Staunton, July 23 – To the dismay of some and the surprise of others, Vladimir Putin used the Russian Security Council meeting July 22 to signal that he has no intention of changing course on Ukraine but instead will continue to maneuver, now stepping up his aggression and now portraying himself as a peacemaker, according to Andrey Piontkovsky.
That combination, which has worked for him so far, will simultaneously hold off any domestic challenge to his rule at least for a time while ensuring that the West remains divided on how to respond. Indeed, the Russian analyst said, the only restraint on the Putin regime will be that regime itself.
The Kremlin leader is now “in a very complicated situation,” the Russian analyst says. If he “actively supports the separatists” in Ukraine, the international community will impose “serious sanctions.” But “if on the other hand, he ends that support, “he would be confronted by a serious domestic political problem” among those who have accepted his own propaganda.
Over the last few months, Piontkovsky points out, Putin and his regime have suggested that what is happening in the Donbass is virtually “a struggle for the salvation of the Russians from extermination.” If he backs away from that too quickly, many Russians will view that as “a betrayal” and stop supporting him. Consequently, Putin is playing for time.
He clearly hopes that his agreement not to block an international investigation into the Malaysian plane downing “will be viewed as an act of good will” in the West and at the least will delay if not prevent entirely the imposition of “any radical sanctions against Russia. And talks among the parties will also allow him “to save face.”
But because this maneuvering satisfies no one completely, including Putin himself, the Moscow leader cannot maintain it “forever.” But his decision to continue on as he has in the last few weeks “is yet another piece of evidence that he has no long-term strategy” but is only “maneuvering in order to keep himself in power.”
And the issue of Putin’s continuance in power is now very much the subject of discussion, Piontkovsky says. Now, the Western media, which had been talking about a permanent Putin presidency, are raising the question: where will Russia be “after Putin.” And such thoughts are now in Russian heads as well.
Putin doesn’t have “unanimous support inside the country, and what is most important, he doesn’t have “the unanimous support of the elites,” the Russian analyst says. He does not yet face mass protests as he did in 2011, “but a palace coup is becoming ever more probable since Putin’s actions have dissatisfied a significant part of his immediate entourage.”
Piontkovsky reiterates his view that this entourage consists of two groups: “the global kleptocrats” whose wealth depends on avoiding heightened tensions with the West and “the national kleptocrats” who do not see their fate dependent on maintaining good relations with the West and may even believe that they are better off with new tensions.
But many in both groups have “already begun to lose billions,” and they are not happy about that, Piontkovsky says. Putin has relied on both because he is part of both, but some in the two are now asking whether they might not be better off without him. In this situation, playing for time by not making a clear choice on Ukraine makes sense.
But that tactic – and Piontkovsky insists it is not a strategy – will only work so long because “it will not solve any problems foreign or domestic. The crisis will continue to grow.” That is his own fault because had he stopped with the annexation of Crimea, the West would have accepted that and his domestic constituencies would have been pleased.
Instead, convinced by some of his own popularity and invulnerability, he decided to try to seize “eight regions” of Ukraine, the area he calls “Novorossiya.” The West cannot accept that with equal equanimity, and the problems that have arisen in that region have become problems for Putin, problems that threaten to become for him “fatal.”
The Russian leader isn’t going to gain support “before the 2018 presidential elections” at the very least, the analyst continues. Even if there are no additional sanctions, “the economy of Russia is in a terrible situation,” and that is only one of the many problems Russia and hence Putin now face.
In response, as some have speculated, Putin could try to move to a tough totalitarian regime, but that would almost certainly generate resistance within the regime itself and possibly lead to his overthrow. Piontkovsky says he does “not exclude” that this could occur “already in the course of this year.” But what would happen “after Putin” remains very much an open question.