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Opinion | War Crimes Charges Could Help Putin, Not Hurt Him

As the scale of Russian war crimes against Ukrainian civilians in Bucha, Brovary, Chernihiv and elsewhere shocks the world, Western politicians and pundits are again stepping-up their calls not just for the end of Russia’s war, but the end of Vladimir Putin’s reign in the Kremlin. Do these Russian atrocities portend the beginning of the end of Putinism? Don’t bet on it.

There’s a widespread belief in the West that the war will ultimately be Putin’s undoing. Pundits underscore the effects of sanctions on his kleptocratic regime. Historians look to the revolutions and coups of Russia’s past. International security scholars explain that bad things happen to dictators who start wars that go badly. Western fantasies about the Russian people rising up and overthrowing Putin—in some kind of popular uprising or revolution by Kremlin insiders or the military—are everywhere, even as expatriate Ukrainians and Russians try to temper such expectations.

The truth is—both now as in the past—Putin’s regime has been remarkably stable. What’s more, many of the same prognosticators forecasting the demise of Putin today have done so before and have not fared well.

When the global financial crisis smashed the Russian economy in 2008, Russia watchers forecast “the end of the Putin era.” When a nationwide wave of anti-corruption protests denounced the re-election of Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party in 2011-12, experts called itthe beginning of the end of Putin.” Ukraine’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity, and Russia’s subsequent war in the Donbas was “the end of Putin.” Or maybe it would be the economic sanctions and Russia’s crumbling economy that would do Putin in. In 2017, it was Alexei Navalny who may have finally had Putin’s number. In 2018, it was pension reform that was “the beginning of the end of Putin’s regime.” In 2019, we were told the election of Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Ukraine “may lead to the overthrow of Vladimir Putin’s regime” by demonstrating the vacuousness of Kremlin propaganda. By 2020, it was dissatisfied youth and a bungled national response to the Covid-19 pandemic that would “topple Vladimir Putin.” Now, it is the war, sanctions and popular backlash that “could be his undoing.”

And yet, Putin endures.

Of course political prognostication is hard. The future is contingent, unknowable and unexpected surprises lurk everywhere. Plus Kremlinologists are especially snakebitten over our famous failure to foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union a generation ago. Still, I’ve quipped to fellow Russia watchers that—objectively speaking—they would be far better served by predicting that it is not the end of Vladimir Putin. That way, at most, they’d only ever be wrong once, instead of being wrong every single time.

Even if the smart money is on Putin staying in power, that doesn’t explain why we keep expecting him to fall. Perhaps it is just wishful thinking, or karma, or faith in some cosmic justice that a price has to be paid, which is proportionate to the horrors he has unleashed.

I’d suggest another alternative: It reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of Russian political dynamics, influenced by what President Joe Biden called in a recent speech our belief that there is “a great battle for freedom: a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.”

Drawing the lines between us vs. them, good vs. bad, the West vs. Russia and liberty vs. repression, creates a binary view of the world that places Russia on what we believe is the wrong side of history. Autocracy, it just goes without saying, will fail in the long run.

But it is important that we understand that Putin’s Russia is not a fully autocratic regime: It is not a personalist monarchy like the Romanov empire, nor is it a totalitarian dictatorship like Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, despite frequent Western analogies. Indeed, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov was actually correct in brushing-off Biden’s ad-lib that Putin “cannot remain in power,” by saying “That’s not for Biden to decide. The president of Russia is elected by Russians.”

The role of popular elections as the source of ruling legitimacy is just one way in which it is hard to categorize the Russian political system. For all the talk of Putin’s dictatorial personality and wide latitude to crackdown on civil liberties, the institutions of Putinism were built by his democratic predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, enshrined in his 1993 constitution. Flawed and imperfect in practice during the tumultuous 1990s, these foundations were democratic in principle: Grassroots civil society flourished alongside a lively media environment, as legislators and leaders were chosen from a variety of contenders. Even as those liberties have subsequently been eroded and independent media curtailed, the institutions still specify that Russia’s leaders serve at the will of the people. Indeed, the ratcheting-up of Kremlin propaganda is meant, more than anything, to reassure Russians that Putin’s leadership is worthy of their continued support. Such peans to the people would be unnecessary in a classic, run-of-the-mill dictatorship.

Consequently, political scientists are at odds with how to describe Putin’s Russia. Some call it a “competitive authoritarian” regime, where democratic institutions and procedures simply provide a facade of legitimacy for the dictatorship. Others label it an “information autocracy,” in which the powers of state-run media are marshaled to build a public image of Putin as a competent leader, deserving of political support, and it works to generate the popular support he needs. What these different perspectives have in common is what Peskov said: that Putin’s political sovereignty ultimately lies with the Russian people, however manipulated or misinformed they might be.

While such neither/nor hybrid regimes confound our neat typologies of a world of democracies versus autocracies, they tend to be both widespread and surprisingly durable. Indeed, the litany of premature eulogies for the Putin regime over the last decade are just additional data points of the staying power of Russia’s hybrid regime.

Indeed, the latest reporting out of Russia suggests that—rather than fracturing the Kremlin into squabbling factionalism, or estranging the Russian state from society—Putin’s war so far has had the opposite effect: consolidating and strengthening the regime.

Western hopes that the Russian people would rise up and topple Putin in a popular revolution seem further from reality today than at the start of the war. The smattering of protests across Russia during the first weeks of the war have largely fizzled out. Between the Kremlin propaganda machine in overdrive and criminalization of expressions of opposition, Putin’s approval in nationwide polls is now up to 83 percent, with 81 percent support for the “special military operation.”

What’s more, Russian elites appear to be consolidating behind Putin. Rather than diversifying internationally and finding safe havens abroad, powerful oligarchs and cosmopolitan elites—many of them under Western sanctions—now understand that they are tethered to Russia and to Putin personally. Once-feuding factions are realizing they’re all now in the same boat. Few will bolt for greener pastures in Europe or the U.S., even if they could.

In an eye-opening account by independent Russian journalist Farida Rustamova on the tribulations of Russia’s political elites since the war, she quotes a high-ranking source in a sanctioned Russian company as saying “All these personal sanctions cement the elites. Everyone who was thinking about a new life understands that, for the next 10-15 years at least, their lives are concentrated in Russia, their children will study in Russia, their families will live in Russia. These people feel offended. They will not overthrow anyone, but will build their lives here.”

Before the war, the dominant narrative of Kremlin-controlled media was that Russia is a mighty superpower—besieged on all sides by enemies and conspirators, both Western and homegrown—and only Putin could lead them. Lamentably, the coordinated international response to Putin’s bloody war has only solidified and reinforced that us-against-the-world narrative, and largely rallied the Russian people behind Putin.

In this context, the Russian response to the accusations of genocide in Ukraine have been predictable: It is all a Western “fake” meant to further impugn the dignity of Russia and its leader. Pro-Russian social media accounts have claimed that the corpses are either fake, or are actors, or were killed after the Russians left. The Russian Defense Ministry has claimed “not a single local resident has suffered any violent action” while Bucha was under Russian control. These are all claims that have been easily debunked. By parroting the official line of the Foreign Affairs Ministry that it could not have been Russia that committed such atrocities, but rather the United States staging a “provocation,” Kremlin state-run media only reinforces and retrenches the us-against-the-world narrative already widely accepted among the Russian people.

Unfortunately, revelations of massacres in Bucha and beyond—and purported stepped-up Western sanctions—are unlikely to lead to Putin’s ouster. Like everything else we’ve seen so far in this war, Putin’s brand of autocracy is more likely than not to be able to use these allegations of atrocities to further galvanize Russian public opinion against the West and further entrench Putin in power.

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