Survival at all costs: Putin undercuts political opponents, crafts system that crumbles without him

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In the early weeks of the Ukraine war in the winter of 2022, Russia seemed to lack an effective battle plan as a succession of battlefield commanders struggled to adjust to changing circumstances on the ground.

Inside the Kremlin, it’s been a different story. Analysts say that Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have gamed out and prepared for most scenarios that could threaten his iron grip on power, using his often-underestimated raw political skill to insulate himself from challengers and to make his survival indispensable to the future of the state itself.

Some observers of Russian politics say Mr. Putin could be entering a period of unprecedented danger, as some on Russia’s far-right could use military failures in Ukraine as a political cudgel with which to end the president’s nearly two-and-a-half-decade reign. But Mr. Putin appears well aware of that possibility and in some cases seems to be several moves ahead of any prospective rival.

For example, the outspoken criticism of the war effort and the Kremlin by some Russian right-wing figures — Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov, to name a few — has been widely interpreted in the West as evidence of a rising tide of frustration against Mr. Putin and his generals, and perhaps proof that a changing of the guard is on the horizon.

But analysts say Mr. Putin believes he can control such voices and use them to his advantage. For Mr. Putin, it’s a high-stakes political game in which he positions different Russian power centers against one another — and in the process ensures he remains the most powerful of all.

“The reason Putin lets Prigozhin and Kadyrov go further than some of the others, I think, is precisely because they don’t threaten him. He knows they have no friends in the elite” at the top of Russian society, said Daniel Treisman, a political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who closely tracks Russian politics.

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“They’re isolated actors and as a result, he doesn’t really worry they could constitute at the moment some sort of institutional or organized threat to his power,” Mr. Treisman said at a recent event hosted by the Center for a New American Security. “So, he uses them … to put pressure on some of the other actors, the army, and also to try out ideas, to float balloons and to introduce nationalist, more extreme themes into the discourse.”

The case of Mr. Prigozhin in particular is noteworthy. The former restaurant owner turned head of the ruthless Wagner mercenary outfit has at times appeared to be a close confidant of Mr. Putin and, more recently, a potential political rival. Kremlin watchers say that Mr. Putin and his inner circle even appear to have recently sought to undermine Mr. Prigozhin’s public standing by arranging “ambush” interviews with Kremlin-friendly bloggers and through other means.

On the ground in Ukraine, Mr. Prigozhin’s hired-gun forces are playing a key role in the battle for Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian defenders are grimly holding on against advancing Russian forces. He has taken on a key role as a leading voice pushing for Moscow to be more aggressive in the fighting.

On Friday, for example, the Wagner chief released a video in which he said his private fighters have encircled the city, painting the Wagner Group as central to Russia’s hope for success in Ukraine.

“Units of the private military company Wagner have practically surrounded Bakhmut. Only one road is left [for Ukrainian forces]. The pincers are getting tighter,” said a military uniform-clad Mr. Prigozhin, according to Reuters.

Using the system

While Mr. Putin may face some political danger if the war in Ukraine goes poorly and public anger turns against the Kremlin, the longtime Russian leader also benefits from a system in many ways set up to ensure his political survival at all costs. Indeed, even if Mr. Putin faces credible challenges in the March 2024 Russian presidential election, there are questions about whether the power structure in Moscow would last without him at the top.

“Putin has created a regime that centers around him, a power-vertical, in which he is not just the key decision-maker but also keeps all the nodes of power in balance,” Max Bergmann, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a recent analysis.

“If he is removed, the system would likely be in danger of toppling. Putin himself has not figured out the conundrum of succession, either how to leave or who should succeed him. Instead, he has kept all options open while preventing the rise of any undisputed successor,” Mr. Bergmann said. “If Putin surrendered his position at the top of the patronage network he has spent over two decades constructing, he would no longer be able to guarantee his personal safety, nor the security of his wealth. The same goes for Putin’s closest lieutenants, who rely on his legitimacy to defend their own positions within the country’s vertical power structure.”

“It is therefore hard to see how the existing regime survives without Putin,” he said.

Longtime Russia-watcher Angela Stent, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that even though the war has gone badly for Mr. Putin, his grip on power at home has grown more secure over the course of the fighting in Ukraine.

“The degree of state control and repression which has grown in the last year, where anyone who dissents is branded a traitor, makes it unlikely that Russia’s fading international stature will backfire on him domestically,” Ms. Stent wrote recently in Politico.

Russia’s powerful business oligarchs have long had an understanding with Mr. Putin, building up vast fortunes with the support of the state while scrupulously avoiding any political criticism of the president. Although international sanctions and asset seizures in the West have cut into some of the vast Russian forces, the Russian economy to date has avoided an outright implosion and the acquiescence of the billionaires appears to be holding.

There has also been rampant speculation in the West about the health of Mr. Putin, who turned 70 in October, including close scrutiny of his public appearances for signs or tremors or fatigue. But so far, intelligence analysts say they have seen nothing that suggests the onetime KGB agent is not up to the rigors of the job.

Mr. Bergmann also argued that, contrary to growing conventional wisdom in the West, it’s unlikely that any Putin ouster would result in an even more far-right, nationalist figure assuming the Kremlin throne. The policies already being pursued in Ukraine, Mr. Bergmann said, represent a hard-line approach, meaning nationalist figures may not see much immediate benefit from forcing Mr. Putin out.

Another potential threat to Mr. Putin’s power could come from within the military structure itself. Should military leaders feel Mr. Putin is an impediment to success — or, alternatively, if they fear he’s poised to go too far, perhaps by employing nuclear weapons — a military coup could unfold. 

But specialists say that’s a remote possibility, at least for now.

“They haven’t had a successful coup in Russia since 1801. [Military leaders] tend to get involved in these leadership disputes either when the state is on the verge of collapse like during World War I and the Russian Revolution, or at the end of the Soviet Union in 1991,” said Brian Taylor, director of the Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs at Syracuse University. 

“Otherwise, they tend to be brought in by various civilian political actors, and I don’t see any clear way in which they would get involved, even despite the heavy losses they’ve taken, that would lead to something as extreme as resistance to the state,” Mr. Taylor said at the recent CNAS forum.

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