Putin Seems to Sideline Advisers on Ukraine, Taking a Political Risk

Does President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia have the support he needs at home to wage a costly war in Ukraine?

That may seem like an odd question. After all, Mr. Putin has already invaded Ukraine, suggesting he feels confident in his resources. And his public image is that of a strongman, with the power to direct the Russian state as he pleases.

But no leader can govern alone. And a series of events this week, including Russia’s decision to throttle access to Facebook and censor news about the war in Ukraine, raise questions about just how much political support Mr. Putin will be able to draw on during the conflict.

An early sign that something might be amiss came on Monday in a televised meeting of Russia’s Security Council. Mr. Putin seemed to expect all of the assembled officials to unquestioningly advise him to recognize the independence of Russian-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine — a public show of elite support for war, just days before it began in earnest.

But Sergei Naryshkin flubbed his line.

Mr. Naryshkin, the director of foreign intelligence, stuttered uncomfortably when Mr. Putin asked him about recognizing the separatists’ claims. Then he seemed to overcorrect, saying he thought Russia should recognize the breakaway republics as “part of Russia.” Mr. Putin snapped impatiently that Mr. Naryshkin should “speak clearly,” then said dismissively that annexation “was not under discussion.”

The director of foreign intelligence, Sergey Naryshkin, in 2019.Credit…Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The moment seemed so significant because all authoritarian leaders rule by coalition, even if, like Mr. Putin, they often appear to be wielding power on their own.

The specifics of the power-sharing coalitions vary by country, with some leaders backed by the military, and others by wealthy business leaders or other elites. But Mr. Putin’s coalition is primarily made up of the “siloviki,” a group of officials who came to politics after serving in the KGB or other security services, and who now occupy key roles in Russia’s intelligence services, military and other ministries.

“That’s the system that brought him to power, and that’s the system that he has relied on in order to consolidate his power,” said Maria Popova, a political scientist at McGill University in Canada who studies Russian and Ukrainian politics.

For decades, Mr. Putin has proved himself to be highly skilled at maintaining his relationships with elites. And the structure of Mr. Putin’s ruling coalition is an advantage for him, Dr. de Bruin said.

“Where political power is more centralized in an individual ruler — as is the case in Russia under Putin — it can be somewhat harder for elites to hold that leader accountable,” she said.

But elites still matter. And the Putin advisers’ apparent confusion during Monday’s meeting, including the exchange with Mr. Naryshkin, gave the impression that Russian president had kept this crucial group out of the loop on his plans.

“He seemed to be humiliating some of these people,” Dr. Popova said — particularly in the way he spoke to Mr. Naryshkin, a prominent silovik who served in the KGB at the same time as Mr. Putin.

Mr. Putin meeting with his Security Council in Moscow on Monday.Credit…Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik, via Reuters

Their interaction could have been a fluke brought on by the stress of the moment, of course. And it is notable that all of Mr. Putin’s advisers, including Mr. Naryshkin, ultimately offered their public support on Monday for the president’s decision to recognize the separatist regions.

But even the seating arrangements of Mr. Putin’s recent meetings, in which he has placed himself at a literal distance from his advisers, convey an image that he is separated from everyone, including his elite coalition. It could be because he wanted to avoid catching the coronavirus, reportedly a significant fear for the Russian leader. But some observers, Dr. Popova said, believe Mr. Putin intended to convey the impression that he is the king, and his advisers mere courtiers — a message they might not appreciate.

And then there is the matter of the Russian public. Although public opinion in Russia is not as directly powerful as it would be in a democracy, Mr. Putin’s high levels of public support have long been a source of political strength and leverage for him. No other politician or member of his inner circle has a public reputation even close to his.

But public anger over the war could undermine that advantage, and even become a political liability. The war will strain the Russian economy. And it has already been a blow to Mr. Putin’s public image as a careful and pragmatic steward of Russian interests.

Understand Russia’s Attack on Ukraine

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What is at the root of this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine within its natural sphere of influence, and it has grown unnerved at Ukraine’s closeness with the West and the prospect that the country might join NATO or the European Union. While Ukraine is part of neither, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.

Are these tensions just starting now? Antagonism between the two nations has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, after an uprising in Ukraine replaced their Russia-friendly president with a pro-Western government. Then, Russia annexed Crimea and inspired a separatist movement in the east. A cease-fire was negotiated in 2015, but fighting has continued.

How did this invasion unfold? After amassing a military presence near the Ukrainian border for months, on Feb. 21, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia signed decrees recognizing two pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. On Feb. 23, he declared the start of a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Several attacks on cities around the country have since unfolded.

What has Mr. Putin said about the attacks? Mr. Putin said he was acting after receiving a plea for assistance from the leaders of the Russian-backed separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, citing the false accusation that Ukrainian forces had been carrying out ethnic cleansing there and arguing that the very idea of Ukrainian statehood was a fiction.

How has Ukraine responded? On Feb. 23, Ukraine declared a 30-day state of emergency as cyberattacks knocked out government institutions. Following the beginning of the attacks, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, declared martial law. The foreign minister called the attacks “a full-scale invasion” and called on the world to “stop Putin.”

How has the rest of the world reacted? The United States, the European Union and others have condemned Russia’s aggression and begun issuing economic sanctions against Russia. Germany announced on Feb. 23 that it would halt certification of a gas pipeline linking it with Russia. China refused to call the attack an “invasion,” but did call for dialogue.

How could this affect the economy? Russia controls vast global resources — natural gas, oil, wheat, palladium and nickel in particular — so the conflict could have far-reaching consequences, prompting spikes in energy and food prices and spooking investors. Global banks are also bracing for the effects of sanctions.

There was low public support for war in Ukraine even before casualties began to mount. A long-running academic survey found in December that only 8 percent of Russians supported a military conflict against Ukraine, and only 9 percent thought that Russia should arm Ukrainian separatists. That is a very large enthusiasm gap for Mr. Putin to overcome.

A woman being detained at a war protest in Moscow on Saturday.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Mr. Putin’s actions this week suggest he is concerned about the consequences of public anger. On Thursday and Friday, the police arrested hundreds of people who turned out to protest the war in cities across Russia. On Saturday, the government limited access to Facebook and other media sites for the apparent offense of posting stories “in which the operation that is being carried out is called an attack, an invasion or a declaration of war.”

Which brings us to the stakes for Mr. Putin in maintaining his relationship with his inner circle: “Because of the resources and access that they have, elites pose the biggest threat to authoritarian leaders,” said Erica de Bruin, a political scientist at Hamilton College and the author of a recent book on coups. “Retaining the support of elites is thus crucial to remaining in power.”

And wars often pose a particular threat to leaders’ relationships with elites. “The relationship between authoritarian rulers and their core of elite supporters can be strained when dictators wage war abroad — particularly where elites view the conflict as misguided,” Dr. de Bruin said.

Public anger over war can also increase elites’ perception that a leader is no longer an effective protector of their interests. And if the United States and Europe manage to impose effective sanctions on members of Mr. Putin’s elite coalition, that could make the war costly for them as individuals, as well as risky for Russia. (Some members of that inner circle, including Mr. Naryshkin, had already been on the U.S. Treasury blacklist for years, so it is unclear what incremental effect new restrictions might have on their finances.)

That is not to say that Mr. Putin’s allies will turn on him because he was rude to one of them on television, of course, or that public anger would immediately undermine his presidency.

But there is still reason to pay attention to signs of strain within Mr. Putin’s coalition. Elite dissatisfaction could affect his responsiveness to targeted sanctions, for instance, or the constraints he might face on resources for the conflict in Ukraine. It also could affect whether he has the political capital to stay the course if domestic opposition grows.

And perhaps, if things go very badly, it could mean even more significant consequences for Mr. Putin’s presidency.

“Two-thirds of authoritarian leaders are removed by their own allies,” Dr. Popova said. “If he tightens the screws too much, if he tries to really increase his power at the expense of the ruling authoritarian coalition, then he is threatening his own position.”

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