Putin faces ‘most precarious moment’ of his decades in power, Russian expert says

  • Putin is facing the “most precarious moment” of his tenure in power, Angela Stent told Insider.
  • Stent, a leading Russian expert, said Putin’s grip on power had slipped due to Russia’s growing failures in Ukraine.
  • The Russian military appears “incompetent”, Stent said, and the situation “looks bad” for Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ruled his country with an iron fist for more than two decades, brutally suppressing dissent while consolidating his control over the levers of power in Russia. Those who opposed the Russian leader often landed behind bars or were killed. But Russia’s growing failures in Ukraine have presented new challenges to Putin’s rule.

Angela Stent, a leading Russian expert who served in the State Department’s Bureau of Policy Planning from 1999 to 2001 and as National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia in the National Intelligence Council from 2004 in 2006, told Insider that “his grip on power is clearly not as strong as it was on February 23,” the day before Putin launched the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by the Russia.

The war did not go Putin’s way. The Pentagon said in August that Russian casualties could reach 80,000, and that number has likely increased in recent months. In an effort to address Russia’s labor issues, Putin recently announced a partial military mobilization, as well as various stop-loss measures, but things are not looking good. There was local resistance to the project and tens of thousands of Russians fled the country.

Putin also announced the annexation of four Ukrainian regions last week, despite Russia not fully controlling or occupying those regions. Since then, Ukrainian forces have retaken territory in these areas. Recent reports suggest that even members of Putin’s inner circle have begun to openly criticize the botched invasionan action that can be dangerous and even deadly.

The Russian military appears “incompetent”, Stent said, and the situation “looks bad” for Putin. “This is definitely the most precarious moment” of Putin’s 22 years in power, she said, adding that what is happening is entirely “self-inflicted”.

“He didn’t have to come in and invade Ukraine in February, but he obviously decided it was the right time to do it,” said Stent, now a professor at Georgetown and a senior research fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Even if the war didn’t go as planned for the Russian leader, that doesn’t necessarily mean Putin’s downfall is imminent. “He still projects the image of someone who is confident in himself,” Stent said, pointing to Putin’s “fiery” rhetoric about annexations.

And there has been no mass public uprising against Putin, showing how effective his efforts to stifle dissent have been. Putin’s most prominent critic, Alexey Navalny, is jailed on charges widely decried as politically motivated. Protesting the war could mean jail time for some Russians, and Putin signed a vague law criminalizing spreading so-called “fake news” about the military soon after the invasion began.

“The problem is that Putin created the system with growing repression,” Stent said, “It’s a huge deterrent to protest.”

“There is not a single individual or even a small group of individuals who would mobilize people,” she added, “In Russia, if you want change, it has to happen in Moscow and probably in St. Petersburg, and you just didn’t see the will to galvanize people.”

Stent also said the OPEC+ alliance’s recent decision to drastically cut oil production at a time when Russia’s war in Ukraine is causing an energy crisis seems to indicate Putin’s continued geopolitical influence. The Saudis and other coalition members “essentially support Putin’s war effort”, Stent said. “Even though its situation does not look good, there are a large number of countries in the world that still support Russia.”

But there are also signs that countries like India and China, which tend to side with Moscow on the world stage but have not taken an openly supportive stance on invading Ukraine by Russia, are “suspicious” of what Putin is doing, Stent said.

Last month, Putin acknowledged that the two countries had concerns about the war in Ukraine as he met Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a summit in Uzbekistan. Modi slammed the conflict directly in Putin’s face, saying, “Today’s era is not an era of war, and I told you about it on the phone.”

Putin’s repeated nuclear threats since the start of the war likely “mitigate” the possibility that these countries would lend unreserved support to Russia’s war in Ukraine, Stent said.

“Nuclear threats do not help Putin”

A Russian nuclear missile is seen during a parade in Moscow.

A Russian nuclear missile rolls along Red Square during the military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi defeat on June 24, 2020 in Moscow, Russia.

Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

As Russia struggles in Ukraine and Putin faces perhaps the worst predicament of his time in power, many Russia leaders, officials, observers and military experts in Ukraine and in the West have expressed concerns that the Russian leader may resort to the use of nuclear weapons.

In late September, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the United States had communicated privately to Russia that there would be “catastrophic consequences” if nuclear weapons are used.

A number of analysts have suggested that Putin’s nuclear threats are largely a bluff designed to intimidate the West away from its continued support for Kyiv. The United States has provided Ukraine with billions in security aid, including weapons that have played a key role on the battlefield.

If that’s Putin’s goal, it doesn’t work, Stent said, adding that “nuclear threats don’t help Putin vis-à-vis the West.”

Putin’s nuclear rhetoric should be taken “seriously”, she said, but there was “an exaggeration of the imminent threat”.

“I don’t think anyone thinks the use of a tactical nuclear weapon is something that’s going to happen soon,” Stent said, noting that Putin wants to wait and see if the mobilization works before taking any measures. escalating beyond attacks on infrastructure such as power plants and dams.

But that doesn’t mean Putin’s nuclear threats can be ruled out entirely.

“Putin said he wasn’t bluffing, and some of our political leaders said we have to take this seriously,” Stent said. “That’s why the administration is communicating clearly with the Kremlin – telling them that if they were to do something like this, there would be very serious consequences.”

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