Alexei Bayer: Are Putin’s days numbered?
President Joe Biden will have his hands full with domestic problems, the massive extent of which is only now starting to become apparent. But Biden’s foreign policy team will also have pressing matters to deal with — such as newly assertive and highly self-confident China, nuclear North Korea, uranium-enriching Iran, and fail-state Venezuela, to name but a few of them.
This leaves no room for Russia. Indeed, the administration’s newly appointed foreign policy officials in their early discussions of Washington’s international priorities only mentioned Russia in terms of arms control. No Obama-style reset is being discussed — correctly in my view, given the Putin regime’s track record.
At the same time, a tougher stance against Moscow is also unlikely, in light of the immediate challenges America is facing at home and abroad. However, recent events suggest that a regime change in Moscow may be brewing—or at least some kind of power struggle is taking place within the ruling Kremlin clique.
It is not certain that the next regime, run by Putin’s successors, will be less repressive at home or less aggressive abroad. Nevertheless, Washington should still focus on helping topple Putin, and this can be done with a series of sanctions — or even a threat of sanctions directed against key players in Putin’s entourage.
Sure, previous US sanctions were not particularly effective. But they were imposed while the regime was strong and fully in control, and their purpose was to force it to change policy, which didn’t work. Now the situation is changing, it is much more fluid, and tighter and more precisely targeted international sanctions could have a stronger impact.
This will also help Ukraine since the road to peace in the east and to the return of Crimea currently runs through Moscow.
Alexei Navalny’s return to Moscow, the release of his Anti-Corruption Fund’s investigation into Putin’s lavish Black Sea palace and protests in so many cities across the country suggest that Putin’s two decades of misgovernment are coming to an end.
Of course, Putin won’t be toppled by street protests or a revolution from below. Far from it: witness the nationwide protests and strikes in Belarus against that country’s own president-for-life. The only way the regime in Russia is going to change is by some form of a palace coup. The current events in Russia do not yet point to the existence of any such plot in the corridors of power, but they are certainly strange enough to indicate that something is brewing.
Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in 2015 within sight of the Kremlin because he had publicly called Putin crazy, using an obscene formulation in Russian. Nemtsov thus dissed Putin, humiliated him, and, according to the mafia honor code by which the Russian government aspires to live, he had to pay.
Navalny’s sleek, witty, deadly accurate videos exposing mind-boggling corruption within the Russian government would have earned him a bullet in the back in a country run by graduates of the Soviet secret police and outright thugs. People who have done far less were murdered or sent away to the labor camp with lengthy sentences, convicted on trumped-up charges ranging from treason to pedophilia. Navalny was also attacked, and his associates ended up in jail, but the authorities handled him with kids gloves. Most importantly, he managed to survive.
Until recently, even as he poured vitriol on Putin’s closest entourage, Navalny refrained from attacking Putin, which his detractors used as an indication that he was “Putin’s project.”
I also thought at one time that Putin was using Navalny’s exposés to bolster the loyalty of his associates. Since everything about their corruption was widely known and posted on YouTube, they had a vital stake in maintaining Putin in power.
It all changed a couple of years ago when a group of professional killers began shadowing Navalny with a clear purpose of quietly poisoning him. Since the attempted — and apparently badly botched — poisoning, Navalny’s attacks on Putin became direct and personal — culminating in the video about Putin’s palace on which the Russian president is dissed in no uncertain terms. To use Russian prison slang, Navalny put Putin way down, the equivalent of dunking him into the slop pail in the prison cell.
With all the respect due to his political skills and bravery, Navalny is a unique figure in all of Russian history. Even though the Russian government is always represented by an autocratic leader who is at times an absolutist monarch or even a tyrant like Joseph Stalin, it is, in reality, an institution that shapes the monarch in a certain way. The Russian government is a collective, invariably hostile to the individual. The individual who tries to stand up to it is always murdered, imprisoned, sent out of the country, crushed, utterly destroyed. Alexander Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman is a poem about the unequal struggle between the power of the Russian state and the individual. For Navalny as an individual to take on this state and survive goes against at least half a millennium of Russian history.
This is why I believe that Navalny is in some ways connected to the Russian state. His survival in the hands of professional killers may have been a miracle, but his return to Russia was suicide — unless he knew something the rest of the world didn’t, in which case it was a calculated risk. And the fact that he was allowed to return, rather than had his passport annulled, was another strange link in a concatenation of strange events in which he has been a protagonist.
Russia has a Byzantine, opaque political system. It is a mafia state and its running takes place in deep shadows. The message from those shadows, however, is that Putin’s throne is tottering. It may be a false impression or else Putin’s famous “stability” could still carry the day, but developments in Russia should be watched closely in Washington and other world capitals.