The system that Russia’s autocrat built wasn’t designed to survive the pressures it is now facing.
The world’s attention is focused on the immense suffering of the brave Ukrainian people, and rightly so—no words can describe the misery and damage that Vladimir Putin has inflicted upon Ukraine with his unprovoked aggression. Russians are also suffering from the consequences of the invasion. In recent years, Russia has hardly resembled a democracy, but Putin’s war has untied the government’s hands—de-facto scrapping the people’s few remaining rights and freedoms. New, hastily adopted legislation criminalizing spreading “fake news” with up to 15 years in prison allows the Kremlin not only to eliminate any dissent, but also to instigate a mass persecution of its own population. The campaign is already in full swing, with one person being arrested for holding a poster that read “Fascism Will Not Pass,” which authorities claimed was “discrediting the Russian Armed Forces.” Russian TV officially claims that “No to War” (Het Bonhe) is somehow a Nazi slogan.
Russia is effectively being cut off from the civilized world, with its own citizens trapped inside with little ability to escape. Economic and technology sanctions are already being felt, with the return of long lines, empty shelves, and the double-digit inflation of our past—a menacing combination of Russia’s troubles in both the 1980s and 1990s.
But the war that Putin has started also provides an enormous opportunity for Russians to rethink the country’s path over the last quarter of a century, and to have a chance for a fresh start—no matter how difficult that may be. The events since February 24 have made real the prospect of an end to Putin’s regime as we know it. No one can predict the pace of change, but one thing is clear: Putin’s system has suffered a series of dire blows to its structural integrity.
Putinism was not built to withstand such comprehensive isolation from global markets, technologies, financial systems, and logistics. It possesses neither the resources nor the competence to weather this kind of perfect storm. The problem for the regime is not just that more ordinary Russians will soon personally feel the economic consequences of war. It’s also that Putin’s nomenklatura is totally incapable of handling such a shock to the system. They, as much as everyone else, were caught off guard by Putin’s attack on Ukraine, and they lack any experience with wartime mobilization-management techniques. I worked in senior levels of the Russian government for six years (1997–2002), and I know many of the officials who are still working in top government posts today. They are personally devastated by the consequences of Putin’s aggression, and they have almost no idea how to do their jobs when G7 countries are blocking Russia’s financial reserves and the country is cut off from global markets and vital technologies.
This system will not be able to operate intact for much longer. In the months ahead, the Kremlin will experience serious difficulties managing the domestic social, economic, and political situation. It will be the biggest challenge Putin’s system has faced by far. We don’t yet know what the specific scenarios will be, but clearly it will be enormously challenging for Putin to maintain his credibility and grip on power. Change may be coming—particularly if Putin suffers military defeat in Ukraine, which is now a much more realistic possibility than many ever imagined.
In this moment, it is important not only to document Russia’s turn toward totalitarian horrors, but also to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Russians who oppose Putin and his war badly need to look beyond this grim present. They need hope in the face of growing repression fed by government propaganda and the regime’s witch hunt for “enemies within.”
Contrary to many Western interpretations, a significant number of Russians do not support the war. It is utterly wrong and unprofessional for experts to cite government-orchestrated “opinion polls” that show supposedly overwhelmingly Russian support for the war. While it is true that a sizeable segment of Russian society backs the war, especially Russians who get their news only from state television, we also know that since the invasion pollsters have confronted an unprecedented number of respondents who refuse to answer questions about the war. (Why would they refuse to answer if they support the war?) Journalists who interviewed people attending staged pro-Putin rallies—including the notorious March 18 prowar rally at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, where Putin himself appeared—found that many did not support the war, and had been forced to attend the events. Alexei Navalny’s YouTube channel, Navalny Live—which broadcasts the truth about Putin’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine—attracted almost 20 million unique viewers during the first month of the war, a great majority of them from within Russia.
For those trying to assess current public opinion in Russia, a word of advice: Be extremely cautious. We in the Russian opposition are working tirelessly to broadcast the truth to the Russian people, including through active people-to-people communication, explaining the realities of the war to those who are isolated by state censorship or brainwashed by government propaganda. Many in the West are still unaware of the propaganda bubble that Russians live in; even amid these horrible circumstances, it takes time to change public opinion to an antiwar and anti-Putin majority. But it is possible, and the tide is shifting.
It is important that people in the West understand these nuances. Some prominent figures are already lending a hand in promoting a future democratic Russia. For instance, former Lithuanian prime minister Andrius Kubilius, who is now a member of the European Parliament, and fellow MEPs have launched a discussion on the future of a post-Putin Russia within the framework of their Friends of European Russia Forum in the European Parliament. Such efforts should be supported.
Likewise, everyday Russians who are opposed to Putin and his war deserve support, protection, and help in amplifying their voices. Because if Russia does not become democratic, it will always be trouble for its neighbors and for the world. Difficult as it may sound at this moment, we need to look to the future. It can and should be very different from the grim realities of today, but the change must begin from within Russia itself.
Vladimir Milov is a Russian opposition politician, advisor to opposition leader and anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny, and host of regular talk shows on the Navalny Live YouTube channel. He is also a former deputy minister of energy of Russia and an economist.
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