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How Putin’s downfall could come sooner than many expect

Russia's Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (L) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin (on the screen) during a video conference meeting on opening medical facilities for COVID-19 patients built (Photo by Alexei YereshkoTASS via Getty Images) - Credit: Alexei Yereshko/TASS

The pandemic has highlighted the Russian president’s many weaknesses, says PAUL KNOTT.

Not for the first time, speculation is growing about the future of Russian president Vladimir Putin. While he has always survived previous crises and his grip on power is tight, the end of his rule could come sooner than many observers anticipate. Whatever difficulties democracies have endured during the last decade, the greater certainty is that regimes like Putin’s usually do fall – often suddenly and painfully for the ruler concerned.

Such collapses frequently appear less surprising in hindsight. Beneath the veneer of impregnability, the signs were usually accumulating all along. And Putin unquestionably has decay and difficulties piling up all around him.

His handling of the Covid-19 crisis has been lamentable. Despite the Kremlin’s significant under-reporting of the true figures, Russia now has more recorded cases of infection than any country apart from the United States (which has well over double the population).

In keeping with his fellow populists, Putin initially reacted to the pandemic outbreak by denying it existed in his country.

Less typically for a supposed strongman, Putin then largely disappeared from public view. This is a tactic Putin often deploys in times of trouble, dating back to the Kursk submarine disaster shortly after he took office.

Putin’s disappearing acts are designed to avoid him being associated with bad news. Passing the buck to his underlings allows him to reappear later to berate them for messing up and claim credit for resolving the problem once it has started to recede.

This approach proved ill-suited to the Covid-19 crisis, which is too enduring for Putin to hide from until it blows over. But since returning to the scene he has unhelpfully exhibited the demeanour of a dictator who has been detached from ordinary life for too long.

Putin has frequently appeared distracted and uninterested in the human impact of the crisis. His main concerns appear to be the economic damage – which is doubtless worth worrying about – and his own plunging approval ratings.

Worse, the crisis is profoundly exposing how Putin’s failures have left Russia weak and unable to cope with it, at the cost of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Putin has been fortunate that most of his period in power has coincided with sustained spells of high prices for Russia’s most significant exports, oil and gas.

Tragically for the Russian people, much of the immense wealth generated has been squandered on flashy construction projects and misappropriation on an unprecedented scale by the regime and its cronies. The full cost of the country’s corruption is now becoming lethally apparent.

The vast sums that have been siphoned in this way could have been spent on building a world-class public service infrastructure for Russia, such as a high-quality healthcare system.

Instead, Russia’s overworked and underpaid medical professionals (many have not received the modest bonuses they were promised for working on Covid wards) are suffering extraordinary levels of infection and death.

According to a New York Times report, by mid-May more than 180 medics had died, 75% of the staff at one Moscow hospital were sick and 1,465 healthcare workers in St Petersburg had contracted the virus, a sixth of the city’s total cases.

Much of this can be attributed to personal protective equipment being either faulty or non-existent. Some staff have reportedly been forced to continue working while unwell, compounding the spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, medical students have been press-ganged into service, on pain of being expelled from their courses if they refuse.

The military is the only part of the public sector that has been comprehensively upgraded during Putin’s rule.

Its new high-tech weaponry has been deployed to intervene in Syria and Ukraine and pulverise the poor civilians of those countries. The prestige this ruthless display of power has supposedly brought Russia may prove fleeting, as its inability to extricate itself from the conflicts it has fuelled starts to bite.

Russia’s military activities and breaches of international law in invading Ukraine have brought international sanctions down on its head.

These have caused a recession in Russia. Average incomes have fallen by 7.5% since the invasion of Crimea in 2014. This grim economic situation will be compounded by the downturn about to hit as a result of the Covid pandemic.

Russia’s position is worsened by Putin’s failure to use the good years to diversify its economy from its extreme dependence on oil and gas.

The Russian budget requires an oil price of $42 a barrel in order to break even. With global demand having collapsed and pushed prices down to around $20, this level looks unlikely to be attained any time soon.

In these circumstances, Putin’s unwise decision to engineer an oil war with Saudi Arabia in early March and create a supply glut on the market now looks even more short-sighted.

The dangers of this course of action could have been foreseen because China, a crucial market for Russian oil and gas, was then in the grip of Covid-19 and global economic output was already slowing down.

In many places, Putin’s litany of failures would be sufficient to spark the overthrow of the regime. But there are reasons why this may not happen quickly in Russia.

Previous Russian finance ministers have had the good sense to stash a portion of Russia’s national resource wealth in the National Welfare Fund, keeping it away from more rapacious hands.

This fund is thought to contain at least $120 billion (roughly 8% of GDP); enough to partially prop up the pillars of the Russian economy for about two more years.

Beyond big business, there will be considerably more pain to come for the Russian people. But their historical experience of repeated hardship and oppression gives them both a high pain threshold and low expectations of their political leaders.

They also have relatively recent experience of the risks of political upheaval – the turmoil of the early post-Soviet years saw many people’s savings eliminated and living standards collapse.

These factors combine to create a widespread reluctance to challenge even a government as incompetent as Putin’s.

His protection is reinforced by his near complete control of the media and information supply. Relentless propaganda has inculcated strong support for his aggressive nationalist agenda, even among the younger generations and despite his many other failings.

Putin uses his control of the media to stymie any potential alternatives to his rule. In a country as vast as Russia, appearing on television is still vital for anyone seeking to build political support. Denying access to would-be challengers means many people find it hard to imagine anyone other than Putin being in charge.

Another possible route to Putin’s demise is a Kremlin palace coup. Putin’s power lies in his being accepted as the arbiter and first among equals by the various other elite power brokers.

If his continued rule is seen as putting the whole system and their ill-gotten gains at risk, it is conceivable that some of the elite will seek to avert a spectacular collapse by easing Putin out.

Potential replacements include the mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, who has cultivated a reputation for basic competence.

Securing a peaceful, managed transition from Putin is a big ‘if’ though, given the mistrust and rivalries within the elite that he expertly manipulates. But his problems are mounting. And while it may not happen next week or next month, a sudden and seemingly surprising end to Putin’s reign cannot be ruled out.

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