Putin's rule is weakening
So what comes next?
It seems to me, from a distance, that Putin's rule is weakening. 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 interesting, because it seems like a sign that Putin is losing control.
Usually the news coverage of such pronouncements focuses on their content. When Medvedev tells us that the war is Poland's fault, or that Ukraine is a Jewish conspiracy, or that this or that action will lead to dreadful consequences, we pay attention. He is playing to a news cycle organized around fear. But the deeper story, I think, is that he and other people aside from Putin now feel authorized to make such colorful proclamations. Before the war there was less of this.
The doom propaganda serves a couple of purposes. On the surface, it shows (or rather seems to show) loyalty to Putin. At a time when Russia is losing the war, the best hope is to convince the West that Russia is somehow unstoppable -- which it isn't. Russia has had to pull back, just in this war, from a great deal of Ukrainian territory. Its forces in the south are in an unenviable situation right now. Russian history, like American history, is littered with defeat in war.
At the same time, the doom propaganda is rhetorical preparation for a power struggle after Putin 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 (Medvedev, also Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov) understand that Russia can lose wars, and is losing this one.
I am not convinced that Medvedev, who for years was seen as the liberal alternative to Putin, believes the anti-Ukrainian, antisemitic, anti-Polish, and anti-Western hate speech he publishes on his Telegram channel. He is creating a profile that might be useful after Putin (just as his technocrat profile was once useful to Putin). Lavrov’s bluster has a similar feel. He doesn’t want to left out of the chorus of celebration of atrocity, but he can’t be bothered to make sense. His recent claim that Russia must annex any territory from which any weapon could reach Russia implies that Russia must keep expanding until it controls the entire surface of the earth.
Another interesting example is Ramzan Kadyrov, who has run Chechnya as his own personal satrapy since he helped Putin win the Second Chechen War. Kadyrov commands a kind of personal armed guard that appears alongside the Russian army in its foreign wars.
In Ukraine, Kadyrov has spoken of the need to take Kyiv, and then has seemed hesitant to risk his men for the less prestigious goals available to the Russian offensive at the moment. According the Russian statistics, Chechen casualties are among the lowest of all the regions, which would be odd, given the presence in Ukraine of a specifically Chechen force. From the perspective of Kadyrov's own interests, though, this would makes sense. His men have to be present in Ukraine, because for now he must seem loyal. But for him it is more important that they be available for a future power struggle in a post-Putin Russia.
It does seem that his mind is now on the future. Kadyrov now proposes that Russia locate air defense systems in Chechnya. His justification is that Ukraine might attack Chechnya, which is not at all credible. He has also announced that a new battalion raised in Chechnya to fight in Ukraine will instead remain in Chechnya. It sounds more like he is preparing for a post-Putin Russia in which Chechnya would claim independence.
Another sign of weakness for Putin is the army itself. The argument over whether Russia is winning or losing can be made in military terms. But the army itself is a source of Putin's political strength. The claim of its eternal invincibility is a consistent element of Putin's own propaganda.
Russians might think that Russia is winning the war. But out there in the real world, on Ukrainian territory, the Russian army is taking losses, in equipment and in officers, that threaten its integrity as an institution, not to mention its ability to fulfil its many other missions beyond Ukraine.
Sanctions make this worse. A world-class army is not one that goes hunting in Teheran for drones reverse-engineered from Western technology. But that is where Russia is right now. Putin can survive the army not being strong. But at a certain point, not being strong becomes not looking strong. Putin's power is based upon an image; by choosing to fight an actual war, he has made illusion hostage to reality.
The Russian army is also taking horrible losses in men, which suggests the next sign of Putin's weakness. The Russian state is not designed for a war of this kind. It looks fascist at the top, but it lacks the fascist capacity for total war. Its daily power arises from the demobilization of its population, not its mobilization. The old communist joke went "we pretend to work and you pretend to pay us." In Russia today the reality is something more like "you pretend to win a war and we pretend to show enthusiasm."
Putin seems afraid that a general mobilization would undo his popularity and bring down his regime. The dramatic rhetoric on Russian television and on the Telegram channels of Russian leaders is thus rather a substitute for than evidence of a national consensus about the war. So long as everyone says nationalistic things, a certain equilibrium is preserved. But this amounts to everyone bluffing everyone else.
The equilibrium that keeps Putin in power -- mastery over rivals, soft support in the population, the 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.
No one can say what exactly is happening inside the Kremlin. But a general predicament does seem clear. The trap laid before Putin (willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously) by rivals, by the public, and by the army looks like this: we will all agree with you that we are winning the war — and we will all have no one to blame but you if Russia loses it. This is all quite vague, half-unsaid, clouded by emotion, displacement, taboo, and fear. But it is the general picture. And in its fundamentals the trap was laid by Putin himself.
No one can say how power will change hands in Russia, or what the next stage in Putin's rule will be like. Personally, I don't imagine that the weakening of Putin's rule has to lead to the dramatic coup scenarios that people envisioned at the beginning of the war (though they are possible, if Putin lets the war go on too long). Nor do I expect that a moment will come when Putin will decide that doing something drastic on the battlefield will save him, which it wouldn't. It would also amount to an open admission of defeat, which he has to avoid. What I expect instead is something much more banal: that Putin’s voice will count for less and less as the war goes on, and that he will at some point have to decide whether pursuing it is worth risking his position.
War is politics by other means; Putin himself chose this war and its atrocities. For the war to end, Putin must feel the politics change around him; and so for the war to end, Ukraine must win. For the West, this means patience and firmness and the consistent supply of the weapons Ukraine needs.