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By Layne Meyer
“Regimes that rule by fear, live in fear,” declared The Economist this week in response to mounting pressure against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nothing describes his perilous situation better.
Despite securing power until 2036 via a sham constitutional referendum, Putin’s reign is as fragile as ever, challenged by forces both within and beyond Russia’s borders. At home, the country has been rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic. Russia’s GDP is projected to fall by 6 percent this year, a crushing blow to an economy that was already ravaged by stubbornly low oil prices and employment is on a steep decline.
This devastation has been compounded by growing anti-Kremlin protests in the country’s Far East. They first started last month in the Siberian city of Khabarovsk, where tens of thousands took to the streets to protest the arrest of the city’s elected governor. Calls for the governor’s return quickly gave way to chants of “Putin resign” and “Down with the czar,” and demonstrations have persisted for weeks. Meanwhile, in neighboring Belarus, Putin’s ally Alexander Lukashenko has been besieged by massive peaceful protests, as citizens have marched in Belarusian cities in response to his blatant election manipulation. Combined, all of these developments pose a serious threat to Vladimir Putin and his regime.
Then came Putin’s response. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who had been organizing against Putin in upcoming regional elections, was poisoned. Prominent anti-corruption activist Yegor Zhukov was savagely beaten. And Russian security forces have been prepared to intervene in Belarus at a moment’s notice.
These moves, while concerning, do not reflect a leader firmly in control, but rather a despot struggling to tame his surroundings. Economic devastation, domestic uprisings, and foreign instability have created a full-blown crisis for Putin, and he can no longer hide behind his traditional mix of foreign conquests and Soviet nostalgia. Now backed into a corner, he has returned to brutal repression of adversaries to mask his deep vulnerabilities. Navalny and Zhukov, whose activities were grudgingly tolerated by the Kremlin for years, were far from the first to experience this effect – and they will not be the last.
In response, the United States and its European allies should recognize this dynamic and proceed with caution. They have rightly condemned repression against peaceful protestors and declared their support for a peaceful democratic transition in Belarus, but further provocation could play to Putin’s advantage. He could claim that his growing opposition is directly backed by foreign enemies, as he has done in the past, and thereby seek to bolster his insecurity with fierce nationalist appeals. Thus, the best course of action for Washington and Brussels is to continue calling out Putin’s abuses from afar and, at most, consider targeted sanctions against officials responsible for abuses against protestors. Three Baltic countries have already taken this step in response to the brutal repression of Belarusian protestors and the European Union (EU) is preparing to do the same.
But the most powerful weapon against Vladimir Putin is ultimately the Russian people, who will fight the Kremlin through peaceful protest and at the ballot box. Only they have the power to make a dictator live in fear for years to come.