President Biden and senior U.S. officials have openly questioned Vladimir Putin’s leadership as Russia reels from economic sanctions and battlefield failures. According to U.S. intelligence, Putin is described as becoming more isolated and unable get precise reports on the conflict in Ukraine. He also feels frustrated with his military commanders.
Yet in briefings to President Biden, U.S. intelligence officials have said there are no signs that the fallout from the war has loosened Putin’s grip on Russia, according to two U.S. officials familiar with those assessments. In fact, experts say, there’s evidence that Putin has used the war to further consolidate power, at least in the short term.
Putin continues to intensify his efforts to suppress opposition voices in Russia, even as war drags on. Putin signed into law a measure which effectively criminalizes independent reporting that deviates from the government line, even banning the use of the word “war” in news broadcasts about Ukraine, which led to the closure of independent Russian media outlets. Russian authorities have detained thousands of protestors against the invasion. The protests within Russia have been smaller during the war than the ones that broke out in 2018 over pension reforms, says a U.S. government official—a sign that the crackdown on domestic dissent has had a chilling effect.
U.S. intelligence personnel have found that Putin has prevented the birth of potential successors. His reign has lasted for so long partly because he didn’t have a clear leader. 2 waiting in the wings, say experts, who point out there hasn’t been an organic succession of power in Russia since President Boris Yeltsin left office at the end of 1999.
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Russia has very few options to overthrow Putin. It seems “unrealistic” to expect Russian business elites to work together with the Russian military to remove Putin, says Rita Konaev, an expert on the Russian military at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. The Kremlin has made it difficult for civil society to survive, harassing and threatening them with arrests. Reformists inside the government “don’t exist,” Konaev says.
Nor is Russia’s poor military performance in Ukraine guaranteed to weaken Putin’s standing. Konaev claims that military losses in Russia in the past have not turned public opinion. Instead, they can cause Russians, especially families to lose loved ones, to rally behind the flag. “If anything,” Konaev says, “there’s quite often a higher rate of approval and support for wars among people who serve and the people who have military families, because there’s a sacrifice that has been made and people don’t want to believe that their sacrifices were for nothing.”
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Eugene Rumer is the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s director for the Russia and Eurasia program. Rumer was a former U.S. National Intelligence Council national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia. Rumer has noticed signs that Putin used war and the resulting Western sanctions as a way to consolidate his power. “A lot of opposition figures have been pressed to leave the country” in the past few weeks, Rumer says, and “it has become even more difficult, if not impossible, for independent outlets to continue operating.”
Putin has worked for nearly a decade to “sanction proof” Russia, Rumer says, designating many civil-society organizations as foreign agents and implementing a new national security strategy last July designed to insulate Russia from external influences that would amplify criticism of him. Russian authorities cut the Russian Internet off from the World Wide Web last year to see how it would respond in an emergency. A Russian court this month banned Facebook and Instagram from the country in an effort to uphold a Putin-era law banning services that carry out “extremist activities.”
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All this means that Biden’s recent off-the-cuff remarks that Putin “cannot remain in power” was more wishful thinking than a shift in U.S. policy or a reflection of any intelligence suggesting the Russian leader is facing mounting political peril. Biden’s remarks alarmed aides, who were concerned Putin would take them as a threat and escalate tensions between the two nuclear powers, says one official familiar with the discussions. Senior U.S. officials scrambled to explain to reporters and allies that U.S. policy had not changed, and Biden later clarified that his sentiments were an expression of the “moral outrage” he felt watching the death and destruction Putin’s military has brought on Ukraine.
U.S. officials have not stopped trying to put pressure on Putin. This week, intelligence assessments were declassified about the growing tensions that Putin has with Sergei Shoigu (defense minister) and other top security officials. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters traveling with him in Algeria that Putin’s autocratic rule has made it harder for advisors to tell him uncomfortable truths, while White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield called the Russian invasion a “strategic blunder.”
Experts who know how autocrats have worked to consolidate their power over the years say there’s no indication Putin is heading for the exits. If anything, the moves he’s making may augur the opposite.
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