Vladimir Putin’s grip on power is “weakening” and other political figures in the country are preparing for a “struggle” in the wake of his fall, a leading historian has suggested.
Timothy Snyder, a Professor of History at Yale University and author of the book On Tyranny, is an expert in the modern history of central and eastern Europe.
He believes the Russian military’s mounting losses in Ukraine are eroding Putin’s authority.
“Putin’s rule is weakening,” Professor Snyder said in a series of posts on social media over the weekend.
“We now regularly hear from people aside from Putin – for example, former prime minister and president Dmitry Medvedev – about the meaning of the war, the catastrophic consequences that await Ukraine and the West, and so forth. This is a sign Putin is losing control.
“Usually the news coverage of such pronouncements focuses on their content. It is tempting to get caught up in the Russian fear propaganda.
“But the real story is that people aside from Putin now feel authorised to make such proclamations. Before the war there was less of this.”
Prof Snyder said this “doom propaganda” served as a display of loyalty to Putin on the surface, but could also be read as “rhetorical preparation for a power struggle” after the Russian ruler falls.
“If Russia loses the war, the people saying radical things now will have protected themselves. For my part, I tend to see the drastic proclamations as evidence that important Russians think Russia is losing,” he said.
Take Medvedev, for example, who was president of Russia from 2008-2012 and prime minister for eight years after that.
“I’m not convinced Medvedev, who for years was seen as the liberal alternative to Putin, believes the anti-Semitic, anti-Polish, anti-Western hate speech he publishes. He is creating a profile that might be useful later,” said Prof Snyder.
He also pointed to Ramzan Kadyrov, the current leader of Chechnya, whose “kind of personal armed guard appears alongside the Russian army in its foreign wars”. Naturally, that includes the current invasion of Ukraine.
“In Ukraine, Kadyrov’s men have arranged matters so as not to have taken very many casualties. From the perspective of his own interests, this makes sense. They are available for a further power struggle in a post-Putin Russia,” said Prof Snyder.
“Kadyrov now proposes that Russia locate air defence systems in Chechnya. His justification is that Ukraine might attack Chechnya, which is not credible.
“It sounds more like he is preparing for a post-Putin Russia in which Chechnya would claim independence.”
The signs of Putin’s weakness are growing, chief among them the failures of his military in Ukraine. As Prof Snyder notes, the army is a key “source of Putin’s political strength”, and if the illusion of its “invincibility” is shattered, that will damage his personal image.
“Putin can survive the army not being strong. But at a certain point, not being strong becomes not looking strong,” he explained.
“The Russian army is taking horrible losses in men, which suggests the next sign of Putin’s weakness. The Russian state can mobilise its population for war only at the level of emotions, not bodies.
“Russian regions are now working hard to find highly paid ‘volunteers’ who are sent to die with little training. Putin is clearly afraid a general mobilisation would undo his popularity and bring down his regime. In this sense he is weak.
“Putin has soft support for the war, so long as it is a television show, but cannot count on Russians to risk their actual bodies.
“The equilibrium that keeps Putin in power – mastery over rivals, support in the population, integrity of the army – is challenged by the realities of an unpredictable, costly war. Putin has been good at keeping us all in a fog. But now he himself seems lost in the fog of war.”
Prof Snyder framed Russia’s current dilemma as a “trap” for Putin – one he blundered into himself – with no clear escape route.
“The trap presented to him by rivals, by the public, by the army looks like this: we will all agree with you that we are winning the war, and we will all blame you if/when we lose it,” the historian said.
“It is not clear how Putin can escape, except by declaring victory.
“Putin’s gamble, as ever, is that the West will feel the pain faster than he will. This is how his foreign policy works – generate losses for everyone, including Russia, in the hope that the other side will concede first.
“Putin has seemed like a good gambler in the past. A good gambler, though, knows when to fold.”
Russia strikes crucial sea port
Meanwhile, Russia’s stymied invasion of Ukraine trundles on.
On Sunday, Putin’s military said its missiles had destroyed a Ukrainian warship and weapons from the United States after a strike on the Black Sea port of Odessa, which is a crucial port for grain exports.
The strike came just a day after Ukraine and Russia had signed a landmark agreement, hammered out over months of negotiations, aimed at relieving a global food crisis.
“High-precision, long-range missiles launched from the sea destroyed a docked Ukrainian warship and a stockpile of anti-ship missiles delivered by the United States to the Kyiv regime,” the Russian Defence Ministry said.
“A Ukrainian army repair and upgrade plant has also been put out of order.”
Earlier on Sunday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said missiles had destroyed a Ukrainian “patrol boat” in the strike.
Neither the Russian army nor Ms Zakharova provided evidence to prove the claims.
On Saturday, Ukraine Putin of having “spit in the face” of the deal to unblock grain exports, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey.
President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed the strikes on Odessa – one of three designated export hubs under the deal – showed Russia could not keep its promises.
Ukraine’s Western allies, including Britain and the United States, condemned the attack.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it cast “serious doubt on the credibility of Russia’s commitment” to the deal.
– with AFP