, as the Kremlin and Putin are faced with many crises. As the West piled on economic pressure, Russia fell into a recession because of low oil prices. Russian elites believe they are suffering with less wealth and fewer opportunities for conspicuous consumption to splash around. A shrinking pie has led to power grabs and struggles for money and assets, putting Putin in a dangerous position with his loyalists as he picks who succeeds or survives. And the recession affected the Russian people more than the state and its elites. Unemployment and the nonpayment of salaries are rising, as is the poverty rate. With countersanctions, the cost of food has skyrocketed. Most average and low-income Russians spend half their income on meals.
During previous economic and social crises under Putin, the Kremlin urged the country to remember the turmoil of the 1990s under Yeltsin — a frightening prospect to Russians — and to see that the latest crisis wasn’t that bad. But the message may have run its course because Russia has seen a generational turnover. About one-fourth of Russians were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and those entering their teens and early 20s have only known Putin as their leader. The memories of the chaotic 1990s and the idea of Putin as savior are beginning to fade.
While the old narrative sounds hollow to much of this new generation, most of these young people are not anti-Putin, or wildly liberal, but they do want a diverse, responsive political system. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny has capitalized on the burgeoning and disgruntled youth movement with a message of anti-corruption — an umbrella cause that encapsulates reforming the political structures, cleaning up the government, providing economic support and making the electoral system legitimate. Navalny is creating a platform to rally this new generation, who were drawn by the tens of thousands to join protests on June 12 in about 150 cities. Most of the demonstrators were young people stirred up by social media, which the Kremlin has struggled to control.
Power and Public Relations
In response to this growing resistance, the Kremlin’s response has been twofold. First, it got creative with Putin’s public image. Perceptions of the Russian president have been skillfully spun in recent weeks — not only for the Russian people, but also to the wider world. Second, the Kremlin has kept a stranglehold on power.
To do so, Putin continues to shift Russia’s government into a deeply autocratic model, dependent on his personal power. He has created his own guard of about 400,000 ultra-loyalists, who answer directly to him. The State Duma has passed draconian laws that consider dissenters to be terrorists and that heavily regulate social media and communications. Putin has cast down some of the most powerful elites in the Kremlin. And nearly a thousand people were detained in Moscow and St. Petersburg during the recent protests. Russia also isn’t backing down from its tense standoff with the West. The Kremlin is still supporting military incursions in Syria and Ukraine, building up its military along its borders, continuing to spread propaganda and disinformation, and spoiling negotiations in hot spots such as North Korea.
Simultaneously, Putin has gone on an unconventional publicity tour, trying to shape a more positive and relatable view of himself, just months before he faces re-election. On May 10, he invited Western reporters to watch him play ice hockey. Before hitting the ice, he gave a sudden and rare interview to CBS News, laughing off accusations of election meddling and involvement in the dismissal of FBI Director James Comey. This impromptu media blip came at the same time Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak were meeting U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House, despite the flurry of accusations of Russian meddling in the U.S. election. The Russian diplomats were all smiles and warmth. In addition, Russian state media apparently had the only photographer in the room, meaning Russia could shape perceptions of the meeting.
Putin’s Western media tour continued a few weeks later. On the heels of Russia’s largest economic forum in St. Petersburg in early June, he gave a rare television interview to NBC’s Megyn Kelly. To many, Putin came off as charming, laying out the reasons why Russia was not the villain it was made out to be in the U.S. press.
But his largest stage was a four-part documentary by U.S. director Oliver Stone, showcasing several interviews with Putin over more than three years. “The Putin Interviews,” which aired in the United States two weeks ago and in Russia last week, were a rare look behind Putin’s veil. Usually, his personal and professional lives are off-limits to media inquiries or views, except for those closely orchestrated by Putin himself. Stone had deep access to Putin, though on the president’s terms. Putin deftly ran through the history of the Cold War from Moscow’s perspective, slipping in hints of U.S. aggression against the Soviets. When referring to the United States, he used the word “partner,” showing Moscow’s desire to work with an unwilling Washington.
The documentary was sprinkled with Putin driving himself, exercising, playing hockey, riding horses, speaking of his grandchildren and pranking Stone — in effect, humanizing a man considered to be among the world’s wealthy and corrupt elite. The documentary also took a peek at Putin’s offices (one of which belonged to Josef Stalin) and situation room. During the discussions, Putin tried to place Russia in global history, and to show that the country and its people have a necessary role in the world.
History Repeats Itself
By balancing his strong-leader message with a charming and open narrative, Putin aims to prolong his administration and its control over the country. He isn’t prepared to give up power anytime soon, and there is no succession plan in sight. But the dueling messages also give the Kremlin wiggle room to shift tactics when needed. And the Kremlin isn’t blind to the challenges sprouting up around it: a generational change, a growing protest movement, struggles among the Kremlin elite, a stagnant economy and Western pressure.
Russia faced similar problems in 1905 under Czar Nicholas II and during the era of General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev from 1964-1982. Both of those governments held on to power for a decade past their crises, vacillating between crackdowns and concessions. But in both cases, the Kremlin ran out of options, forcing reforms, which broke the system. For now, such challenges are not enough to break Putin’s administration, but a storm is brewing.