Dramatic scenes of Yegevny Prigozhin’s mad drive to Moscow shocked the world in June. Prigozhin, the leader of Wagner, a Russian private military organization, turned his guns against the government, demanding that Russian President Vladimir Putin fire his political rival, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. With a formidable domestic opponent openly defying Putin, commentators in the international media were ready to say that this was the end. The airwaves filled with early predictions of the regime’s collapse. Then, less than 24 hours later, it was over. Fast forward two months, and Prigozhin was dead, with Putin no less firmly in charge than ever. So what happened? Why is Putin so strong, and why did the predictions of his demise turn out to be hopeful thinking?
Why is Putin’s grip on power strong?
The basic answer is that Putin is strong because he is popular. Very popular.
Before Wagner’s march on Moscow, around 82% of Russians approved of Putin’s performance, according to polling by the Levada Center. Throughout his 23-year presidency, his numbers have generally remained well above 50%.
Putin is a charismatic figure. He strives to project a masculine, in-charge image. His successful military action in Crimea reinforced this perception. Russians have largely backed the president’s recent invasion of Ukraine, too.
Putin’s ability to appear confident and commanding reassured Russians after a decade of instability. The 1990s saw Russia’s Soviet empire collapse spectacularly, and its economy along with it. Older generations still harbor the resentment that the economic downturn caused. It dashed their hopes for a prosperous future. President Boris Yeltsin, infamous for his all-too-public drunken antics, was regarded more as a national embarrassment than as a hero of democracy. A series of apartment bombings in 1999, blamed on Chechen terrorists, made Russians feel unsafe in their own homes. Then, Putin took over and restored stability.
Putin’s actions generally improved living standards and reaffirmed Russian influence in the near abroad. At the same time, Putin was gradually weakening democratic institutions and basic freedoms under his leadership, but many Russians were willing to accept this trade-off in exchange for relative stability, prosperity and security.
In the minds of many Russians, the end of Putin would mean a return to the chaos of the 1990s, a shift that few are willing to accept.
Why has Putin survived threats?
While recent events have indeed cast doubt on Putin’s authority, the recent predictions of his downfall rely, in my opinion, more on subjective and wishful thinking rather than pragmatic analysis. Despite reversals in Ukraine and the open rebellion of Wagner, Putin’s hold on power remains intact.
Putin has shown the ability to recognize and neutralize threats to his regime as they appear. He has survived the political threat of anti-corruption activists, the economic threat of Western sanctions and the military threat of Wagner, coming out strong each time.
Navalny and other political challenges
During his more than two-decade rule, Putin effectively eliminated any democratic alternatives to his leadership. Opposition figures who posed external challenges to his rule have been silenced, imprisoned, or even assassinated.
Alexei Navalny was a charismatic anti-corruption activist and successful political campaigner. He spoke out against embezzlement, cronyism and corruption at the highest levels of government. Navalny garnered widespread support among the Russian population, displaying the ability to mobilize large crowds and weaponize social media effectively. He frightened Putin by taking 27% of the vote in Moscow’s mayoral election, where he ran against Putin’s ally. The result suggested that his movement was a real political challenge. Losing to Navalny in a future election became a credible possibility for Putin.
In response, Putin attacked him judicially. Navalny soon found himself facing a battery of legal challenges, repeated arrests and trials on trumped-up charges. In 2020, he was poisoned with a nerve agent in Berlin, an incident widely seen as an assassination attempt. He survived, but was arrested as soon as he returned to Russia. He remains in prison to this day.
Navalny’s story is not unique in the context of pro-democracy activists in Russia. Other figures like Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Boris Nemtsov faced similar treatment due to their outspoken criticism of Putin’s government. Khodorkovsky, once one of Russia’s wealthiest men, spent over a decade in prison. Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition leader, was assassinated in 2015 just steps away from the Kremlin.
In 2020, Putin amended the Russian constitution to allow himself to remain in power legally until 2036. While he is still technically only a democratically elected leader, his authority is absolute and his ability to overcome any legal obstacles to his authority is tried and true.
Since 2014, economic pressure has hurt Russia’s economy, but it hasn’t made the Kremlin change its stance on Ukraine or stop its aggression. Moscow began sanction-proofing its economy shortly after the Crimean annexation. It did this by reducing reliance on Western imports, saving foreign currency and boosting domestic production of goods. Putin knew that depending too much on imports and foreign capital made Russia vulnerable to external economic pressures. Although he couldn’t completely separate Russia from the West economically, he found alternative markets like China and India to make up for expected losses from sanctions.
So, Putin was prepared when the US and its allies launched a new round of sanctions following his 2022 invasion of Ukraine. While sanctions did hurt Russia’s economy, their impact is less severe due to years of preparation.
Historically, Western sanctions against smaller economies have often proven to hurt regular people more than they can produce a decided change in the target’s policies or leadership. The ultimate outcome in Moscow is likely similar. Instead of forcing leaders out, sanctions make the population more reliant on the government, leading to more authoritarianism. A little pain in the purse will not create a revolution; people don’t take to the streets until their very livelihoods are threatened. As long as there’s relative economic stability, Putin’s voter base is unlikely to turn against him.
In June, as a convoy of mercenary tanks advanced towards the Kremlin, observers predicted that the ensuing rebellion and chaos would spell the end of Putin’s government. However, the march on Moscow ran out of steam in just 24 hours. Two months later, the leader of the perilous coup, Prigozhin, met a tragic end as his plane crashed within Russia.
Although the rebellion failed in its stated objective, it did manage to sow some seeds of doubt about Putin’s unchallenged rule. But it left Putin’s position essentially intact, and with more than enough power to uproot whatever seeds had been planted. Now, Progozhin’s plane has crashed and burned in a field, while Putin still retains his throne.
The Wagner leader’s downfall sends a clear message to other potential adversaries: Putin’s hold on power remains unassailable, and any direct challenges to his leadership will be met with consequences. Like any good mafia boss, Putin knows how to tie up loose ends, and he has made sure that everyone else knows it, too.
How will Putin respond to mounting pressure in the short and medium term?
The recent missteps on the Ukrainian battlefield and the failed rebellion have undoubtedly exposed chinks in Putin’s armor, potentially opening the door for dissent within Putin’s inner circle. This has led many observers to speculate that Putin’s reign may be nearing its end. However, predictions of his imminent ousting may be overly hasty. Recent events demonstrate that Putin will not relinquish power easily and that he can make challenges to his authority extremely costly.
Those who anticipated an increase in violence and repression following the rebellion were indeed correct. As Putin strives to maintain and expand his grip on power, we can expect more targeted violence within Russia. However, the law of diminishing returns is at play here. The Kremlin will need to use even greater violence as time goes on to maintain its power. This could become a reason for his eventual downfall, as excessive repression to keep him in power might eventually provoke a public revolt against his leadership.
In the coming years, Putin is likely to face mounting pressure, both internally from his inner circle and the public, as external measures and isolation drain more of Russia’s resources. However, it’s unlikely that this pressure will lead to an immediate leadership change in the Kremlin.
In response to future challenges to his authority, Putin will likely continue to escalate repressive and security measures to suppress dissent and perceived treason undermining his rule. This will further strain US–Russia relations, leading to more condemnation and a growing divide. While Putin remains at the helm in Russia, Moscow will likely distance itself from Washington and Brussels and build closer ties with their strategic adversaries.
[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.
Support Fair Observer
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.
Will you support FO’s journalism?
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.