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Putin is weak

The Russian strongman is terrified of losing control. He should be.

This March, Russian President Vladimir Putin canceled a series of public appearances, and the world promptly seemed to lose its collective mind. Everyone from Russians on social media to mainstream Western journalists speculated wildly about why Putin had "disappeared." Could he be ill? Incapacitated by a stroke? Dead?

After several days passed and Putin failed to surface, the theories grew more exotic. Was this the result of a "silent coup" by the security services? Was there a conspiracy to keep it all quiet? How deep does this go?

Not particularly deep, as it turned out. Putin reappeared a few days later, looking a little pale but otherwise thoroughly alive and un-couped. Although he never offered an official explanation, his waxy pallor suggested he had perhaps been waylaid by a bout of the flu.

The ferocity with which the rumors had swirled — and the fact that the reasons for his disappearance remained secret — was revealing. Underlying the incident was an unspoken fear: that the Russian system, and Putin's hold over it, might be more fragile than it seems. The second there were even suggestions of Putin's ill health, it suddenly seemed reasonable to doubt the health of his entire regime.

And so this spring I traveled to Russia to try to answer a question that until recently might have seemed rather silly: Is Putin weak, or is he strong?

From what you see about Putin in the headlines every day, you might reasonably conclude that it is naive to even ask the question. After all, in between macho, shirtless photo ops, the man has annexed the Crimean peninsula, backed a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, and crushed or co-opted Russia's political opposition, all while allegedly enriching himself by millions or even billions of dollars via corrupt insider dealings.

To the casual observer, those measures seem like signs of strength, indications of a regime that is unchecked by fear of the international community or political opposition, and of a president whose ego is unburdened by the sort of natural shame one might expect a 60-something politician to feel about posing topless.

But appearances can be deceiving, and in the case of Putin's strength, that deception is precisely the point. Those shows of strength actually mask deep, systemic weaknesses.

And weakness is precisely what you will find if you scratch the surface of Putin's rule over Russia: The more I looked, the clearer it became that the Russian strongman and his system of government are operating out of deep insecurity.

One thing you notice quickly in Moscow is the ease with which conversations will turn to predictions of dire and imminent catastrophe, from economic collapse to civil war. Those predictions are often overheated, and to some degree seem like leftovers from the chaos of the 1990s. But they speak to a widespread sense that the system is barely holding together, that it could all come crashing down, and that if it did the results would be unpredictable and potentially disastrous.

To address this, Putin has pursued political tactics that keep him in power in the short term but, in the long term, are creating serious and potentially unsolvable problems for both him and Russia. To be clear, it would go too far to say that the end is nigh for Putin. So far, his short-term tactics have worked: Russia is totally centralized around his rule. He is by far the most powerful individual in that country.

But those tactics of centralizing and strengthening his own power today no matter the long-term costs tomorrow may have worked too well — as the March scare over his disappearance showed. Over time, the more often he's had to play that game, the more extreme his short-term solutions have become, and the more severe the side effects they’ve produced. And each time he does that, it makes the Russian political system less resilient. Long-term strength is being sacrificed for short-term stability. The costs of those solutions are growing higher and higher. And eventually he will no longer be able to pay them.

I. Putin's crisis: The moment he discovered his legitimacy could slip away

Putin protest stylized 1

Protesters at a December 2011 march in Moscow carry white balloons, as well as a placard mocking Putin for saying that he mistook protesters' white ribbons for condoms. (Graphics: Christophe Haubursin/Vox, Photo: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/GettyImages)

In December 2011, tens of thousands of Russians streamed into the streets of Moscow carrying signs, balloons, and, most of all, white ribbons, the symbol of their "snow revolution" protest against Putin's regime. The occasion for the mass protests was nominally the 2011 legislative elections, which appeared to have been fixed in favor of Putin's ruling party, United Russia. But the young people marching in the streets were demonstrating against much more: against corruption, against Russia's mirage of a political party system in which the "opposition" was under the thumb of the Kremlin — and against Putin himself.

Indeed, it seemed for a moment like Putin might be losing his iron grip on power. A few weeks earlier, he had attended an ultimate-fighting bout in Moscow, in which the Russian competitor, Fedor Emelianenko, trounced his American opponent, Jeff Monson. After the fight, the New Yorker's David Remnick wrote in December 2011, then–Prime Minister Putin climbed into the ring to congratulate the victorious boxer. But as he spoke to Emelianenko, the crowd began to jeer, filling not just the arena but the TV feed broadcasting the bout to a national audience with derisive hoots and whistles.

"This had never happened to Putin before, not once in two four-year terms as President, not in three-plus years as Prime Minister," Remnick wrote at the time. "And yet now, having announced his intention to reassume the Presidency in March, possibly for another twelve years, he was experiencing an unmistakable tide of derision."

Four years later, all of that seems hard to imagine. The protest movement never garnered broader support, and has now dwindled to occasional smaller rallies. The temporary coalition of opposition groups has fractured. Many of the activists who led them are now in exile, in jail, or facing criminal charges. Russia’s elite remained staunchly aligned with Putin. And while no one would have accused Russia of being a paradise for civil liberties in 2011, in the years since, Putin's government has cracked down on all forms of dissent, including the operations of NGOs and other civil society groups.

But even though Putin emerged from that crisis of legitimacy, he was clearly deeply shaken by the protests. It wasn't just the protesters who believed their marches could shake Putin's hold on power: Putin himself seemed worried about the same thing.

One of the people I met with in Moscow was Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former opposition politician who is now a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics and a political analyst.

As we sipped tea in Ryzhkov's basement office, surrounded by oil-on-canvas pastorals he'd painted of the Valdai region he used to represent in the Russian parliament, I asked him why Putin had cracked down so harshly on dissent after the 2011 protests, though they appeared to have so little effect on his regime.

Ryzhkov is no fan of Putin, who pushed him out of parliament in 2007 by preventing Ryzhkov's party from registering for elections. But on the subject of the crackdown, his analysis was calm and measured.

"You know, I had a very interesting conversation with Putin two years ago. It was a meeting with him and a small group of opposition leaders in 2013. There was an open part, and after that, a 20-minute closed part. And I asked him, 'Why do you turn the screw so hard? Because you did it so strongly that the atmosphere is increasing pressure from inside.'"

"And he said, very sincerely, that 'you know, Vladimir' — he has known me for many years — 'you know, Vladimir, I am afraid that if I turn back a little bit, Russia could be destabilized extremely.' He really believes that only through this hard line is it possible to keep control of this huge country. That’s his mind."

Putin protest stylized 2

A Protester at a 2011 march in Moscow holds a "Putin 2050" sign on which the word "NO!" has been written in large letters. (Graphics: Christophe Haubursin/Vox. Photo: YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

II. Putin's fear: What would happen if his own allies turned on him?

Nearly every conversation you have in Moscow about the future of Putin's regime will turn, at some point, to the Maidan protest movement that unfolded last year just across the border in Ukraine. There, they will remind you, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was cast out of power not just because the protesters had momentum and popular support, but because his allies among Ukraine’s elite abandoned him.

The New York Times's Andrew Higgins and Andrew E. Kramer, in a deeply reported postmortem on Yanukovych’s regime, concluded that "the president was not so much overthrown as cast adrift by his own allies."

The protest movement itself was initially relatively small, and controlled only a tiny area in central Kiev. But when Yanukovych’s security services deployed staggering violence against the protesters, it caused a deep split in the Ukrainian elite. Many of the president's allies in parliament defected en masse, withdrawing their support for his regime after the shocking display of violence.

The security services, sensing Yanukovych’s weakness, concluded that he was no longer able to protect their interests. They decided that abandoning him was their safest course of action. And so the embattled president found himself alone, his allies having turned against him. He fled to Russia, where he remains.

To Putin, Yanukovych’s fate is a reminder of the danger protests could pose to his own regime, not by unseating it directly via a mass uprising, but in causing Russian elites to push out Putin themselves. And that lesson has not been lost on the opposition, either: Every single opposition figure I met with in Russia spoke of the need to "split the elite" in order to bring down Putin’s regime.

Putin, Ryzhkov explained to me, is afraid that popular protests could cause him to suffer a similar fate — that he could be ousted from power via "Maidan technology." Although Putin tends to couch those fears in warnings of "foreign coups" or "CIA plots" when he speaks publicly, his concern is that another mass protest movement could force him into a similarly impossible choice between popular support, political control, and the loyalty of different factions of Russia’s elite.

Putin is probably right to be concerned. He simply cannot maintain his power without the support of Russia’s elites, the powerful factions within Russia's security forces, business community, and political elite which provide vital support to Putin's regime. Their support for Putin is pragmatic, not ideological. If they sense that his control is slipping, or that Putin can no longer protect their interests, then they will abandon him, just as Ukraine’s elites abandoned Yanukovych.

"Nobody wants to fight against their own people," Ilya Ponomarev, a Russian lawmaker who now lives in exile, told me in Washington. If elites were forced to choose between supporting a violent crackdown to keep Putin in power or pushing him out, he believes they would choose the latter.

Ponomarev suggested that another mass protest movement like Ukraine’s Maidan could cause Putin’s regime to collapse precipitously. If Russians take to the streets in protest, he explained, Russia’s elite could abandon Putin. "They would never make the first move, but they will join the winning side."

Though Ponomarev was an opposition politician, forced to flee Russia after casting the only vote in Russia’s parliament opposing the invasion of Crimea, his prediction was not one of democratic idealism. Rather, he said, it could come from elites guarding their narrow self-interest. "People, at the end of the day, are pretty rational. So they always weigh risks, especially risks to themselves."

For all of the apparent strength that Putin has shown in crushing political opposition and dissent, what this reveals is his tremendous weakness against his own elites. His crackdowns are not merely about proving his own strength, or even consolidating his own power. Rather, they are defensive measures: a desperate attempt to prevent anything that might fracture his vital alliance with the business, political, and security service elites.

And it may not even take anything as serious as mass protests for Russia's elites to get jumpy. In January, I spoke with New York University professor Mark Galeotti, who studies Russian politics and security. Putin's regime, he said, is "stable, but brittle." Any serious shock could shake the elites' confidence in Putin.

Should the elites develop "a sense that [Putin] was no longer an asset, but a danger," Galeotti predicted, they would move to push out Putin and replace him with a new leader, but keep the larger system in place.

"So if it looks like the situation is becoming dangerous, and in order to preserve the system as a whole, they need to get rid of Putin," he said. "They’re going to want to have Putinism without Putin in that case."

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev lost elites' trust, and then lost power, in much this way. His 1964 ouster began much earlier, Galeotti explained, with a series of riots in a small town called Novocherkassk.

"It was a backwater, not at all a significant place," Galeotti said. "But by bad luck, on the same day they announced an increase in food prices, they also announced a cut in wages at the massive local factory where most people worked. And that led to street protests. And the police refused to disperse them. And eventually the army was called out, and some of the army officers refused to fire on the protesters. And in due course they actually had to send in security troops, who had no qualms, and there was a massacre."

The authorities concealed the events in Novocherkassk from the general public. But the elites knew, and the riots worried them. Indeed, Galeotti said, the fact that Novocherkassk was nowhere special made the situation even more worrying: If it could happen there, it could happen anywhere. Novocherkassk was a sign that Khrushchev could not keep control. The transition wasn't immediate, but from then on, it was clear he had to go.

Such a thing could end Putin's time in office as well, Galeotti said. "When elites feel that pressures are beginning to build up, they will feel that they need to act to forestall the random events that could lead to a real crisis."

III. Putin's solution: Replace the mounting internal threats with external ones

Putin collage

(Graphic: Christophe Haubursin/Vox. Photos: Getty Images)

Putin managed to crush the 2011 protests and emerge stronger than ever. But the tactics he used to accomplish that, though impressively effective in the short term, have led to even greater problems that he will eventually have to face in the future — and that he has no obvious means of solving.

His answer was nationalism; not in the sense of ethnic nationalism, but of Russia as a great nation. It was a way to restore his popularity and reinvigorate the connection between the Russian public and the Russian state. He emphasized Russia’s greatness and the idea that it deserved to be a global power. He strengthened his ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, and put new emphasis on traditional Russian values.

That tactic was clever — and very effective. It offered Russians a compelling argument for loyalty to Putin and his regime, which the nationalist narrative cast as defenders of Russia’s greatness. And it also allowed Putin to claim that enemies who opposed Russian values and wanted to undermine its greatness were the true cause of the country’s problems. That shifted the blame away from Putin and his government, and offered a compelling argument for why Russians should distrust the liberals who had supported the 2011 protests.

In the name of protecting Russian values, Putin cracked down on acts of "blasphemy," such as a 2012 Pussy Riot demonstration in a Moscow cathedral, and on LGBT Russians. This strategy, as Miriam Elder wrote for BuzzFeed last year, allowed Putin to tell the socially conservative Russian heartland that they were the "real Russia," and he was working to protect them and their families. But it also offered an opportunity to argue that liberals were "fundamentally un-Russian" as they stood up for gay rights in response to Putin’s crackdown.

And it was also a way to emphasize the difference between the pure, traditional values of ordinary Russians, and the dangerous, abhorrent values of the decadent West that Putin claimed was intent on destroying Russia.

This strategy, as Ryzhkov joked during our meeting, let the Kremlin claim that "the whole of power in Russia belongs to Putin, but the whole of responsibility for Russian problems belongs to Obama."

But there were a lot of problems to explain away. As Russia’s economy faltered, Putin leaned harder and harder on the narrative of Great Russia vs. Evil West to maintain support at home. Putin, to keep this narrative going, traded away the positive relations with Europe and the US he'd cultivated in his first two terms. His increasingly anti-Western policies created tensions with the West, but they were popular at home.

Putin's anti-Westernism became something much more substantial, and more dangerous, in February 2014. As chaos swept through Ukraine with Yanukovych’s ouster, he sent unmarked Russian special forces to occupy Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, which he later annexed.

It was an act of geopolitical opportunism, but it was also a result of his recent turn to bellicose and confrontational foreign policy. The annexation proved tremendously popular with the Russian people: Putin’s approval rating skyrocketed and remains high, even as falling oil prices in late 2014 plunged Russia into its worst financial crisis in years.

Putin's new popularity came at a cost. Western countries swiftly imposed sanctions on Russian officials in retaliation for the invasion of Crimea, targeting the elite supporters of Putin’s regime and state-owned Russian companies. The sanctions did little to dampen public support for Putin, which remained high. (Brilliantly and callously, he imposed "counter-sanctions" on the West, creating confusion among the Russian public about which sanctions did what.)

But the elites who were targeted by sanctions, or feared they might be in the future, were not confused. The sanctions left them unhappy, and worried that further tensions with the West could invite even more damage to their financial interests.

"Of course," Ponomarev said, "the elites are nervous, and definitely don't want to live under such circumstances for a long period of time because it's a kind of personal instability for them. It creates insecurity. They want to settle this down so that these feelings will go. It hurts their business. Even those who are not under sanctions, they might come under them at any time." Others I spoke with in Russia echoed his conclusions: that it wasn't just the present sanctions that were so worrying, but the sense that more could be coming.

In other words, Putin's efforts to maintain public support are causing him problems among elites — the very people that, as he and the rest of Russia learned from Yanukovych's downfall in Ukraine, he needs to keep happy.

It is a problem that Putin cannot solve. Pulling out of Ukraine would be a huge blow to his popularity. Russia is now bogged down in a military adventure supporting the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. It has mired Russia in a conflict that is producing significant casualties among Russian troops, and has ratcheted up conflict between Russia and the West. If tensions rise further, the results could be disastrous.

Once again, this is a serious weakness masked by a veneer of strength. Putin's invasion of Crimea and military support for Ukraine's rebels seem like aggressive, powerful moves. But in fact, they were born out of fear — from Putin's turn to nationalism in a desperate ploy to shore up his popular support after the 2011 crisis of legitimacy. And by creating a problem between Putin and Russia's elite that Putin cannot solve, they have undermined the stability of his regime.

This is a pattern that has repeated itself over and over again: When faced with a serious crisis, Putin finds an effective short-term solution — but in doing so, he creates deeper problems that he has no way to solve.

IV. Putin's ally: How do you solve a problem like Kadyrov?


Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. (Graphic: Christophe Haubursin/Vox. Photo: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

Until now, Putin has managed to balance the interests of his key elite constituencies. But the strategies Putin has used to maintain the loyalty of each of those different interest groups are beginning to come into conflict with each other. Eventually, those divisions might become too serious for Putin to resolve.

This was a fear that I heard about over and over again in Moscow. Of course it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to get any real information about what's going on in Putin's inner circle. But when I was in Russia, the people I spoke to raised one scenario over and over again: Putin's Kadyrov problem.

Ramzan Kadyrov is the leader of Chechnya, a Russian province located in the North Caucasus that was plagued by separatist conflicts in the 1990s and early 2000s. On April 23 of this year, Kadyrov issued a chilling directive to his security officers: "I would like to officially state: Open fire if someone from Moscow or Stavropol — it doesn't matter where from — appears on your turf without your knowledge."

By "someone from Moscow or Stavropol," Kadyrov apparently meant Russian federal police, military personnel, or the FSB, Russia's federal security service that is the successor to the KGB. In other words, any who dared to enter Chechnya without Kadyrov's permission could expect to be met by deadly force — despite the fact that Chechnya is part of Russia, and therefore supposedly within the jurisdiction of Russia’s federal security forces.

Kadyrov's statement managed somehow to be simultaneously shocking — imagine, say, the governor of Louisiana declaring open season on FBI agents and US military troops — and completely predictable. In a way, Kadyrov was merely making explicit what everyone in Russia already knows are the terms of his implicit arrangement with Putin.

It is common if unofficial knowledge that Putin and Kadyrov have a deal: Putin installed Kadyrov in power, granting him near-complete autonomy in Chechnya and generous federal subsidies. In return, Kadyrov has ensured that Chechnya does not return to separatist conflict.

The Chechen insurgencies were prolonged, damaging, and deeply unpopular with the Russian public. Putin's implicit agreement with Kadyrov has, until now, allowed him to purchase peace and stability in Chechnya. But this arrangement is thought to be loathed by Russia's powerful security services, who have been left with no real power in Chechnya, little choice but to tolerate Chechen organized crime groups that operate in the rest of Russia, and the humiliating reminder that they never fully won the Chechen wars.

Over the years, Kadyrov has exploited Putin's patronage, growing more and more powerful. Russia's federal subsidies for Chechnya have made him wealthy, and his private militia, the Kadyrovtsy, is highly professionalized, well-trained, well-equipped — and answers directly to him. If there were a break between him and the Kremlin, or open conflict between him and the security services, then the consequences could be catastrophic: a return to war between Chechen and Russian federal forces, but this time with much more power on the Chechen side.

Unsurprisingly, there are widespread rumors that the leaders of Russia's security services have lost patience with Kadyrov, and are now pressuring Putin to bring him under control. It was taken as an article of faith by everyone I met with in Moscow that Kadyrov and the security services were feuding, and that Putin was caught in the middle.

Russian analyst Andrei Piontkovsky told me that he believes the security agencies feel they were "deprived of victory" in Chechnya when Putin made the agreement with Kadyrov that ended the war, and that they are now challenging him "practically publicly" via strategic leaks to the Russian media about his activities.

Alexander Verkhovsky, the director of the Sova Center, a Moscow research institution that studies political extremism, said that "of course" there is a conflict between the FSB and Kadyrov. The FSB's challenge now, he continued, is to prevent Kadyrov from expanding his criminal operations beyond the borders of Chechnya.

Kadyrov, to be clear, has no reason to want another Chechen War. He has always made a point of public displays of loyalty to Putin, and their relationship shows no public signs of problems. But the problem is not between Putin and Kadyrov. Rather, it's the fact that Putin needs to balance both his relationship with Kadyrov and his relationship with the FSB and other security agencies. And their interests might just be mutually exclusive.

After all, the security services have a point: Having a province within Russian territory that openly defies Russian control is a problem. It will become a bigger one if Kadyrov seeks to expand Chechen organized-crime networks in other parts of the country, as he is already rumored to be doing. The situation is eventually going to lead to problems that cannot be solved by a loyalty speech from Kadyrov or a medal of honor from Putin.

Tellingly, when Putin briefly disappeared last March, speculation of a coup focused on this rumored FSB-Kadyrov split. Obviously, that speculation turned out to be inaccurate. But if there was a kernel of truth in it, it was that as with Russia's political opposition, the question here is less the specific outcome in Chechnya, and more about whether Putin's handling of the situation will one day convince other elites that he cannot represent their interests.

In other words, Putin's relationship with Kadyrov is yet another weakness masquerading as a strength. It seems, on its face, to be a sign of power: that Putin is able to delegate near-absolute authority in Chechnya, unchecked by any law or institution, suggests that he himself holds such power. But in fact, he doesn't: Kadyrov isn't gratefully accepting federal authority, he's holding Russian peace and security for ransom. And that arrangement has created yet more tension within Russia's elite — tension that Putin has no clear means to resolve.

V. After Putin: Could what comes next be even worse?

It’s tempting to feel gleeful at the prospect that Putin, awful as he is, could even now be engineering the collapse of his own regime. And by the same token, it's hard to feel excited about the kind of elite-engineered "Putinism with out Putin" that Galeotti described. But many people I spoke with were deeply worried about what could happen if Putin precipitously lost control or his regime collapsed. Even opposition figures who despised Putin and believed Russia would eventually be better off without him were concerned that the collapse of his regime could lead to chaos, rioting, or even civil war.

Putin is an often brutal autocrat who has repressed dissent and violated Russians’ human rights. But, as they pointed out, that doesn’t mean that what comes after him couldn't be much worse. That is not an argument for keeping Putin in power, but rather an observation about how dangerously centralized power in Russia has become, and the potential for disaster if it all suddenly came undone.

This is not so different, of course, from a political argument that Putin himself often makes. As Ponomarev put it when we spoke in April, the Kremlin often pushes the line that "yes, we are bad — but those who might come after us are worse."

The Kremlin typically delivers this message by portraying the opposition as corrupt or extremist, as somehow dangerous. The truth is a little different. The opposition is so politically weak, so bereft of organization or an obvious unifying ideology, that were Putin's regime to collapse, it could be followed by something more dangerous than corruption: a vacuum.

The most visible opposition politician is Alexei Navalny, a handsome, charismatic fellow who has been called "Putin’s Voldemort" because the Russian president reportedly refuses to speak Navalny’s name lest doing so lend him political power.

In the West, Navalny is best known as an anti-corruption crusader and a champion of liberal values. But Navalny has an unsavory side: He is an outspoken ethnic nationalist with a history of embracing policies that would privilege ethnic Russians at the expense of immigrants and ethnic minorities, and he has reached out to Russia’s far-right nationalist opposition groups.

I found that history worrying, especially in light of polls that consistently show many Russians harbor nationalist and even xenophobic views. Surveys conducted by the Levada Center, a prominent Russian polling outfit, find that a majority of Russians support the statement "Russia for Russians" (meaning ethnic Russians over minorities) and the "stop feeding the Caucasus" slogan, and believe that immigrants cause crime and steal jobs from native Russians. That seemed to suggest that if Navalny played up those xenophobic beliefs, that could lead to political power — but that a Navalny government might pursue a deeply disturbing political agenda.

The trip changed my mind about that — but not in a way that I found particularly reassuring.

When I visited Navalny’s campaign office, I found its volunteers bright-eyed and enthusiastic, its offices gleaming and Silicon Valley trendy, and its proposed path to political power totally unconvincing. His foundation and campaign were eagerly running projects designed to improve local services and reduce corruption, but while those seemed like worthy efforts at political organizing, there was no sign that they were building a remotely viable political coalition.

The problem, I realized, wasn’t that Navalny might embrace extremism as a means to organize into more effective political opposition, but that he and the rest of Russia’s disparate dissidents had no means of forming an effective political opposition at all, extremist or otherwise. Navalny had tried to play the nationalism card, including by appearing at "stop feeding the Caucasus" events tinged with ethnic resentments, but those efforts had failed. Even playing to the basest of the base had gotten him nowhere.

And his connections to far-right nationalist groups seemed frayed. When I interviewed one of Navalny’s erstwhile partners, the nationalist activist Vladimir Tor, he bitterly implied that Navalny was just a fair-weather friend — that he'd attempted to use the nationalist movement to get votes, and then abandoned it when those efforts failed.

Verkhovsky, the Sova Center director, agreed that Navalny hadn't been able to translate his nationalist views into an effective political platform.

The reason, Verkhovsky explained, was that in Russia, people look to the state for political change, not to outsiders. Putin had forced Navalny out of electoral politics, so he could no longer build an effective political base. He and other opposition politicians had been reduced to dissidents, not a true organized opposition. Navalny's plight was just another example of the problem facing all of Russia's political opposition: Popular ideas, whether they are based in ethnic nationalism or anti-corruption activism or liberalism, don't translate into popular candidates, because the Russian people see the Putin-dominated system as the beginning and end of politics. Even when they wanted change, they looked to the state to provide it, not to outside activists.

For now, that political habit is a boon to Putin. He controls the levers of political power. He can cut off any non-loyal opposition, as he has done to Ryzhkov and Ponomarev, or prevent political threats from winning office in the first place, as he has done to Navalny. But once again, that source of strength for Putin in the short term could have disastrous consequences in the long term.

For now, Putin is the only game in town. But that means that if his regime collapses after a sudden shock, whether it is a popular protest movement that triggers elite abandonment, an elite fracture that Putin can’t mend, or something else, there isn’t any organized opposition movement that could replace him.

The Russian state is vast and powerful. It oversees the largest country on earth, one of its largest militaries, extensive internal security services, and a society of 144 million that holds together diverse ethnic and religious groups. Putin is not just at the center of it: he is, by his own design, the linchpin and keystone, the one thing that is keeping it all in place.

The precedent that most comes to mind, should that linchpin suddenly fall away, is not Ukraine but Egypt or even Libya. In those countries, there was no well-organized and politically capable opposition. When the dictators were ousted, they were followed in Egypt by years of violence and instability before returning to dictatorship, and in Libya by civil war and chaos.

To be clear, there are many differences between Russia and the Arab world, and the odds of a specifically Arab Spring-style revolution there are very low. But the point is that in countries where power is very centralized, a sudden collapse can be very dangerous. And it does not require great imagination to consider how the collapse of Russia could pose a threat that reaches far beyond Russia's borders. Consider: its enormous population and military, its ranks of far-right extremists fresh home from earning combat experience in Ukraine, and its nuclear arsenal.

There is no reason to believe that his regime will collapse soon. But nearly everyone I spoke to in Russia raised the prospect of some kind of doomsday scenario: collapse, rioting in the streets, a coup, civil war.

Those fears could just be the manifestation of the famously dark Russian soul, or perhaps an overlearning of the lessons of the chaotic 1990s. Putin, after all, has himself driven home these fears of chaos. But they might also be grounded in a valid and real fear that the system could collapse. And that matters, because the stakes here aren’t just whether Putin will retire to his dacha and live out the rest of his life as an idle elder statesman. Rather, it is that collapse could bring disaster, and that a disaster for Russia could be a disaster for us all.

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