By David K. Shipler
We don’t know. That’s the honest answer.
In the bad old days of the Soviet Union, Kremlinologists could estimate the pecking order of the grisly men (almost always men) who made up the governing Politburo by observing how they lined up atop Red Square’s Lenin mausoleum for the parade on November 7, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Or their positions as they walked into a ceremonial hall. Or whose name adorned one or another declaration. Physical proximity to the General Secretary of the Communist Party was a clue to influence and a possible successor—and was watched closely by scholars, diplomats, and journalists.
Inner politics was encrypted then. Kremlinology was like a puzzle with only a few visible pieces. But looking back, the Soviet Kremlin seems less opaque than Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin today. There are no puzzle pieces now, only misfits or blanks filled by deduction, guesswork, and wishful thinking.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Putin’s political standing at home has been an obsession in the West, where conventional wisdom has ricocheted back and forth. At first, he was a formidable foe, a canny calculator of military and diplomatic maneuvers. Then, when his army stalled in the face of Ukrainian resistance, he became a monstrous blunderer whose humiliation would surely bring him down.
But as he wielded his dictatorial powers to obliterate the remaining freedoms Russians had gained since the Soviet collapse in 1991, Putin was the ruthless strongman, unconquerable in the moment. As the war ground into a bloody stalemate, however, and criticisms of the military escalated from the right, his pedestal showed cracks.
Then, he was pronounced weakened and vulnerable when units of Wagner, the private militia, slipped from under his thumb and launched an abortive mutiny by marching toward Moscow. “How Revolt Undermines Putin’s Grip,” said the lead New York Times headline on June 25. The appraisal flipped two months later, after the (presumably non-accidental) plane crash that killed Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. The lead Times story declared: “Mutineer Dead, Putin Projects Image of Might.”
So, which is it? A Russian president in peril or in command?
It could be both. Dictatorships rarely erode gradually. They are brittle, so they break without bending. They are invincible until suddenly they are not.
Putin’s case is hard to judge partly because of his one-man rule. No formal political structure exists either to support him, undermine him, or groom a successor and provide a transition. At least the Soviet Communist Party ruled through a Politburo whose head, the General Secretary, operated in the context of political consensus. Even the authoritarian structure—in the years after Stalin—was governed by broader interests than those of a single man.
Kremlin politics played out of sight, for the most part, bursting into the open only on occasion. Nikita Khruschev was ousted as Soviet leader by the Politburo (then called the Presidium) in 1964. Dmitri Polyansky was kicked off the Politburo in 1976 after catastrophic failures in agriculture, his portfolio. There was no announcement, of course; Polyansky’s name was merely omitted from the list of the new Politburo read to a Communist Party Congress.
Today, though, Putin answers to no official body. Who keeps him in power? The military? The FSB secret police? And who checks his authority? What restrains him, if anything? Does anyone hold him to account? Who would oust him? Who would choose his successor?
“Putin has created, in effect, his own protective army and praetorian guard, which are loyal to him,” said Kenneth Yalowitz, former US ambassador to Belarus and Georgia. “As long as that does not change, his position seems strong.”
The other uncertainties in calculating Putin’s power are the war and the economy, a military adventure marred by volatility and an economy hobbled by Western sanctions. Together they might foster instability on high, but the opposite down below: an iron fist that suppresses dissent and purges disloyalty. So, Putin acts strong, perhaps because he feels weak.
This anxiety at the top and control at the bottom is a chronic symptom of Russian paranoia, from the communist period onward. It’s a paradox that fuels oppression. The pinnacle of power feels like an unsteady perch.
It was assumed, when Putin did not immediately move against Prigozhin after the half-baked mutiny, that the Russian president had lost his aura of invincibility, and that whatever sharks swam in the political class sensed blood in the water.
But it’s possible that instead of weakening Putin, the Wagner maneuver strengthened his hand for a high-level crackdown to match the low-level crackdown he has been executing against ordinary citizens. With a sweep of his hand, he has turned the clock back to before the late Soviet period. In the 1970s and 80s, it took more persistent and vociferous recalcitrance to get arrested that it does today, when mild dissent can land you in prison. On social media, at workplaces, in classrooms, people are afraid to question the war—or even to say the word “war.”
While the anti-war whispers have been stifled, the loud, pro-war dissent on the right has enjoyed immunity from the oppression. Pro-military bloggers have freely condemned the army’s performance, and Prigozhin was vitriolic in his criticisms. His mutinous caper might have given Putin the opportunity to put the brakes on the right as well.
Since it’s widely believed that Putin ordered the efficient disposition of Prigozhin and his top lieutenants who were on the downed plane, the Russian leader got what any dictator needs: a fearsome posture intolerant of any self-enhancing figure who seeks independent influence. It didn’t matter that Prigozhin aimed his mutinous maneuver not at Putin but at the defense minister and the chief of staff, both blamed for failures in Ukraine. Putin called it treason nonetheless.
Then he waited two months while Prigozhin traveled around freely. We can speculate about the pause in retribution. Perhaps Putin had to get his own military and secret police in line, to continue bringing most Wagner troops into the regular army, to diminish the chance of rebellion. In any event, just before the plane went down, he sidelined a general who had cozied up to the Wagner militia, and whose military prowess failed to protect him.
The trouble for Putin is the war, obviously. He is stuck with it. He has rationalized the assault on Ukraine with such sweeping appeals to mystical Russian history and national destiny that retreat or compromise would be taken as unfaithful to his country’s cause—and his own.
So, the war’s fate is to be Putin’s fate. Therefore, he has every motivation to continue, certainly past the 2024 American election in case his admirer Donald Trump wins the White House and makes good on his campaign pledge to abandon Ukraine. Like it or not, a vote next year will be a vote for or against Putin—look for intensive Russian interference in the campaign. If Trump wins and cuts aid, NATO will fracture and Ukraine’s formidable resistance will wither over time.
Another factor in Putin’s strength and longevity is the level of popular discontent in Russia. That is hard to measure in a semi-closed society. Polls are suspect, because people give safe answers. Correspondents experienced in Russia try to take the temperature of the public, but citizens are circumspect, and journalists who get to close to the pulse become targets. Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, fluent in Russian and deeply conversant with Russian society, has been in jail since March on trumped-up charges of espionage. Most Western correspondents now try to cover the country from outside.
During Russia’s fruitless war in Afghanistan, popular resentment bubbled up, driven by relatives whose sons and grandsons and brothers and husbands were coming back in body bags. The reformist Mikhail Gorbachev was propelled to power in part by disaffection over that failed foreign adventure.
“Putin is relying on the very strong Russian propensity to support the leader in time of war even if they have doubts about him. This is particularly true in the villages,” said Yalowitz, the former ambassador who knows Russia well from four years as a diplomat in Moscow. Still, he added, “The economic sanctions are doing serious damage to the Russian economy, and that plus the brain drain will cost Russia for years to come.” That could be a source of weakness for Putin.
Even if discontent over the current war grew enough to overcome the jingoistic propaganda that now saturates schools and media, the Russian non-democracy has no mechanism to translate citizens’ attitudes into political policy. The lines of cause-and-effect are blurred and indirect. The change of mind has to happen at the top, inside the enigma of Kremlin politics, which could very well produce a post-Putin regime even more hawkish and reckless.
How strong is Putin, and what will come after? We don't know. That's the honest answer.