To see the man that publicly declared the fall of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century ousted from his current job as leader of Russia would not itself be a great catastrophe. That is precisely the prediction that Rutgers University political scientist Alexander J. Motyl makes in a recent article published by Foreign Affairs.
However, heralding Putin’s certain political demise seems premature. Motyl argues that the cronies who favored Putin’s ascent in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s will soon fall out of favor. Due to forced cuts in the Russian budget, currently hamstrung by EU sanctions and a dramatic fall in the price of oil, Motyl believes Putin won’t be able to sustain the high levels of patronage and clientelism that have so far characterized his regime; this would be especially the case among the siloviki, members of Putin’s inner circle that belong to institutions such as the secret service or the police. Motyl claims that, being unable to reduce funds allocated to the lower classes (who prop up Putin’s approval ratings) or the military (the prime actor in Putin’s self-aggrandizing campaigns against Ukraine), the Russian President would have less money to spend on his friends, potentially inviting a coup by those closest to him.
Motyl also points to growing unrest among Russian minorities – the Crimean and Volga Tatars, the Bashkirs, and the Chechens, for example – and holds out hope for a Moscow-based “Orange Revolution.”
Leaving aside one’s feelings towards the illegitimate Russian occupation of the Donestk and Luhansk provinces and the Crimean peninsula (to say nothing about Transnistria, South Ossetia or Abkhazia), it doesn’t seem very likely that the Russian population would back a coup organized by its political elite. Whether we like it or not, after subjugating Crimea and arming the rebels in Eastern Ukraine Putin has become a national hero in the mold of Soviet strong men like Lenin, Stalin and Brezhnev before him. And despite ethnic rumblings in the provinces some 85% of the Russian population currently backs its ruler; anyways Putin has already shown a willingness to crush rebellious movements, as he did in 2009 in the North Caucasus.
Add to this that many Crimean Tatars were already forcibly relocated to what is now Uzbekistan by Stalin in 1944 and many Volga Tatars to West Siberia in the 1930’s in order to prevent them from eventually orchestrating precisely the sort of upheaval that Motyl is now anticipating.
So it seems that the only real threat to the Russian president is the flagging economy.
Indeed, the ruble is plummeting, investors are fleeing, and the rating agencies are rapidly downgrading the country’s credit scores. Nevertheless, this setback is very recent. Russia can still count upon a huge amount of Central Bank reserves, as well as funds from oligarchs that are personally invested in maintaining the status quo.
Is it unlikely that Putin will ever fall from power? No. But the current alignment of domestic Russian politics does not suggest his imminent defeat at the hands of either pro-democracy or separatist forces.