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What Can We Expect of Vladimir Putin When He Is Scared?

A policeman in St. Petersburg, Russia, leads a young protester away from Saturday’s public demonstration against pension reform.

If I know anything about Vladimir Putin, which I think I do, it’s that he is scared right now. If he is scared, then he is angry, too. Three things scare Putin: large protests, especially when thousands of people take to the streets without official permission; the messiness of the democratic process, especially elections; and the loss of his own popularity. All three have been in evidence recently.

Putin’s numbers have been dropping precipitously in the past couple of months. Over the summer, even Kremlin-controlled polling agencies reported that Putin’s approval rating had dropped into the sixtieth percentile, after staying in the eighties for more than four years following the triumphant Russian annexation of Crimea. He is still nominally more popular than most democratically elected leaders can count on being in a functioning liberal democracy. But, for a man who controls the media, he is becoming somewhat unpopular.

On Sunday, a number of Russian towns and regions held elections. Back during his first two Presidential terms, from 2000 to 2008, Putin rid the country of most of its elections: the upper house of parliament became an appointed body, gubernatorial elections were cancelled altogether, and direct elections to the lower chamber of parliament were replaced with voting for party lists. Following the mass protests of 2011-12, the Kremlin made limited concessions, restoring direct district-based elections to the lower house of parliament and some gubernatorial elections. Over the weekend, Russians cast their votes in twenty-two gubernatorial elections, seven special elections to fill seats in the lower house of the federal parliament, and a number of elections for city and regional legislatures. After nineteen years of Putinism, during which power has been concentrated in the federal executive branch, none of these elections can have measurable policy consequences, but they serve as a barometer of the popular mood. In four regions, members of the ruling United Russia party failed to get fifty per cent of the vote and will face runoff elections. This is not exactly a trouncing—in the end, Kremlin-approved candidates are virtually guaranteed all of the ostensibly contested seats—but it is a significant sign of dissatisfaction. All over the country, people voted for candidates who had not had access to the media—candidates they probably knew nothing about—in an apparent expression of protest.

On Election Day, Putin’s first and possibly greatest fear materialized: tens of thousands of protesters came out all over Russia. The demonstrations were called by Alexei Navalny, the one prominent anti-Putin activist who remains in the country, alive and more or less free, though the regime has taken to locking him up for thirty days at a time; during the protests, he was once again behind bars. Navalny is best known as an anti-corruption crusader, but this weekend’s protests focussed on pension reform. The government plans to raise the retirement age by five years, to sixty for women and sixty-five for men. “Retirement age” has little to do with actual retirement; rather, it refers to the age at which a set of monetary and nonmonetary benefits (such as free public transport) kick in, most of them irrespective of whether the recipients continue to work for wages. The supplemental income is essential for millions of older working poor. In a recent speech, Putin reluctantly addressed the subject of pension reform and noted that one in seven Russians lives below the defined poverty line. In reality, though, the number of people who depend on or look forward to the pension income far exceeds those who officially live in poverty.

According to OVD-Info, a Russian group that monitors police behavior at protests, 1,195 people were detained in thirty-eight cities on Sunday, more than half of them in St. Petersburg. Most were released the same day. The journalists’ union has said that at least seventeen reporters were detained and/or beaten; one young woman journalist in St. Petersburg suffered a concussion. Photographs, journalistic reports, and even the lists of the detained point to an incongruous fact about the protests: many, possibly most, of those who came out against pension reform were young people, and even children. A picture of a nine-year-old boy whose arms are being held behind his back by a policeman has gone viral.

There may be a couple of explanations for the youthfulness of the protests. It’s possible that the young people came out on behalf of their parents and grandparents. It’s also possible that high-school and college-age people, who have been the faces of Russian protest for the past couple of years, are so fed up with the way things work in Russia that they will respond to any call to protest, or at least to any call issued by Navalny. In other words, the explanation lies in solidarity or extreme disaffection, or both. Either way, it seems, a political force has emerged in Russia that is amorphous and mutable but reliable in its protest. This is Putin’s worst nightmare.

Why does Putin find himself in this predicament? During his first two terms as President, he enjoyed extreme economic luck: thanks to skyrocketing oil prices, Russia was more prosperous than ever in its history. This kept the population satisfied and distracted, and when a crisis did arise, as it did the last time the government attempted pension reform, in 2005, the Kremlin was able to pour money on the fire. Now this is no longer an option: the Russian government has used up its currency reserves, which is part of the impetus for the current attempt at pension reform.

Putin’s other tool of distraction has been war. Less than a year after taking office for the third time, in 2012, he launched a war with Ukraine, occupying Crimea. This fostered a sense of triumph and national unity that kept his popularity safely in the stratosphere for four years. Meanwhile, though, the slowing economy, stagnating oil prices, and Western sanctions drove increasing numbers of Russians into poverty. This created worry that bubbled just under the surface, until pension reform turned it into full-blown anxiety. A poll by the independent Levada Center shows that Russians are more worried than they used to be about almost everything, from rising inequality to environmental pollution and decaying morals. There is no war to take their minds off their concerns. (As much as Russian television has tried to play Syria as a patriotic Russian effort, it seems too far away to hold people’s attention.)

Some Western policy analysts have been anticipating this moment for years. Economic and social dissatisfaction, the theory goes, will lead to the downfall of the regime. But there is little reason for this kind of optimism. When Putin is scared, which he undoubtedly is now, he reacts by attacking. This is a personality trait that he has owned in his autobiographical storytelling, and one that he exhibited in 2012, when, faced with mass protests, he launched a crackdown that created a population of political prisoners in Russia. There is nothing to stop him from doubling down now: elections are a fraud, the courts do the Kremlin’s bidding, and the protesters are defenseless against his regime’s batons.

But Putin also loves to be loved. The suppression of dissent in Russia will probably intensify in the wake of last weekend’s protests, but that will not satisfy him fully. It may secure his power, but it will not repair his numbers. Only war can do that. All he needs is a worthy enemy, and a fitting propaganda campaign, to take people’s minds off their worries and make them feel a part of something great. Expect Russia’s neighbors, once again, to pay for the Kremlin’s instability.


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