Russian President Vladimir Putin’s greatest claim is to have restored his country’s stability after the turbulent early post–Cold War years. But by launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine this week, he has put that stability at risk. Balancing Russia’s many competing interests to maintain order and control has never been easy. But doing so in the wake of a conflict that could divide the public and pinch the pockets of some Russian elites will be even harder.  

For almost two decades, Putin deftly balanced the dual threats that confront all autocrats: coups from other elites and protests from the masses. A booming economy in the first decade of this century allowed him to consolidate power, and his successful annexation of Crimea in 2014 ensured his place in Russian history. Putin could manipulate elections and public opinion, deliver rents to his cronies while still improving the living standards for the masses, and bask in high approval ratings.

Yet as the warm glow of his Crimea success has faded, Putin has struggled to find a narrative to legitimate his rule. A decade of slow economic growth, a botched response to the pandemic, corruption, and simple Putin fatigue among the populace have all blunted his tools for governing Russia. As I argued in the May/June 2021 issue of Foreign Affairs, Putin has therefore come to rely more heavily on the security services to maintain his grip on power, a dangerous bargain that necessitates greater repression at home and risks greater belligerence abroad. The invasion of Ukraine both flows from and reinforces this bargain, making Putin more dependent on the men in uniform who encourage his aggression.

BALANCING ACT

Within Russia, Putin’s greater reliance on the security services is most apparent in treatment of the political opposition. For almost a decade, opposition leader Alexei Navalny outed the corruption of powerful figures in the security services. Now he sits in jail while his organization lies in tatters. Russian authorities have also targeted nongovernmental organizations and media outlets that report on abuse and corruption, effectively muzzling political dissent.

In foreign policy, too, the rise of the security services has left its mark. Even as many political and economic elites voiced disbelief over the prospect of war in Ukraine, the hard men of Putin’s inner circle competed with one another to be the most hawkish toward the West. This group of advisers has been the driving force for war in Ukraine.

But turning to the big men with big guns to solve one’s problems comes with a cost. Reliance on the security services will do little to solve Russia’s deep-seated social and economic problems. To the contrary, it will likely make them worse. Putin will still face the dual threats of coups and popular revolts, but his tools for managing them—like Russia’s tools for wielding influence in Ukraine—will become blunter and more one-dimensional.

As the warm glow of his Crimea success has faded, Putin has struggled to find a narrative to legitimate his rule.

Some Russians will welcome Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but a repeat of the popularity bump the Kremlin enjoyed after its bloodless annexation of Crimea appears unlikely. Public opinion surveys show that the Russian public does not share Putin’s view that Ukraine is not a “real country.” Polls conducted over the last decade consistently indicate that roughly 80 percent of Russians recognize Ukraine as an independent state, and that only about 20 percent prefer some form of unification. How Russians will respond to violence directed against friends, acquaintances, and family in Ukraine is difficult to predict.

A long war and a difficult occupation of Ukraine could drain public support for the Kremlin. Russian public opinion has long been sensitive to casualties. In May 2014, when fighting in eastern Ukraine was hot, just 31 percent of Russians supported “sending direct military assistance, such as the introduction of troops.” Public support for Russia’s intervention in Syria is similarly modest, and the Kremlin has taken great pains to limit casualties there. The legacy of World War II cuts both ways for Putin: it provides a wellspring of nationalist fervor that he can tap but also a deep societal awareness of the costs of war.

The Kremlin can rely on state media to tell its version of the story in Ukraine, but to effectively shape public opinion it will need to censor alternative sources of information even more aggressively than it has to date. That many Russians have friends and family in Ukraine will make this task more challenging, as will Russia’s well-educated and media-savvy public. More antiwar protests like those organized in Moscow on Thursday are unlikely—especially after Russian authorities arrested more than 1,800 demonstrators—but there will be no groundswell of popular support, either.

RISKY BUSINESS

Putin is an autocrat, so he doesn’t need public approval to stay in power. But it is easier to govern as a popular autocrat who can deliver the goods than as a dictator who has to rely on repression, censorship, and intimidation to beat back protests.

Moreover, Putin must worry about threats from his inner circle regardless of what the public thinks of him. The Russian leader has been remarkably adept at managing the competing interests of Russia’s elites, but the war in Ukraine may make this balancing act even harder. Members of Putin’s inner circle, along with their allies in state banks and the energy sector, benefit the most from the status quo of corruption, slow growth, and economic isolation. Not only does confrontation with the United States and its European allies increase the value of their expertise and enhance their status but it also brings them direct economic gains. As the Russia expert Alexander Gabuev has noted, the children of many officials in Putin’s war cabinet have lucrative positions in state-owned firms.

Other economic elites, however, are less enthusiastic about an economy built around fortress Russia. At a meeting between Putin and business leaders on the day of the invasion, a visibly nervous Alexander Shokhin, the head of Russia’s largest business lobbying group, told the Russian president that “everything should be done to demonstrate as much as possible that Russia remains part of the global economy and will not provoke, including through some kind of response measures, global negative phenomena on world markets.” Putin assured Shokhin and the other assembled business leaders that the Kremlin would not cause economic instability—cold comfort, no doubt, for those watching the Russian stock market plunge to near-historic lows on news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Given that the route to great wealth in Russia runs through good relations with the Kremlin, business elites are unlikely to abandon Putin. But the conflict in Ukraine will make it harder for the Russian leader to keep all of his cronies happy, especially since U.S. and European sanctions will hurt some of them more than others.

Sanctions will also stoke broader economic uncertainty, potentially erasing one of Putin’s most important achievements. But the real damage to the Russian economy will come less from sanctions than from the entrenchment in power of a coalition that resists economic modernization, efforts to reduce corruption, and greater competition. The war in Ukraine will only widen the gap between those who want to bring Russia’s economy into the twenty-first century and those who do not.

Finally, the war itself could threaten Russia’s domestic stability. Just as no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, no effort at political spin survives first contact with reality. As events unfold, the reactions of the governments of China, Germany, and Turkey and the people of Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of Europe will be hard to predict. Putin has repeatedly misread public opinion in Ukraine and has likely been surprised by the vigor of the Western response. More surprises could be in the offing. For a leader whose greatest professed achievement is bringing predictability to daily life in Russia, this must be unsettling, to say the least.

None of this signals the impending fall of Putin’s government or the end of autocracy in Russia. Authoritarian leaders who control their countries’ security services have withstood much tougher challenges. But Putin’s old playbook of governing by a clever mix of carrots and sticks is no longer viable. Having thrown his lot in with the hard men of the security services, Putin must now weather the fallout from the war he and they have championed.

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