NY Dispatches: Putin reacts

According to Alexei Navalny’s campaign the protests that started on 23 January will continue this week. One thing that protesters have already achieved is forcing Vladimir Putin to address the accusations in Navalny investigation into his ill-gotten wealth, in person. This is a remarkable shift, and it raises important questions about the Kremlin’s intentions and strategy.

The number of protesters in every town or city is fairly difficult to estimate. Estimates about the Moscow crowd that I would call convincing put the number of people at Pushkin Square at 25,000 or more. Reuters estimated a crowd of 40,000. In towns and cities across the country hundreds and thousands of people took to the streets, with remarkable crowds in certain cities like Yekaterinburg or Nizhny Novgorod. In other cities the numbers were lower but still remarkable: the far eastern city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk experienced its biggest public protests in living memory; people in Yakutsk protested in spite of temperatures of minus 52 degrees Celsius.

I would not like to venture to estimate the number of protesters (even though in this map I was trying to do exactly that, collecting publicly available estimates). However, I think we can confidently say that the numbers are comparable to the 2017 protests triggered by accusations of corruption against then-prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, but circumstances have made them more remarkable: there’s a pandemic; it’s colder (the 2017 protests happened in late March); the level of repression and surveillance has grown in recent years (thus protesters face higher risks); and finally, Russians were not asked to protest against a widely disliked non-starter. In fact, by releasing his film about “Putin’s Castle” a couple of days before the protests, Navalny managed to make the protests about Putin’s corruption as well as himself. Neither would have drawn this kind of crowds just a couple of years ago.

And thus came the unexpected turn when Putin – who thus far has avoided uttering Navalny’s name and consistently tried to downplay his importance – decided that he himself had to deny Navalny’s accusations.

This was, of course, a conscious change of strategy. For days, Kremlin-affiliated media have been trying to discredit Navalny’s film (besides calling him a CIA asset, which is not new). Yet, what makes the shift really significant is the fact that Putin personally felt like he had to react to the film. The president, answering a well-choreographed question of a Russian student, sounded not only stern but almost visibly emotional. As Tatiana Stanovaya suggested, by this act Putin partially acknowledged that Saturday’s protests were legitimate. At the same time, we can assume that Putin still acts rationally and would like to minimize risks, which opens up some interesting questions.

First, by openly discussing the investigation, Putin is setting his own credibility against Navalny’s. The most significant difference between Putin’s media denying Navalny’s accusations and Putin himself doing so is that the president still commands significant trust, which cannot be said about his associates and media. Even so, given how precipitously Putin’s trust rating has fallen over the past two years – much faster than his well-managed approval rating – this is a risky business. The fact that Putin still chose to throw his credibility into the scale and so soon after the video was published suggests that he expects the situation to get worse. He had to do it now.

Second, as many have pointed out, Putin’s explanation was a bit awkward. He specifically stressed that neither he nor his close relatives had ever owned the castle, leaving open the possibility that someone else relatively close to him does. He then mentioned Abrau Dyurso, a winery not far from the Gelendzhik castle, and owned by Boris Titov, Russia’s business ombudsman, as a possible retirement option. Again, this was an odd choice of words. Titov himself was mentioned in Navalny’s investigation. To me this indicated that Putin expects specific oligarchs to take a (rather big) hit for the boss. After all, Putin probably knows that just denying his ownership probably won’t be enough; this immediately raises the question of whom, then, the property belongs to – and the fantastically clumsy explanation that Putin’s biographer came up with on the pro-Kremlin Tsargrad TV, namely that oligarchs probably built a “present” for Putin, which the president did not accept, won’t cut it. The Kremlin certainly does not have an answer ready, either but it is signaling to the elite that someone would have to jump between Putin and the bullet.

Third, we should seriously consider that to some degree Putin regards the protests as a special operation by Western intelligence agencies, just as pro-Kremlin propagandists and some politicians have been communicating. This is, of course, outlandish, but one has to consider that the FSB was humiliated by Bellingcat’s revelations about the background of the botched poisoning and Navalny’s prank call to his would-be assassin. We have a good sense that Putin’s agenda in recent years have been increasingly influenced by security hawks, and thus it cannot be ruled out that some of his advisors have been pushing the narrative that the protests are actually a kind of retaliation, e.g. for the SolarWinds compromise, which the US government attributed to hackers affiliated with the Russian state.

Fourth, the pressure that the protests represent might lead to changes in policymaking and therefore, intra-elite conflicts. The Russian government’s pandemic-related stimulus remained modest last year in spite of leading economists, among them Alexei Kudrin, the head of the Audit Chamber and a Putin confidant, calling for more money to be spent on directly helping Russian citizens and small enterprises. With a segment of the press interpreting the protests as being actually about falling real incomes and growing social distress, I would be surprised if those who advocated government largesse wouldn’t try to use the situation to push their agenda too. Perhaps the plan has always been to loosen purse strings in this election year, but if fiscal prudence at the federal level has been an important part of a political strategy, then this, too, might be uncomfortable.

In short, I do believe that Putin is doing what he is almost always doing: he is going down the path that, based on his knowledge, he considers the least risky. The catch, of course, is that there are so many moving parts. A lot will depend on whether the widespread, but compared to Belarus, still somewhat restrained crackdown on protesters will have the effect desired by the Kremlin or, on the contrary, it will bring more people to the streets on Saturday; whether the double focus on Navalny and Putin will allow the opposition to expand its constituency; whether this emerging opposition movement or the Kremlin will feel like they need to make a harder push. And beyond all this, one important question is not only how many people turn out in the coming weeks but also how much Navalny’s arrest and his initiatives (especially smart voting) become part of the political agenda and how much control over the agenda the Kremlin will manage to preserve.

But in a way, Navalny is already reaching his goal: his movement cannot be wished away and cannot be simply shunned.

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