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Putin seems to be a sideline adviser on Ukraine, taking political risks

Will Russian President Putin have the support he needs at home to wage a costly war in Ukraine?

That seems like an odd question. After all, Mr. Putin has invaded Ukraine, showing that he feels confident in his resources. And his public image is that of a strong man, empowered to direct the Russian state as he pleases.

But no leader can rule alone. And a flurry of events this week, including Russia’s decision to restrict access to Facebook and censor news about the war in Ukraine, raise questions about the extent of political support Mr. would be obtainable during the conflict.

An early sign that something was amiss appeared on Monday during a televised meeting of the Russian Security Council. Mr. Putin seemed to expect all the assembled officials to no doubt advise him to recognize the independence of Russia-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine – a public display of support. war in earnest, just a few days before it began in earnest.

But Sergei Naryshkin refused his offer.

Naryshkin, the director of foreign intelligence, stammered uncomfortably when Putin asked him about recognition of the separatist claims. He later appeared to correct the mistake, saying that he thought Russia should recognize the breakaway republics as “part of Russia”. Mr. Putin briskly said that Mr. Naryshkin should “make it clear,” then said grudgingly that the merger “wasn’t discussed.”

This moment seems crucial because all authoritarian leaders rule by alliance, even if, like Putin, they often appear to be wielding their own power.

The specifics of power-sharing alliances vary by country, with some leaders backed by the military and others backed by wealthy business leaders or other elites. But Mr. Putin’s alliance is mainly made up of “siloviki”, a group of officials who entered politics after serving in the KGB or other security agencies, and now hold key roles in the military. intelligence agencies, the military and other ministries of Russia.

“It was the system that brought him to power, and that was the system he was in,” said Maria Popova, a political scientist at McGill University in Canada who studies Russian and Ukrainian politics. relied on to consolidate its power.

Over the decades, Mr. Putin has proven himself to be highly skilled at maintaining relationships with the elite. And the structure of Mr. Putin’s ruling coalition is an advantage for him, Dr. de Bruin said.

“Where political power is more concentrated in one ruler – as was the case in Russia under Putin – it may be a little more difficult for elites to hold that leader accountable,” she said.

But elites are still important. And the apparent embarrassment of Putin’s advisers during Monday’s meeting, including the one he had with Mr. Naryshkin, gave the impression that the Russian President had kept this important group from his plans.

“He seems to be humiliating some of these people,” Dr. Popova said – especially in the way he spoke to Mr. Naryshkin, a prominent silovik who served in the KGB at the same time as Putin.

Of course, their interaction could have been a blessing brought about by the stress of the moment. And notably, all of Mr. Putin’s advisers, including Mr. Naryshkin, finally gave public support on Monday for the president’s decision to recognize the breakaway regions. .

But even the seating arrangements of Mr. Putin’s recent meetings, in which he placed himself at a literal distance from his advisers, conveyed an image of him being cut off from the rest of the world. people, including his elite confederacy. That may be because he wants to avoid catching the coronavirus, which is said to be a significant fear for the Russian leader. But some observers, Dr Popova said, believe Mr. Putin was meant to convey the impression that he was king, and that his advisers were merely courtiers – a message they may not appreciate. high.

And then there is the matter of the Russian public. Although public opinion in Russia does not have the direct power of democracy, the high level of public support for Mr. Putin has long served as leverage and political power for him. No other politician or member of his inner circle has a public reputation even close to his.

But public anger over war can diminish that advantage, and even turn into political liability. The war would put a strain on the Russian economy. And it dealt a blow to Putin’s public image as a careful and pragmatic steward of Russian interests.

There was little public support for the war in Ukraine even before casualties began to mount. A lengthy academic survey found in december that only 8% of Russians support a military conflict against Ukraine and only 9% think Russia should arm Ukrainian separatists. That is a huge enthusiasm gap for Mr. Putin to overcome.

Putin’s actions this week show he is concerned about the consequences of public anger. On Thursday and Friday, police arrested hundreds of war protesters in cities across Russia. On Saturday, the government restricted access to Facebook and other media sites for the apparent offense of posting stories “where the activity being carried out is called an attack, an invasion or declaration of war.”

Which brings us to the stakes for Mr. Putin in maintaining ties with his inner circle: “Due to the resources and access they have, the elites are the biggest threat. for authoritarian leaders,” said Erica de Bruin, a political scientist at Hamilton University and the author of a recent book on coups. Therefore, maintaining elite support is crucial to staying in power. ”

And wars often pose a particular threat to leaders’ relationships with elites. Dr. de Bruin said: “Relationships between authoritarian rulers and elite supporters can become strained when dictators wage war abroad – especially when the elites consider the conflict to be a mistake.

Public anger over war can also increase elite perceptions that a leader is no longer an effective defender of their interests. And if the US and Europe manage to impose effective sanctions on members of Mr. Putin’s elite coalition, that could make the war costly for them personally. as well as risks for Russia. (Several members of that inner circle, including Mr. Naryshkin, have been blacklisted by the US Treasury Department for years, so it’s unclear what incremental impact the new restrictions might have. for their finances.)

That is not to say that Mr. Putin’s allies will oppose him because of course he was rude to one of them on television, or that public anger will immediately undermine the presidency. your.

But there is still reason to pay attention to signs of tension in Mr. Putin’s alliance. For example, elite discontent may affect his ability to respond to targeted sanctions, or the constraints he may face regarding resources for conflict. conflict in Ukraine. It could also affect whether he has enough political capital to stay active if domestic opposition grows.

And perhaps, if things go very badly, it could have even more significant consequences for Putin’s presidency.

“Two-thirds of authoritarian leaders are removed by their own allies,” Dr. Popova said. “If he tightens the screws too much, if he tries to really increase his power at the expense of a ruling dictator coalition, then he is threatening his own position. “

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/26/world/europe/putin-ukraine-advisers.html Putin seems to be a sideline adviser on Ukraine, taking political risks

Fry Electronics Team

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