In politics, as in sport, some miscues can be corrected or overcome. But not all of them, even for the world’s most iron-fisted rulers. Whether borne of hubris or misreading the situation, slip-ups tend to increase as regimes age and the consequences can be unpredictable.
Could this be the moment Vladimir Putin opens himself up to unforced errors of the authority-threatening kind?
After more than two decades under his watch, Russia has entered a darker, more repressive phase. A bounce in his popularity after the 2014 annexation of Crimea has waned and efforts to shore up his legitimacy include a growing intolerance for any kind of dissent. Recent decisions hint at paranoia, and he appears increasingly isolated, shielded from discordant voices.
This is the point when history shows that autocratic regimes take excessive risks, or pick too many brawls at once. In a study of transitions toward democracy since 1800, political scientist Daniel Treisman found in more than two-thirds of cases, incumbents did not choose change — they made mistakes that brought it on them.
For the Kremlin, a massive troop buildup on the border with Ukraine that hints at war, or jailing the Putin system’s loudest critic and pushing him into a high-profile hunger strike, could prove to be just such miscalculations. A protracted conflict and a martyr would have serious reverberations. It’s a lot to juggle, even for a president who could hang on to power for longer than Joseph Stalin.
Context matters, of course. Opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s arrest in January sparked some of the country’s biggest street protests in years, not because he’s a popular figure, but because his treatment — and his film linking Putin to an ostentatious seaside estate, despite Kremlin denials — galvanized pent-up unhappiness with falling living standards and perceived corruption. Ordinary Russians have been hit hard by a weakening ruble and rising prices, and real household incomes have faltered. Pandemic support has been frugal.
Any missteps won’t necessarily spell the end. Russia’s political and economic elites are well-entrenched, and popular revolt is unlikely. Competent macroeconomic management has meant stability, albeit without innovation or significant growth. Russia weathered the shocks of 2020 better than many countries. Perhaps Putin can get away with what appear from the outside to be risky provocations.
Except that’s only true until it isn’t.
Take Navalny. The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the poisoning that landed him in a Berlin hospital, but the decision to sentence him on his return to Russia may prove a blunder in the long-term. While it’s true that Russians are ambivalent towards the anti-corruption campaigner — a Levada poll published on April 5 found roughly half of Russians think his sentence is justified — more than 80% knew about the case. He brought out protesters across the country, not necessarily for him, but against the government.
Now Navalny’s allies have broader reach, and are planning more national demonstrations once 500,000 people agree to take part. As of Thursday, there were more than 430,000 sign-ups. His hunger strike, a desperate show of defiance, could fuel something deeper. No wonder the state wants to force feed him. A government that has consistently portrayed Navalny as a criminal may find him starting to cut a more sympathetic, human figure to more Russians, as happened with hunger strikes by Republican prisoners in Northern Ireland in 1981.
Past dissenters have been silenced with impunity, but that may be harder in the age of social media, with daily updates on his rapidly deteriorating health. After a visit to the penal colony, his wife said this week that Navalny, who’s more than six feet tall, weighs just 76 kilograms, or 168 pounds. On occasion, he struggles to speak.
The ratcheting up of tension in Ukraine’s east risks even graver international repercussions, without the domestic support enjoyed in 2014. Clashes have become more frequent, and last month there were military drills in Crimea. Moscow and Kyiv blame each other for the flare-up, but Russian rhetoric is running hot with warnings. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu says Russia has deployed two armies and three airborne formations to the region as a response to “threats” by NATO.
It’s unclear what the exact motivation is: To test President Joseph Biden’s resolve or Europe’s patchier one? To send a warning to Ukraine’s government or simply distract from troubles at home?
But it shows Moscow, backed by an agile and well-funded military, willing to act alone, even if that could push Kyiv further West. Not unlike tension around Taiwan, Ukraine is dividing those who argue Moscow is saber rattling and demanding respect, from those who see genuine preparation for conflict. Nigel Gould-Davies of the International Institute for Strategic Studies says it can be both: “You don’t rattle sabers because you like the sound. You rattle them when there is the latent possibility of actual use.”
The findings by Treisman, professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggest dormant factors are triggered by autocrats’ errors — whether that’s the Falklands War that sank Leopoldo Galtieri in Argentina or the plebiscite that defeated Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. The catch is that it’s hard to tell, in the moment, the consequential missteps from the rest. The most significant ones, he told me, are best identified in hindsight.
That will likely be the case for Putin, too. For now, even an ossified system can keep going, bolstered by various means of repression. But watch out for the trip-ups.