On May 7, Vladimir Putin was inaugurated for his fourth six-year term as President of Russia. He gained more than 76 percent of the vote and—despite concerns over the legitimacy of the vote—does enjoy high levels of support from the Russian population.
But is Putin’s grip on power as ironclad as it seems? What about protests in the streets, underlying economic concerns, or Putin’s relationship with the country’s wealthy oligarchs? The Cipher Brief’s Brian Garrett-Glaser spoke with Steve Hall, a former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, for a deeper dive on what truly constitutes a threat to Putin’s power—and what doesn’t.
Vladimir Putin is now entering his fourth term as president of Russia. How secure is his position as Russia’s indisputable leader, and what might threaten it?
I think it’s a complicated situation in one sense, especially if you look at it from a Western approach, which I think all of us fall prey to: what about the protests surrounding Putin’s most recent inauguration; what about the declining economy—although oil prices have rebounded a bit, which is what they base a lot of their economy on.
But the temptation is to sort of do an American or a Western political analysis as to what’s going on, and I think that one of the significant flaws with that is that Putin, like most of his Chekist predecessors, really doesn’t hesitate much when it comes to violently putting down and repressing political opposition, as well as sending violent and dark messages to those who would oppose him. All you have to do is look back and see the—I believe literally—hundreds of Russian journalists who have been killed because they expressed concerns, as well as opposition figures such as Boris Nemtsov who were either murdered or put in jail because they crossed over that delicate line and the Kremlin decided they had gone too far.
It would be a misunderstanding on the part of the West and the United States to think that Putin wouldn’t use all the security services at his disposal to put down—or attempt to put down—whatever he saw threatening his regime.
So, you’re saying that to some degree, all this talk of economic problems and internal resistance threatening Putin’s grip on power is a fallacy. Is there any truth to it?
I believe that Putin has reached an unspoken deal with the Russian people, and also to a certain extent with the oligarchs, who could be much more of a threat to him than a march on the streets. Basically, Putin has told the Russian people: you sacrifice some of what is considered “personal liberty” in the west—freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, etc—and in return, I will basically make Russia great again. I will make Russia a great power.
To the extent that Putin and his security services do things like murder people overseas, like the Sergei Skripal attempts or Alexander Litvenenko—and to the extent that the West therefore isolates, or attempts to isolate Russia and Putin—that makes it difficult for him to reestablish Russia as a great power, as part of his end of the pact. So if he continues to do things like invade Ukraine and annex places like Crimea, he’s going to become more and more isolated, which is going to make it harder for him to make Russia great again. That could eventually be something that could break his pact that he has with the Russian people, and at that point perhaps the oligarchs and the Russians who take to the streets might have a greater impact in dislodging the Putin regime.
So it’s the blowback from actions like the Skripal poisonings and the annexation of Crimea that damages Putin’s relationship with the people and the oligarchs?
Well—interestingly, there is a bit of a schizophrenia here. While on the one hand, these types of actions have resulted in sanctions and other isolating responses from the West, there is a bit of a “bully” syndrome, where Putin can stand up and flex his arms and everyone kind of knows, Skripal was a traitor and look what happened to him. And these guys like Boris Nemtsov, they’re all paid by the CIA, and regime change, color revolutions…
So, Putin can play that theme a bit and say that Russia is strong by doing things like trying to kill Skripal and his daughter and annexing Crimea. Those are strongman things. But in the long run, if these things do result in more isolation for Russia and Putin, then I think he is more vulnerable.
Can you give any examples of something that Putin has done on the path to “make Russia great again” that have not resulted in greater isolation for Russia?
It’s complicated because we have to look at it from a non-Western approach, but we also have to recognize that schizophrenia.
First, in a nutshell, let’s talk about Crimea. There’s a lot of chest-pounding and look what Russia did, we regained part of what really should have been Russia all along. There’s a whole bunch of surging populism—and probably popularity for Putin—that goes along with it. But considering the longer-term impacts (sanctions and the like), arguably that move didn’t work out particularly well economically for either Crimea or Russia. So that’s an example of something Putin has done that did have a negative impact.
But I think you see a pattern of activity internationally where Russia will attempt to assert itself into situations which give it a seat at the big-boy international geopolitics table. North Korea is a good example. Although Russia does have some connectivity economically and otherwise to North Korea, it’s actually very limited. Yet as recently as just a couple of days ago, the Russians said they stand ready to help with these delicate negotiations on the Korean peninsula. It’s ludicrous, really, in the short term; there is really no reason Russia should play a role unless it were a great power.
So, I think Putin will continue to look internationally to places where the knee-jerk reaction in the West is to say, Russia’s a significant power, of course they should have a seat at the table. They love that. And there really isn’t any direct reason for Russian involvement in a whole bunch of things Russia will try to stick its nose in.
And that involvement doesn’t really result in blowback for Russia.
No, and the problem is it’s almost always antithetical to the interests of the United States, and certainly the West writ large. Unless you’re going to consider Vladimir Putin to be the “first among equals” in rogue states—the guy who can reach out to North Korea or Iran—I really can’t understand why it is necessary, for example, to have Russia involved in the North Korea negotiations.
Let’s talk more about the Russian oligarchs, who you mentioned could pose more of a realistic threat to Putin than marches on the streets. How have his actions over the past few years—and the resulting blowback and sanctions—affected Putin’s relationship with the oligarchs? Is it likely that targeted sanctions implemented by the West would result in actually creating more of a rift between them and Putin?
First and foremost, the relationship between the oligarchs and Putin is one of the most difficult veils to try to penetrate in terms of what is actually going on. And I believe that to be true not just for the United States and the Western intelligence services, who may be trying to figure out what is going on, but it’s also very opaque behind the veil even amongst the oligarchs. That’s the way Putin has set it up; indeed, that’s the way it’s worked in Russia for hundreds, if not thousands of years, back to the Boyars who were all competing for the czars’ attention.
I think there’s a lot of that same dynamic playing out where Putin plays one oligarch off the other. You can see this a little bit with Oleg Deripaska, where there was a time where Putin spoke very publically and very negatively to Deripaska during a factory tour, and then there have been other times where Putin has said he’s a great guy. So I think Putin specifically tries to keep the oligarchs going at each other because that’s part of the power process.
But more pointedly to your question, if the West and the United States were able to have some sort of significant economic negative impact on the oligarchs…That might not be as easy as it sounds, but you can imagine a situation where some of these targeted sanctions and other measures start to really impact either the oligarchs financial worth, or their ability to actually use the money that they’ve accumulated, meaning foreign travel and banking abroad. But if that were ever able to be done effectively, I believe that there would be at least preconditions set for the oligarchs to think, What’s the root of all of our problems—what’s the common denominator? It seems to be Putin.
Again, there are a lot of defensive mechanisms that Putin has put in place to defend against that, but I actually think that’s a much graver possibility for Putin than uprisings in the streets of Moscow or St. Petersburg.
Any concluding thoughts?
I think the overall comment I would add is that if you were a betting person faced with the question, Is Vladimir Putin going to be able to serve out this final six-year term—if it is his last term? Is he going to make it through? I think most betting people would say yes. He’s done it before, he understands the levers of power, the Russian people understand what he’s all about. Putin continues to be very popular. He controls what the Russian people see or hear for the most part via television, which is where most Russians get their news—not the internet or these other outlets. So, given the fact that he’s got such good control over most of the levers of power and information, I don’t really foresee a significant or serious threat to Putin, certainly in the next year or two, and probably for the remainder of his term.