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Taking political risk, Putin seems to be bypassing advisers on Ukraine

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Taking political risk, Putin seems to be bypassing advisers on Ukraine

Does Russian President Vladimir V. Putin have the support he needs at home to wage a costly war in Ukraine?

This may seem like a strange question. After all, Mr. Putin has already invaded Ukraine, suggesting he has confidence in its resources. And his public image is that of a strong man with the power to direct the Russian state as he pleases.

But no leader can rule alone. And a series of events this week, including Russia blocking access to Facebook and censoring news about the war in Ukraine, raise questions about how much political support Mr Putin was able to garner during the conflict. Will be

A televised meeting of Russia’s Security Council on Monday showed early signs of something going wrong. Mr Putin expected all assembled officials to unquestioningly advise them to recognize the independence of Russian-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine – a public display of elite support for the war, just days before it began.

But Sergei Naryshkin mispronounced his line.

When Mr. Putin asked him about recognizing the separatists’ claims, Mr. Naryshkin, the director of foreign intelligence, grumbled uncomfortably. He then went so far as to say that he thought Russia should recognize the individual republics as “part of Russia”. Mr Putin said impatiently that Mr Naryshkin should “speak clearly,” then dismissively added that the annex was “not under discussion.”

The moment seemed so important because all authoritarian leaders rule by coalitions, even though, like Mr. Putin, they are often seen holding power on their own.

The specifics of a power-sharing alliance varied by country, with some leaders supported by the military, and others by wealthy business leaders or other elites. But Mr. Putin’s coalition is mainly made up of “siloviki”, a group of officials who entered politics after serving in the KGB or other security services, and who now serve in Russia’s intelligence services, the military and other ministries. play an important role.

“That’s the system that brought them to power, and that’s the system they’ve relied on to consolidate their power,” said Maria Popova, a political scientist at McGill University in Canada. Study of Russian and Ukrainian politics.

Over the decades, Mr. Putin has proven himself to be highly adept at maintaining his ties with the elite. And the structure of Mr. Putin’s ruling coalition is an advantage for him, Dr. de Bruin said.

“Where political power is more centralized in an individual ruler – as in Russia under Putin – holding that leader accountable can be somewhat difficult for the elite,” she said.

But the elite still matters. And the apparent confusion of Putin’s advisers during Monday’s meeting, which included exchanges with Mr Naryshkin, gave the impression that the Russian president has kept this important grouping away from his plans.

Dr. Popova, “he seemed to be humiliating some of these people,” said Dr. Popova, especially the way she spoke to Mr. Naryshkin, a prominent Silovic who at the same time served as Mr. Putin in the KGB. served as.

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Their conversation certainly could have been a fluke resulting from the tensions of this time. And it is noteworthy that all of Putin’s advisers, including Mr Naryshkin, offered their public support on Monday for the president’s decision to finally recognize separatist territories.

But the seating arrangements of Mr Putin’s recent meetings, in which he has kept himself at a literal distance from his advisers, convey an image that he stands apart from everyone, including his elite coalition. This may be because he wanted to avoid catching the coronavirus, which was reportedly a significant fear for the Russian leader. But some observers, Dr. Popova said, believe Mr. Putin’s intention was to convey the impression that he is king, and that his advisers are merely courtiers – a message they may not appreciate.

And then there is the matter of the Russian public. Although public opinion in Russia is not as powerful as it would be in a democracy, Mr. Putin’s high level of public support has long been a source of political power and leverage for him. No other politician or member of his inner circle has a public reputation even close to him.

But public anger over the war can undermine that advantage, and even become a political liability. The war would affect the Russian economy. And it has already been a blow to Mr. Putin’s public image as a careful and pragmatic steward of Russian interests.

There was little public support for the war in Ukraine even before the casualties increased. A long-running academic poll in December found that only 8 percent of Russians supported a military conflict against Ukraine, and only 9 percent thought Russia should arm Ukrainian separatists. For Mr. Putin, this is a huge enthusiasm gap that has to be bridged.

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Mr Putin’s actions this week show he is concerned about the consequences of public anger. On Thursday and Friday, police arrested hundreds of people who turned out to protest the war in cities across Russia. On Saturday, the government limited access to Facebook and other media sites for the apparent offense of posting stories “in which the operation is being called an attack, an invasion or a declaration of war.”

Which brings us to the stakes for Mr Putin to maintain his relationship with his inner circle: “Because of the resources and access to them, the elite are the biggest threat to authoritarian leaders,” said Erica De Bruin, College of a political scientist in Hamilton and author of a recent book on the coup. “Thus it is important to retain the support of the elite in order to remain in power.”

And wars often pose a particular threat to leaders’ relations with the elite. Dr De Bruyne said, “The relations between authoritarian rulers and their elite supporters can be strained when dictators wage war abroad – especially where elites mislead conflict.”

Public anger at the war can also increase the perception of the elite that a leader is no longer an effective defender of their interests. And if the United States and Europe manage to impose effective sanctions on members of Mr Putin’s elite coalition, the war could be costly for him personally, as well as risky for Russia. (Some members of that inner circle, including Mr. Naryshkin, had already been on the US Treasury blacklist for years, so it is unclear what effect the new sanctions might have on their finances.)

This does not mean that Mr Putin’s aides will hit back at him because he was rude to one of them on television, or that public anger will immediately undermine his presidency.

But there is still reason to pay attention to signs of tension within Mr Putin’s coalition. Elite discontent could affect its response to targeted sanctions, for example, or it could face constraints on resources for conflict in Ukraine. It can also affect whether it has the political capital to stay on course if domestic protests escalate.

And perhaps, if things go awry, it could mean even more significant consequences for Mr. Putin’s presidency.

“Two-thirds of authoritarian leaders are removed by their own allies,” Dr Popova said. “If he screws up too much, if he tries to actually increase his power at the expense of the ruling authoritarian coalition, he is putting his position at risk.”

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