Putin’s position is anything but self-evident. On December 4th, 2011, the Duma election was a severe loss for Vladimir Putin and his party ‘United Russia’. The party’s previous advantage of 64% now fell to a slight majority of 50%(1), and more than 30.000 protesters signed up for a protest on December 10th(2), that led to one of the largest protests in Moscow since the 1990s, aimed against ‘United Russia’ and Putin. It made quite clear that his leadership was vulnerable and it needed a boost.
Since then Putin has chosen a clear path: Continuing the Russian economy to rely heavily on its oil- and gas-exports, bringing the criminal-justice system totally under Kremlin control, and continuing ever increasing repression, both online as on the streets. Reducing the liberties and rights of Russian citizens. A key element in strengthening Putin’s image and consolidate his regime in the Kremlin is a very elaborate and powerful propaganda machine to spread the anti-Western and pro-Russian ideology.
Weaponization of information
This propaganda machine is a very powerful instrument as Russia initiates the world to 21th century warfare in Ukraine. This new concept, called the “nonlinear” or “hybrid” war(3), totally out-manoeuvers NATO, which is still based on responding to conventional threats.
The strategy of the Kremlin’s information-war is not to persuade or earn credibility, but to create distrust and confusion. (4) Many Russians are very well aware that their news is corrupted. And the Kremlin does not derive its power by trying to convince the people it’s telling truth, but by creating and spreading its own truths. And ensuring these are truths people want to hear. This new propaganda is aimed at keeping the viewer hooked, distracted, and holding on to a paranoid world-view in which “they” are always threatening Russia.
In this fashion, the Russian propaganda-machine applies the fantasy of Novorossiya(5) on Ukraine, supported by massive online media and made very credible by redrawn maps which are repeatedly shown on news channels and social media. Also the downing of MH17 triggered huge amounts of disinformation, and released an army of Kremlin-‘s internet trolls. Who, for example, inundated the Guardian with 40.000 comments a day, rendering commenting in any way on their articles all but meaningless. (6)
Today NATO learns the painful lessons that tanks and joint strike fighters are useless against a blurred status of war and peace, which is accompanied by an all-out propaganda that constructs its own harsh reality in which “The fascists” have completely taken over Kiev, and the Pro-Russian separatists are totally within their right to protect ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine against this mortal danger.
However, this elaborate propaganda system is anything but cheap, and with increasing pressure by foreign sanctions, and continued drop in oil revenues due to low oil prices, it is unavoidable for the Kremlin to cut budgets. And now it is even forced to cut budgets of government-financed media. Where previously the national news channel “Russia Today” had been promised a 30% increase to its budget, its budget will now be cut by 10%. The previously announced expansion with French and German-language channels will probably be cancelled. (7)
Concerned by recent developments, Putin does not take any chance that domestic opposition is allowed even an inch of foothold and Moscow now criminalizes peaceful protest completely. This recent move is called “unprecedented in post-soviet Russian history”, and invokes a new controversial law that stimulates prison up to five years for anyone detained more than once in a period of 180 days at any unsanctioned protests. (8)
Putin between a rock and a hard place
However, as the noose tightens, Putin gets caught between a rock and a hard place in Ukraine. From his point of view, Russia is not involved, and cannot be involved. Admitting anything as such to western leaders would mean a sign of weakness back home, contradicting his anti-Western propaganda for the past few years and will weaken and destabilize internal support with his inner circle of elites that help him running Russia.
The hybrid and undetermined character of the war in Ukraine also does not allow any large scale invasion by Russian military. Already the current losses among Russian soldiers are unacceptable for Russian society, so the burials of Russian military servicemen is done in much secrecy. (9)
On the other hand, prolonging a destabilized Ukraine, plagued by conflict, and maintaining Russian refusal to cooperate, would results in continuation of sanctions compounding with low oil prices that are severely hurting the Russian economy. Thus, resulting in a strategy that can merely last as long as Moscow’s pockets run deep, and where Putin is already forced to serious budget cuts during a deepening economic crisis (10). For Putin to continue this strategy under low oil prices, is anything but an option for the long term.
Will Putin survive Ukraine?
Vladimir Putin is foremost presented as the strong ruler: providing safety and stability in Russia. The concept of Russia as an undeniable superpower, and introducing the concept of Novorossiya perfectly fits the necessary drive, and is only fitting his creed: “Russia is a superpower, or it is nothing”. The concerns of domestic liberties and freedoms available to the Russian people are subsidiary and irrelevant to that aim. And indeed, up until present day, Russians favour a strong leadership over a democracy of a good legislative and corruption-free governmental system.(11)
And Putin is very right to be concerned, as his popularity and his position are anything but self-evident. The past few years he has built an elaborate propaganda mechanism that supported his regime and anti-western foreign-policy to the fullest. Including supporting his hybrid warfare. The pseudo-war in Ukraine can probably neither easily be stopped nor stepped up without tilting the balance one way or another, both resulting in a threat to Putin’s position. And under pressure of low oil prices, a devaluating Ruble, and increase of sanctions, now the first cracks appear.
Putin’s fate is tied with his regime. And his regime, however rigid, is anything but stable. His power is based on a system where corruption is traded for loyalty. When he falls, a lot of domestic dominoes will fall with him. And it is unknown what sort of Russia a post-Putin Russia will be like and what kind of Russia the world will have to deal with after the Putin-regime collapses.
Door Ernstjan van Doorn