Vladimir Putin’s psychological grip on Russia has lasted a generation. His image as an all-powerful strongman has survived repeated economic crises, mass protests, sanctions, military defeats and, most recently, a major army mutiny. But can his popularity survive increasingly frequent Ukrainian drone strikes on the heart of Moscow?
First, it is worth remembering that Putin’s rise to power in 1999 was inextricably linked to his role as a defender of Russia against attack. A series of gigantic bombs placed in apartment buildings in Moscow and other Russian cities killed over 300 innocent people as they slept, sowing terror. Putin had just been promoted from heading Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) to prime minister.
In contrast to the ailing and addled Boris Yeltsin, the young, tough new premier promised to “rub the terrorists out in the sh—–”. Putin blamed Chechens for the attacks, though some suggest that the bombings were actually carried out by the FSB. An invasion of Chechnya quickly followed and Putin’s image as Russia’s saviour and protector was born.
Now, 24 years on, pro-Ukrainian partisans regularly breach Russia’s border and Ukrainian drone and rocket strikes inside Russia are becoming an almost daily occurrence. Recent Ukrainian targets have included the elite dacha lands of suburban Moscow and the skyscrapers of Moscow’s financial district. Suddenly, Putin’s narrative of being his people’s protector looks shaky.
It would be magical thinking to imagine that these drone strikes will be enough on their own to bring Putin’s authority among ordinary Russians suddenly crashing down. Kremlin propagandists have been telling Russians for years that their country is at war with Nato. In that sense, attacks on Moscow may also strengthen the Kremlin narrative that Putin’s delusional invasion of Ukraine was in fact a pre-emptive defensive war against Russia’s mortal enemies.
Yet there is a real danger to Putin from a different direction – not the people, but his own elites. For two decades the “power vertical” that Putin created rested on a simple principle: cronies would be allowed to get rich and plunder the country in exchange for complete loyalty. Putin’s role was to act as an arbiter for the gangland-style quarrels among his subordinates, while ensuring that ordinary Russians received a steady diet of feel-good propaganda that mixed Soviet nostalgia with an aggressive imperialistic message that the country was surrounded by jealous enemies.
The Ukraine war is shattering that arrangement. It has become an expensive quagmire. Not one of Putin’s stated goals has been achieved and many of them – such as putting an end to Nato expansion and demilitarising Ukraine – have produced the opposite outcome. And more crucially from the selfish viewpoint of Russia’s elites, war has been terrible for business.
Putin himself and the tiny circle of senior power brokers who surround him may be delusional and fatally badly informed. But the wider elite of generals, bureaucrats and businessmen who control Russia’s government, economy and media are not fools. Leaked phone intercepts and off-the record conversations with well-connected Russian journalists reveal a fragmentary but consistent picture of an elite that is in equal parts appalled by the war and helpless to do anything to stop it.
Putin himself has lost his aura of invincibility and infallibility. The Wagner mutiny revealed a Kremlin paralysed with indecision. Having promised to crush the mutineers as traitors, Putin then failed to punish Prigozhin or his men. Only one of the “ultra-patriots” who have steadily blasted him for his failure to defeat Kyiv – the outspoken Strelkov – has been arrested. Increasingly bold Ukrainian strikes on the capital have eroded Putin’s credibility among the elites still further.
Predicting the future of Russian politics is a risky business. But one thing is clear – Putin and his propaganda machine can only command the loyalty of ordinary Russians as long as he can avoid the three key jeopardies that brought down the USSR: the emergence of serious challengers to his rule, economic crisis, and the discreditation of his regime through military or government collapse.
Today, with every drone that hits Moscow, more and more of Russia’s power brokers will be looking towards a post-Putin future where they can walk away from and forget his disastrous war and its consequences. And once those elites anoint a successor – perhaps even with the Kremlin’s reluctant blessing – the spell Putin has woven over his people will vanish quickly and completely.