Putin Unchained

How Domestic Repression Predicted International Belligerence

Few expected Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine before he began massing forces, and even fewer expected him to behave the way he has. In an outrageous act of aggression, Russia's Putin dispatched forces to bomb cities such as Kharkiv and Mariupol, as well as schools, hospitals, and apartment buildings around the Ukraine, killing hundreds—if not thousands—of civilians. His extraordinary demands—for Ukraine to disarm, formally recognize the loss of Crimea, cede significant areas of eastern territory, and abandon any prospect of joining NATO—have astonished the world, as has his frequent nuclear saber threatening. Rather than winning over the Ukrainians, Putin has quickly and irreversibly turned the populace against him. And he severely underestimated the power and speed of his force, which struggled mightily during the war's early stages. How is it possible for a leader who is frequently lauded as a brilliant strategist, if not a strategic genius, to make so many impulsive and obviously counterproductive decisions?

Putin's invasion makes little sense from a foreign policy standpoint. Ukraine was unlikely to join NATO in the near future, and Putin could have accomplished some of his other goals, such as gaining independence for the self-declared Donbas republics, with a far more limited and cost-effective engagement. Even if the Russian army were more successful, it would still be incapable of occupying and subduing a country with a population of more than 40 million. Poorly organized and lacking a clear aim, the entire operation appears almost nihilistic in its willingness to take lethal risks.

However, when viewed in the context of Putin's evolving domestic style of control, the attack on Ukraine falls into an emerging pattern—one marked by anti-Western nationalism, angry, self-justifying rhetoric, and increasingly open use of force. Putin has been altering the structure through which he exerts political power since around four years ago, and considerably more insistently since the invasion of Ukraine. His early years were marked by a soft authoritarian government run in part by a team of liberal economists and technocrats who backed Russia's unification with the West and sought to entice investors through a display of adherence to the rule of law. Russia has devolved into a brutally authoritarian police state, led by a small core of hardliners who have imposed ever-harsher policies both at home and abroad.

Putin's decision to use force in Ukraine indicates a complete shift of his inner circle—and, with it, his worldview. Disillusioned with the US and Europe and confronted by an increasingly restive Russian people, he has abandoned much of his previous approach to governance. Convinced that Western leaders intend to depose him and concerned by protests in Russia and neighboring countries, Putin is less convinced than ever that he can control Russian society through sophisticated tactics. As a result, he has returned to the reassuring certainty of a small group of yes men and reactionary security officials, members of the so-called siloviki, who saw Russia as surrounded by foreign forces and believe that only harsh power and ruthless social controls can defend Putin's government. Domestic repression had nothing to do with the Kremlin's embrace of blitzkrieg abroad. However, each one aids the other. War helps legitimize domestic repression in this context of isolation and insecurity, just as fear of Western influence at home helps explain war.

A TEMPERATURE OF FEAR

As Russian tanks pushed into Ukraine in late February, the Kremlin was already preparing to begin another onslaught, this time against the progressive, freethinking segment of Russian society that refused to rally behind the official line. Putin's operatives swiftly shut down nearly all liberal media channels, including Ekho Moskvy and Dozhd (TV Rain), and restricted access to social media platforms including as Facebook and Twitter. A new law threatened critics of the war with 15 years in a work camp if they did not support the war. Additionally, within the first two weeks of the invasion, authorities imprisoned almost 13,000 antiwar demonstrators.

All of this appeared to be a major break from Putin's customary soft authoritarian approaches. Indeed, it was the culmination of a four-year trend toward increased state repression. Even before to the invasion, nearly all truly independent politicians were imprisoned or sent into exile. In 2020, Putin's lieutenants poisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny; when he miraculously recovered, they imprisoned him on fabricated accusations. They labeled Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation a "extremist organization" and outlawed it, punishing or expelling its members. According to the Memorial Human Rights Center, the number of political prisoners in Russia increased from 36 to 81 between 2015 and 2022. And numerous more have been imprisoned for their religious beliefs, ranging from Jehovah's Witnesses to members of outlawed Muslim groups.

Civil society has been obliterated nearly entirely. The Russian Supreme Court ordered the liquidation of Memorial, the human rights organization founded by Soviet dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, in late 2021. Putin publicly accused it of supporting foreign terrorists and compiling a list of Stalin's victims that included Nazi collaborators. Open Russia, a charity founded by former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky to promote the rule of law and press freedom, was also shut down, as did numerous other groups deemed extreme or undesirable by the Kremlin. Numerous liberal charity organizations, including the Levada Center, a well-respected independent polling firm, and the Russian chapter of the anti-corruption group Transparency International, must now self-identify as "foreign agents."

Officials essentially banned any political demonstrations—even one-person pickets—using COVID-19 safeguards as a pretext. Those who disobeyed the rules were detained in large numbers. According to government data, the police detained more than 17,000 demonstrators in nearly 200 localities in the first ten days following Navalny's detention in early 2021. Over 14,000 persons were convicted in the first six months of 2021 of violating regulations governing public gatherings, more than six times the yearly average over the prior 15 years. Additionally, the security services began acting preemptively. Hundreds of Navalny supporters received warning visits from police officers, frequently late at night. To support this stricter stance, the government raised budget for Russia's three primary internal security agencies—the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Interior Ministry, and the National Guard (also known as Rosgvardia)—by 23% between 2018 and 2021.

On the Internet, anti-government criticism is scarcely more free, where social media remarks — and even the simple sharing of other people's posts — have resulted in prison time. Between January 2019 and June 2021, the Russian authorities demanded that Google remove 833,000 things from its platforms—significantly more than any other country attempted to censor. Russian government requests to remove content from YouTube increased significantly in 2016 and have remained high ever since. In recent years, Gazprom-Media, a Russian media behemoth owned by a close Putin buddy, has attempted to draw bloggers to its more easily controlled video-hosting service, Rutube, as well as to its TikTok clone, Yappy.

Even before to 2018, repression had been increasing, accelerating with Putin's re-election to the presidency in 2012, and intensifying further following Russia's 2014 invasion of Crimea. A watershed moment occurred in February 2015, when opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated on a bridge outside the Kremlin, highlighting the perils of opposing those in authority. The team of FSB agents that rubbed the nerve poison Novichok into Navalny's trousers in 2020 may likely have targeted other opposition members prior to that. According to startling research conducted by the investigative group Bellingcat, the same agents may have been responsible for the 2015 and 2017 assassinations of anti-Putin campaigner Vladimir Kara-Murza.

Nonetheless, the Kremlin's repression has increased in severity and bravado during the last few years. And polls conducted by the Levada Center reveal that Russians are becoming increasingly skeptical and fearful. Nearly half of respondents surveyed in 2021 who were aware of the rule mandating many charities to register as foreign agents believed it was enacted to exert pressure on independent organizations rather than to protect the populace—an increase from 26% in 2016. Similarly, roughly half of respondents in December 2021 who heard of Memorial believed it was being liquidated for political reasons. Between 2017 and late 2021, the percentage of respondents who expressed concern about "a return to mass repression" climbed from 21% to 47%. By 2021, 84 percent of Russians polled stated they would refrain from publicly expressing their views on the upcoming parliamentary election. Additionally, in focus groups, young people have developed an aversion to discussing Navalny.

THE SPIN DICTATOR

What accounts for the Kremlin's scorched-earth policy? One could believe that authoritarian regimes use violence to intimidate their opponents: the essence of dictatorship is to prevent and punish opposition. The twentieth century was rife with despotic rulers. The traditional autocrat was a "fear dictator" who maintained power over the populace through severe repression, which was frequently justified by official ideology. Certain leaders, such as Syria's Bashar al-Assad and North Korea's Kim Jong Un, have retained their positions of power.

Nonetheless, another model has gained popularity in recent decades. In Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew's successors, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, and Viktor Orban in Hungary, began wearing business suits rather than military uniforms and cultivating an image of worldliness and competence. These leaders have high approval ratings, which are bolstered in part by favorable coverage in state-controlled or -coopted media, and they conduct meticulously orchestrated elections that they nearly invariably win. Rather than execute rivals, they hound them with defamation cases and other accusations and fines, all the while destroying their reputations on television and online. As with so-called spin doctors in democracies, they use information to gain support and destroy adversaries—which is why my co-author, Sergei Guriev, and I dubbed them "spin dictators" in our new book.

As fear has given way to spin, overt repression has become more uncommon. Politically motivated assassinations by state agents were widespread under dictatorships that came to power in the 1980s; over two-thirds of those regimes presided over more than 10 such assassinations every year. However, just 28% of authoritarian leaders who came to power in the first decade of this century had rates of politically motivated homicides that high. Simultaneously, fewer tyrants in recent history have imprisoned huge numbers of political prisoners. Indeed, the current generation of autocrats is not only less obviously aggressive, but also more inclined to portray their liberal adversaries as dangerous revolutionaries or even terrorists.

Putin displayed this strategy during his early years in power. Except in Chechnya, where he used force to overthrow a state of criminal warlords, Putin has generally relied on nonviolent means to strengthen his power while maintaining democratic trappings. Rather than outright prohibiting Memorial, he first funded it and other human rights organizations. As late as 2017, he condemned "the tragedy of [Stalin's] repressions" and authorized the establishment of a monument to the dictator's victims. Rather than imprisoning Navalny, Putin's prosecutor general intervened following the activist's 2013 conviction for embezzlement—a verdict that the European Court of Human Rights characterized as politically motivated—to secure his release on bail with a suspended sentence. (However, Navalny's brother, Oleg, was convicted of the same allegation.) Navalny was even allowed to compete for mayor of Moscow that year by the Kremlin, which may have underestimated his support (he won 27 percent of the vote). He was harassed and imprisoned on many occasions for brief periods, but the administration made a concerted effort to conceal its political motivations.

Putin appearing on Russian national television, June 2021
Putin appearing on Russian national television, June 2021
Sputnik Photo Agency / Reuters

Whereas tyrants of the past censored extensively, Putin began with a lighter touch. The Kremlin gained direct or indirect control of all major Russian television networks but tolerated some independent journalism as long as its audience remained limited. The liberal television channel Dozhd was only suspended following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, and the daily Novaya Gazeta continues to print, albeit temporarily. These sources appeared to pose little threat to the Kremlin-aligned media, which broadcast skewed versions of reality to both Russia and the rest of the globe. In October 2014, Putin remarked with remarkable candor that electronic media have transformed "news reporting... into a potent tool for manipulating public opinion." Against this backdrop of grudging tolerance, the Kremlin's shift to total suppression during the invasion of Ukraine is startling.

Putin initially ignored the Internet: during his first two administrations, he even fought efforts by his subordinates to develop onerous legislation governing online activity. He disregarded the Web in 2010: "Fifty percent is porn," he mocked. Only recently has the regime moved to reach a level of control akin to that of China and to outlaw anti-Kremlin activity. Since January 2019, Internet service providers have been required to install equipment capable of blocking, censoring, or slowing the loading of websites under the Kremlin's direction.

Putin's brand of spin dictatorship was extremely effective. Between September 1999 and March 2020, the president's approval rating never fell below 60%, enabling him to win successive elections and marginalize the opposition. (These polls—as well as nearly all of the others given here—were done by the Levada Center, whose independence is shown by the authorities' persistent persecution of the firm, including the designation of the firm as a foreign agent.) Putin's popularity was initially bolstered by years of fast economic growth, but it remained high even when the country's economic performance deteriorated during the 2008–9 global financial crisis. State media also contributed to sustaining the excitement generated by Russia's takeover of Crimea in 2014, even as Western sanctions and international isolation began to take their toll. Numerous sources indicate that few Russian respondents were reluctant to express critical opinions in polls until roughly 2018. The system operated by manipulation, not fear.

Putin's leadership was never a textbook example of the new soft authoritarianism. For example, while Putin's total level of persecution was comparable to that of other contemporary dictatorships, state agents killed more journalists in Russia than in any other dictatorship, according to data from the Committee to Protect Journalists. And even before he invaded Ukraine, Putin occasionally acted belligerently with Russia's neighbors, in contrast to spin dictators' traditional predilection for covert subversion. Nonetheless, he took care to minimize Russian casualties in abroad operations until this year, employing proxy forces and mercenaries whenever possible and concealing the number of military dead during Russia's engagement in Syria. And in nearly every other manner, he adhered to the dictator's playbook.

FROM VELVET GLOVE TO IRON FIST

Thus, nearly two decades after gaining office, why did Putin shift from spin to fear? Certain dictators increase their repressive measures in response to economic crises, fearful that mass discontent may start political protests and possibly a revolution. Simultaneously, bad economic performance diminishes government funding, making co-opting opponents more difficult and leaving repression as the only viable option. Nonetheless, economic deterioration cannot account for Putin's move. While Russia's economy has stagnated during the last decade, the Kremlin has hardly been short of resources to continue buying off elites and controlling the media. In 2018–20, government revenue averaged 36% of GDP, up marginally from 33% in 2012–17. In January 2022, the Bank of Russia's gold and currency reserves were bigger than ever, totaling more than $630 billion. Other recent economic shocks did not result in an escalation of repression: after the global financial crisis, which saw Russia's GDP fall by over 8% in 2009, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev appealed for public support with a message of modernisation and knowledge. And recent rounds of anti-government protests—in 2011–12 and 2017—occurred during periods of economic recovery, not during times of economic crisis. Not economic problems sparked these demonstrations, but electoral fraud and corruption.

Another explanation is that the shift toward repression has been fueled by advancements in surveillance and management technologies. The world's tyrants, led by China, have developed sophisticated means of control, ranging from street cameras equipped with facial recognition software to GPS trackers and Internet surveillance gadgets. Russia has the highest density of closed-circuit cameras per capita of any country save China and the United States, and by 2020, more than half of those cameras in Moscow would be equipped with facial recognition technology. Russian police are developing computer programs that can identify individuals based on their gait, tattoos, and other physical characteristics. Hundreds of residents who participated in pro-Navalny protests in April 2021 were later identified by police using photographic and video evidence. Other strategies include slowing down social media platforms—federal Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, throttled Twitter in the spring of 2021, saying the business failed to remove prohibited content—and monitoring messages for information about protests so authorities can disrupt them.

Nonetheless, the availability of such technologies cannot account for Putin's conversion to terror. The Kremlin might have used similar techniques to discreetly dismantle the opposition while maintaining a democratic façade. For example, after secretly monitoring activists' contacts, the police may have preemptively closed planned demonstration sites for "road maintenance" or arrested organizers on unrelated charges. When used properly, the new instruments could have largely replaced mass detentions, police brutality, and fear.

For Putin, war helps justify domestic repression, and the fear of Western influence at home helps justify war.

However, it is not how they are being utilized in Russia. There, high-tech tools do not replace violent repression; rather, they complement it in a way similar to what China developed. Authorities jail activists on a preventative basis as well as beat and arrest demonstrators by the thousands. According to opposition activist Vladimir Milov, they publicly threaten to track demonstrators using facial recognition and have sent menacing letters to hundreds of Navalny's funders and supporters.

If economic crises and new instruments are insufficient to account for Putin's acceptance of greater repression, what is? The answer, in part, is that policing political opposition in Russia with sophisticated tactics is becoming increasingly difficult. Russian society has remained progressive in its modernization. Even as the economy faltered during the last decade, Russians improved their education and connectivity. And the majority of people now access to the Internet via 3G mobile networks, which are fast enough for users to watch videos on their cell phones. Russia has surpassed the United States as YouTube's fifth largest market, with 39% of Russian Internet users claiming to use the app daily. All of this has begun to jeopardize state television's unmatched supremacy in the news. By 2021, only 42% of Russians interviewed — and less than 20% of those under 35 — stated that television was their primary source of information about domestic issues. 45% stated that it was the Internet, whether through social media, blogs, message channels, or news websites. While the Internet may still feature state television, the information ecology has shifted dramatically in recent years.

Simultaneously, support for liberal principles has grown. According to Levada Center polls, when asked which rights and freedoms they value most, an increasing number of Russians say freedom of speech (61 percent in 2021, up from 34 percent in 2017), the right to information (39 percent, up from 25 percent), and the right to peaceful demonstrations (26 percent, up from 13 percent). The public is increasingly outraged by violent policing of protests. When asked about law enforcement's response to protests in Moscow in July 2019, during which police clubbed demonstrators and arrested hundreds of those protesting the exclusion of opposition candidates from city elections, 41% agreed that it was a "harsh, unreasonable use of force," compared to 32% who believed the police acted "adequately." Even more difficult for the Kremlin has been maintaining popular antipathy toward the West. Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, good sentiments toward the US and Europe had been steadily increasing for seven years, eventually surpassing negative attitudes by late 2021.

Controlling political opposition with sophisticated methods is getting much harder to do in Russia.

Taken together, these advancements have increased the difficulty of manipulating data. Navalny's ascension was both a symptom and aggravating factor of these developments. His YouTube channel went from one million subscribers in spring 2017 to 3.5 million in summer 2020 and then to 6.4 million in early 2022. Several of his movies exposing corruption among Russia's elite have surpassed 10 million views, and his exposé of a luxury Black Sea mansion allegedly owned by Putin has surpassed 122 million views, with 55% of viewers believing the video's claims, according to a Levada Center poll. In September 2020, a new survey found that more than 80% of respondents were aware of Navalny and 20% approved of him—an all-time high that eventually plummeted to 14%. Naturally, a much larger number disapproved, and many remained indifferent or declined to respond. However, the true point was not Navalny's popularity, but rather how he was contributing to Putin's decline.

Putin's approval ratings plummeted after a contentious 2018 legislation raising the retirement age for males from 60 to 65 and for women from 55 to 63 brought an end to the era of good sentiments that had followed his 2014 invasion of Crimea. President Trump's approval rating, which had been above 80% before the annexation, plummeted to just 59 percent in the spring of 2020 – the lowest point in his four-term presidency — before stabilizing in the mid-60s. That may appear to be a high figure, but as political controls tightened, more respondents were likely nervous of responding negatively to a direct question about Putin. Other, less sensitive questions indicate that support is continuing to erode. When the Levada Center asked respondents to name politicians they trusted, the proportion naming Putin decreased from 59% in November 2017 to 33% in January 2022, with a more pronounced decline among the young. When asked who they would vote for in a presidential election, the percentage of respondents who named Putin declined from 57% in January 2018 to 32% in November 2021.

Simultaneously, the possibility of anti-government protests increased. In the period 2018–21, an average of 18% of survey respondents indicated that they were prepared to participate in mass political demonstrations, up from an average of 11% in 2009–17. And big protest waves erupted in 2017, 2019, and 2021. These demonstrations were more broad than those in 2011–12, which were largely centred in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Although Russians' sentiments regarding these demonstrations remained divided overall, an increasing proportion of respondents—41% in 2019, up from 27% in 2017—blamed the police for their severe response. Perhaps most concerning for the Kremlin was the growing divide between young and elderly Russians: the young have become increasingly alienated, pro-Western, and supportive of protests.

RISE OF THE HARD-LINERS

Putin faced an obvious challenge as a result of these swings in popular opinion. However, the Kremlin might have replied in a variety of ways. To appreciate why Putin chose overt repression over manipulation at this moment requires an understanding of his regime's internal composition over time.

Putin's early retinue consisted of three groups: economic experts, the majority of whom believed in markets and Western integration; cynical political fixers; and former and current security agency and law enforcement officials, dubbed the siloviki. Initially, Putin maintained a balance between these groups, soliciting opinion from all while preferring that of subject-matter experts. Over the last two decades, the first two groupings have gradually been supplanted by the third.

This occurred for a variety of reasons. To begin, Putin abandoned the liberal economists' vision. He began by recruiting libertarian economist Andrei Illarionov as his economic adviser. However, their predictions that expropriating enterprises and condoning corruption would stymie growth and precipitate market crises were overblown. Markets have shown to be extraordinarily tolerant toward oil-rich countries. Mikhail Kasyanov, Putin's then-prime minister, attempted to convince him in 2003 that prosecuting businessmen such as billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky would undermine investor confidence. Nonetheless, in the three years following Khodorkovsky's arrest and seizure of his company that year, Russian equities tripled in value and foreign direct investment inflows quadrupled. "Many things appeared to be sacred," observed Gleb Pavlovsky, Putin's early political aide. "However, nothing happened when they were removed."

Putin gradually ceased not just to listen to formerly trusted economic advisers such as Anatoly Chubais, Herman Gref, and Alexei Kudrin, but also to defend them from his minions. In 2007, one of Kudrin's Finance Ministry deputies was arrested. By 2016, Putin was allowing the siloviki to arrest senior officials such as Alexei Ulyukaev, the former economics minister who is currently serving an eight-year prison sentence for bribery. (He said that Igor Sechin, Putin's close ally, set him up.) The war for the siloviki was not only about ideals, but also about money and power, as their diverse economic empires flourished. Today's economic technocrats, including as Finance Minister Anton Siluanov and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, do not lecture Putin about market forces; they simply follow orders.

Security forces at an opposition rally in Moscow, April 2021
Security forces at an opposition rally in Moscow, April 2021
Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

Similarly, Putin progressively lost faith in his political fixers. When demonstrations erupted in Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2011 and 2012, Vladislav Surkov, Putin's chief political advisor who had formed the parameters of his "managed democracy," was forced to resign. Later that year, when Sergei Sobyanin, Moscow's mayor, and Sergei Kiriyenko, Putin's first deputy chief of staff, were unable to quickly put an end to major demonstrations in the capital over a city council election, Putin retained the political team but transferred ultimate control over protest management from civilian experts to security services. Milov, who was there during the demonstrations, was astonished by how swiftly all the various agencies moved cooperatively, implying a change in direction from the top. According to analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, Putin's two most conservative colleagues, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov, convinced the president that the nonviolent demonstrations had been orchestrated by foreign powers. The authorities did not handle the opposition after that: they criminalized it.

With Putin's economic and political advisors marginalized, the siloviki jockeyed for status, seeking to demonstrate toughness and loyalty by destroying the opposition and confirming Putin's concerns about Western sabotage. The most zealous proponents of state brutality had a personal stake in pushing Putin toward harsher and more overt repression, making it more difficult for him to revert to more politically sophisticated measures. Along with the siloviki, this group of hardliners includes Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has dispatched his security forces to arrest dissidents or their family members in other parts of Russia and issued chilling threats against his and Putin's adversaries. At times, Kadyrov appears to purposefully overstep limits in order to question Putin or breach some taboo—all the while claiming to be the president's devoted "foot soldier." When Putin does not restrain or demote his subordinates, both they and their adversaries gain confidence.

External events aided Putin's hardliners as well. Recent repression of rallies in Belarus, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Syria, and Venezuela revealed that autocrats that stifle dissent through ruthless repression often survive. The West has taken a novel approach to Russia's human rights infractions, producing lists of persons sanctioned for committing crimes. Nonetheless, it almost certainly did not escape Putin's notice that Russia was allowed to remain a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2021, despite Navalny's poisoning and subsequent detention in a labor camp. And Putin's elite Western allies paid little attention when Russian forces seized Crimea in 2014 and detained scores of political detainees. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder celebrated his 70th birthday with Putin in St. Petersburg a month after Russia annexed the territory. And the following year, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi traveled to Crimea with the Russian president to taste the region's wine.

PUTIN'S GAMBLE

After dismissing his former economic and political advisers, Putin surrounded himself not just with siloviki, but with the most extreme of them, guys like Patrushev, who believes the West is involved in complex schemes to destroy Russia. Putin met with his Security Council approximately twice as frequently as he met with the government, including the prime minister and other ministries, according to public announcements on the Kremlin's website in 2021. He let the enforcers fight for his approval and control of firms, with all the state's instruments at their disposal, as he became less concerned with defending his name abroad and more impressed by the short-term effectiveness of tough repression at home.

Naturally, this domestic transformation did not necessitate Putin's actions overseas. However, it laid the groundwork for growing belligerence. By substituting brutal measures for political manipulation at home and shifting from spin to terror, Putin paved the way for more foreign violence. As Guriev and I demonstrate, fear dictators, on average, begin more wars and military conflicts than spin dictators. Putin had a remarkable proclivity for fighting, even among the latter. He had not shied away from confrontation, emboldened by Russia's enormous nuclear weapons and the unpredictable politics around his country's frontiers. However, the domestic shift toward control through fear enabled him to cast aside any remaining reservations about employing force against Russia's neighbors. While he pretended to be a nonviolent democratic leader, breaching international law and bombing civilians in another country jeopardized his Russian backing. However, once he abandoned pretense and embraced repression, he no longer needed to play the diplomat.

According to others, Putin's invasion of Ukraine was a publicity stunt designed to revive the nationalist euphoria that preceded the takeover of Crimea. That explanation seemed improbable. If Putin's goal was domestic support, he would have settled with recognizing — and possibly annexing — the two self-declared Donbas republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, which would have been a relatively popular move. However, polls conducted prior to the invasion indicated a lack of appetite for a larger battle. And if Putin had believed that a full-scale invasion would improve his popularity, he would not have pretended for so long that Russian "peacekeepers" were acting carefully to avert a genocide in the Donbas. More likely, Putin's conviction that he had effectively suppressed domestic opposition freed him to pursue more grandiose international goals.

Putin’s task of political survival just got a lot harder.

Russia's politics will now take place in the shadow of the Ukraine war. At start, wars frequently galvanize citizens behind their leader. However, they disrupt domestic politics through unpredictable shifting of opinion and power. Early in the war, polls conducted by Kremlin-connected firms indicated that a majority of Russians accepted the official narrative that NATO threats or Ukrainian atrocities forced Putin's hand, although polls conducted in a harsh dictatorship by pollsters with government ties—and especially during wartime—should be viewed skeptically. Russian public perception may well shift as new information becomes available. Russians will realize that their troops have murdered hundreds of Ukrainians — not just in the east, to halt a supposed genocide, but throughout the country — and they will learn of Russian casualties. They are suddenly facing severe economic upheavals after years of living under modest sanctions. They will see the transformation of their leader, who came to power promising stability — and for a time appeared to offer it — becoming an architect of instability. Those convinced that the NATO danger must be addressed will see the alliance resurrected and increased weaponry deployed along Russia's western border. The new worldwide isolation imposed by the boycott of Russia's sports teams and artists will be disheartening. Even ultranationalists who supported Putin's war will almost certainly be dismayed by the inevitable bloody, inconclusive aftermath.

Putin will be tempted to escalate intimidation even further in the absence of money and other instruments. However, in economically sophisticated, complex cultures where the public has access to communications technology and discontent is widespread, intensified repression might backfire, igniting a new round of resistance. Putin is more more exposed because he himself justified the invasion with a historical essay on the Russian-Ukrainian relationship written in the summer of 2021 and an impassioned speech delivered three days before the assault began. A few hours before his address was broadcast on state television, Putin convened a videotaped meeting with his Security Council, apparently to ensure responsibility for all of its members, who dutifully declared support for his decision to recognize the two breakaway republics. However, the heavy-handed choreography, with Putin sitting alone at a long table and interrogating each member, conveyed a despotic impression.

Simultaneously, as he increases repression, Putin will become more reliant on the siloviki. To maintain control over the Russian security state's many agencies and factions, he will have to continue balancing and pitching them against one another. He will need to maneuver powerful individuals while deftly detecting any indications of disloyalty. Purges of the elite, which had already begun, will intensify.

By undermining the postwar international order and altering his domestic control approach, Putin has jeopardized his own future. Initiating a war that does not unfold as planned is a typical error that has brought down numerous authoritarian regimes in the past. Putin's audacity—sending forces to assault Kyiv while pretending to be saving genocide victims in the Donbas—could possibly backfire on him. The discrepancy between his stated objective of unifying Slavic peoples and his method—bombing civilian neighborhoods—may be too great for even the most expert propaganda machine to reconcile. Numerous Russians may want to avoid cognitive dissonance by uniting behind their leader intuitively. However, if the dissonance is severe enough, it can result in a paradigm change. With a repressive bureaucracy as well-equipped and practiced as Russia's, Putin may feel pretty comfortable, but his political survival battle has just become far more difficult.

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