Putin’s strength now looks like his main weakness, with people too scared to challenge him
President Vladimir Putin‘s immense power looks like it might now be a key weakness for the Russian leader, with those around him seemingly too scared to tell him the truth, or to question his rationale or strategy when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Putin systematically got rid of people who could have challenged him, leaving only the most loyal and fearful ones,” Anton Barbashin, a Russian political analyst and editorial director of the journal Riddle, told CNBC Thursday.
“Any autocrat or dictator, the longer he stays in power, eventually surrounds himself with people that are first loyal, and only then (even if so) are competent,” he added.
“We have a fix for it — it is called the separation of power and office term limits, but Putin believed he could work around it. No one can. So we have both the nations of Ukraine, and to a lesser degree Russia, paying for it.”
Newly declassified U.S. intelligence released on Wednesday suggested that Putin has not been given the whole truth about Russia’s botched invasion of Ukraine and that the president feels misled by his military leaders who did not tell him key details about the war — which has not gone to plan with Russian forces bogged down in fighting in the north, east and south — because they feared angering him.
Barbashin said that while he was cautious about accepting the veracity of the U.S. intelligence update wholesale, it was likely that the information Putin receives — mostly coming from his security agencies or his own presidential administration — is biased and inaccurate.
Such information, Barbashin noted, “can and most likely is always manipulated by people around him.”
“No one wants to deliver bad news and every agency that works for him wants to be the one that proves its value before him,” he said. “We don’t know what exactly is happening there. But clearly, judging by some noise … Putin is not happy with how war is going.”
CNBC has contacted the Kremlin for a response to the intelligence report and is awaiting a response.
Analysts say it’s not just military commanders who are scared of Putin, and that it’s a pervasive problem throughout Russian government circles, from the heights of Putin’s inner circle to highly-qualified civil servants who are scared to question the regime or the war in Ukraine.
“They’re very much afraid — very much afraid,” Vladimir Milov, a Russian opposition politician and former deputy energy minister, who now lives in Lithuania, told CNBC Wednesday.
“Believe me, I have a lot of sources in the Russian government and nobody is actually supporting the war — maybe save for a few people in Putin’s inner circle — nobody is supporting what Putin is doing.”
“I would say that among government circles, support for what Putin is doing is near zero,” he added.
When asked why many civil servants don’t just quit their posts, Milov said most feel trapped and scared of the consequences.
“They have nowhere else to go. They will not be accepted in the West after essentially assisting Putin to launch the war, so most of them are really trapped and feel like they have no choice but to sit and wait.”
Milov added that Russian government personnel have been “persecuted” to a larger extent than even opposition figures lately.
“Not a single day has passed where some deputy minister or some deputy governor [has not been] raided or arrested or so on. They’re under 24/7 FSB security service surveillance, all of them, if they make one wrong move it’s immediately reported and they could face, basically, jail time.”
As the war in Ukraine enters its sixth week on Thursday, there is little sign of the invasion coming to a swift conclusion and every indication it is becoming a war of attrition, with each side trying to wear the other down.
Putin is widely believed to have expected Russian forces to easily occupy the country with the aim of unseating the Ukrainian government and installing a pro-Russian regime as Moscow looks to expand its sphere of influence over former Soviet states.
Defense analysts have said that Russian troops were ill-prepared for the invasion but this may not have been communicated to Putin by military commanders eager to please, and reluctant to look incompetent — or indeed for the forces under their command to look incapable.
“We’ve seen Russian soldiers — short of weapons and morale — refusing to carry out orders, sabotaging their own equipment and even accidentally shooting down their own aircraft,” Jeremy Fleming, the head of the U.K.’s cyber-intelligence agency GCHQ, said in a speech Thursday, stating that Putin “over-estimated the abilities of his military to secure a rapid victory.”
“And even though we believe Putin’s advisors are afraid to tell him the truth, what’s going on and the extent of these misjudgments must be crystal clear to the regime,” he added.
No speaking truth to power
Experts are asking whether the invasion of Ukraine — which has had unintended consequences for Russia — could backfire spectacularly on Putin, leaving him vulnerable to an uprising at home, as living standards fall, or a coup led from within by members of his political and business elite.
Analysts note that there appears to be very little pressure on Putin to bring the war to an end, with little evidence that any members of Russia’s political or business elite were mobilizing against the Ukraine war.
“Certainly Russia has suffered higher casualties than it expected … and certainly sanctions are more significant than Russia was counting on, but at the end of the day the Kremlin is insulated from much domestic political pressure,” Christopher Miller, assistant professor of international history at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, told CNBC Wednesday.
Whether these misjudgments have made him more vulnerable to a potential overthrow or coup is uncertain, however.
Putin is widely seen to have derived his power from protecting and enriching a business elite, as well as persecuting Russia’s political opposition, among whom the most prominent figure is Alexei Navalny who was imprisoned on what are widely seen as trumped-up charges.
Putin is also said to be surrounded by “siloviki,” or “strongmen,” who were former colleagues of his in the KGB (the predecessor of the FSB, Russia’s security service) or who come from the military and security services such as the GRU (the foreign military intelligence agency) or the FSO — the Federal Protective Service, a federal government agency believed to have around 50,000 personnel who are responsible for protecting high-ranking state officials, of course including the president.
As such, Putin is seen as having a cocoon of protection around him, making him virtually untouchable.