Losing at Home, Putin Gambles Abroad

By Dayan Reynolds

Image Credit: RR Composition, DVIDS/TASS News Agency

When it comes to the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the hottest debate among pundits, analysts, and scholars alike hasn’t been “if” war might come, but “why” it will come. 

In the wake of recent domestic triumphs for Putin–including quashing dissent–there has been a temptation to dismiss politics at home as a driver for policies abroad.

Without a doubt, Moscow’s ruling party United Russia seems to have quite the mandate at first glance. The party scored a majority victory in September 2021’s elections to Russia’s lower chamber of parliament, the Duma.

More attentive followers might also recall the successful 2020 referendum campaign, when Russians voted in favor of sweeping constitutional reforms expanding the powers of the presidency and weakening the courts.

These electoral victories, however, exist amid showings of broad popular dissent against the ruling party, voter apathy and a renewed vigor in the opposition’s campaigns.

United Russia might have won a majority of seats last September, but at 50% of the vote count, it walked away with a weaker mandate. Aside from losing a fair number of seats as a whole, diminishing support was more visible in some regions than others.

In the Russian Far East, a vast territory covering everything from Lake Baikal to the Pacific port of Vladivostok and the Bering Strait, support for United Russia was 11 points lower than the national average.

Already a fairly isolated place, this region saw increased turbulence in the past two years amid rising gas prices, decreases in federal funding to regional infrastructure, and the high-profile arrest of Khabarovsk Governor Sergei Furgal, a prominent member of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR).

These hot-button issues, coupled with longstanding grievances about the outflow of wealth made off the region’s plentiful gas, oil, and ore deposits, likely contributed to much of the popular discontent in the Far East. 

Regular protests for Furgal and against Moscow have been unshakable now in Khabarovsk for almost two years. Two out of the four administrative divisions across Russia that voted majority against United Russia – LDPR stronghold Khabarovsk and resource-rich Yakutia – are located within this region.

Moscow, similarly, has been a hotbed for the opposition. Although it voted for United Russia this past year, opposition parties retain strong holdings in the country’s capital. It garnered significant attention in 2019 when novel “smart voting” tactics deployed by activist groups and led by Russian activist Alexei Navalny secured a crushing rebuke against Putin’s party at the municipal level.

Both Moscow and St. Petersburg were also the epicenters for mass protests against the Russian government in January 2021 following Navalny’s arrest. Street demonstrations in support of the popular Putin critic spread like wildfire across the nation, from Kaliningrad in the west to Vladivostok in the east.

Unique to 2021, these protests were overtly political and brought disparate opposition parties together. However, they haven’t been the only recent challenges to Putin’s authority. 

Others have emerged over different policy issues, including on smoking legislation and pension reform. Throughout the past several years, Russians have garnered a renewed taste for civil disobedience. Willingness to participate in protests reached its highest since 2000 (30%) during the pension reform campaign in 2018 and has remained relatively high ever since.

Much like Russians’ attitudes toward protesting, the strategies and counterstrategies of government officials and opposition leaders alike have been evolving. As the Kremlin looks to quash signs of growing dissent, activists are finding new ways to overcome it. 

In the wake of the January 2021 protest wave, the Duma enacted various new pieces of legislation regulating demonstrations. Punishments were also made more severe, both on paper and in practice. 

For the work Navalny’s activist network did in organizing the protests last year, their regional offices throughout the country were raided. Employees were arrested and labeled terrorists. Protest leaders, participants, and bystanders (including some children) from January were brutally pulled off the streets, given charges in court, and suffered from violence and humiliation tactics in jail cells.

Facing targeting in the open, the opposition frequently resorts to more creative methods. The Navalny team’s viral video about Putin’s Black Sea palace, among other luxurious exploits, has amassed more than 100 million views and become fuel for the outrage. 

In turn, Russian authorities have relied on labeling organizations engaging in what it views as ‘propaganda’ as ‘foreign agents,’ a blanket term for accusing them of being Western-backed and requiring them to conform to various punitive regulations.

More insidiously, Russian authorities in smaller and more remote regions are content to change the rules of the game itself. Regional governments are rewriting election rules and gerrymandering seat allocations as best they can, sometimes just months before elections.

When defeat seems inevitable, local officials bend the process or disregard it entirely (like illegally removing a city council member from another party to secure the mayoralty).

At all levels of the system, United Russia officials are using increasingly desperate tactics to win seats and keep hold of power. Despite their best efforts at quashing dissent, they’ve only managed to encourage the opposition to find new ways to express it.

It’s in this predicament that Putin has found himself turning outward, instead of inward, to repeat the strategy that brought him unprecedented popularity in the past.

Confrontational foreign policy has proven beneficial to Putin before. Three separate times, war has sent Putin’s approval ratings to record levels after previously suffering from crises of confidence.

Independent polling agency Levada Center found support for the Russian president skyrocketed from below 50% into the mid-80s in 2014, shortly after he seized Crimea from Ukraine in February that year. The Crimean annexation crisis followed the biggest anti-corruption protests in Russia since Putin’s rise to power, beginning in 2011. In the same August 2014 poll, only 8% of Russians said they were willing to protest.

In 2008, amid similarly low support for the government, Russia invaded its southern neighbor Georgia to support the breakaway region of South Ossetia. One month later, polling placed Putin’s favorability at a record 88%.

Even in the very beginning, Putin owed his popularity to his wartime policies. His handling of the Chechen Wars at the turn of the century earned him widespread support at the end of a period of severe economic decline under his controversial predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

State-dictated messaging from the government and the media is already following the familiar pattern. Prior to invading Georgia, Russians and Georgians had positive views of one another. Before Crimea, Russians considered Ukrainian partnership a key priority. 

Media narratives changed popular opinion both times by focusing messaging on Western threats, NATO encroachment, and the plight of Russians as a minority abroad. The same is happening now.

In the past few months, Kremlin spokespeople have called attention back to Ukrainian politics, its recent Russophobic policies, and (false) allegations of a genocide against Russians in the Donbas (a breakaway region with a significant Russian population in Ukraine that’s been engaged in civil war since 2014). 

Narratives left simmering in the background since Crimea are being brought back to the surface. Even if Russians are, as of the most recent polling in December, focused more on other issues than Ukraine, they already view the current crisis as being the fault of NATO and the U.S., not Russia.

That Russia once again finds itself on the brink of war and simultaneously in the thralls of national discontent against the government cannot be simply a coincidence. Putin is engaged in a foreign policy gambit to stave off domestic unrest. 

The groundwork has been soundly laid, and even if words don’t turn to bullets, Russians already consider the threat to be external, not internal.

In this climate, America and its allies have to consider their next moves carefully. A successful war for Putin could spell yet another defeat for Russia’s opposition movement. 

The opposite, however, could also be an option. A crushing blow by the West could provide fuel to the dissent fire and upend Putin’s game. An easy test for that is coming this year. Multiple regions throughout Russia will be holding gubernatorial or regional legislative elections, and Moscow is due to have its first municipal election since the 2019 opposition upset.

What those moves might entail is a far more complicated question. No response to Russia’s foreign policy, however, should be considered an effective answer until all factors are taken into consideration, domestic politics included.

A regular contributor for the Realist Review, Dayan Reynolds is a Master’s student at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia. He was born and raised in rural southwest Missouri.

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