May 28, 2023

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Reuters analysis. Putin’s position remains firm for now, but the risks are mounting

Some say, however, that could change quickly if total defeat were to happen. And most say the Russian president has found himself in one of the most difficult situations of his two decades in power because of the situation in Ukraine, where invading forces have been pushed back in places by Western-armed Kiev.

The sources, current and former Western diplomats and government officials, say no imminent threat was apparent from Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, military or intelligence services.

The former British ambassador to Russia, Anthony Brenton, is of the same opinion. He said he believed Vladimir Putin hoped to negotiate over Ukraine, possibly with the Americans, and hoped Moscow’s declining battlefield fortunes would recover despite what the West says is a shortage of personnel. , equipment and even missiles.

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In power since 1999, Putin has faced numerous crises and wars, as well as street protests.

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Ukraine’s “special military operation” has created the most tense East-West standoff since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and drawn the West’s toughest sanctions against Russia.

Putin’s army has endured humiliating retreats and massive losses, and hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled the country to avoid mobilization. The Russian president also did not hesitate to talk about a nuclear attack, which would be a sign of desperation.

Some allies, such as Ramzan Kadîrov, the Chechen leader, have accused military chiefs of mismanaging the war.

Brenton, who dealt with Putin during his second term, said there had been no public criticism from political or business elites or any other sign of a move against Putin, but that it might not last.

“If they continue to withdraw in the spring, in March-April next year, then my instinct is that things will become more and more problematic for Putin – not at the level of the people, but at the level of the elites. You have a handful of people who are interested in them, who don’t want to be part of a disappointment,” the former ambassador said.

“There are no signs that he lost control”

Protests against the mobilization by relatives, Ukraine’s vow not to deal with Vladimir Putin and an apparently unscripted and quickly retracted statement by US President Joe Biden that Putin should not be allowed to remain in power fueled speculation about to his future.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a Washington Post report this month that a member of Putin’s inner circle had confronted him about the war was “totally untrue,” but said there is an honest political debate.

“There are signs of infighting, complaints, slow decision-making, but there are no signs that he has lost control,” Peskov said.

A US official, who declined to be named, said Washington and its allies say Putin’s position is secure: “Most of his recent actions – including the mobilization – make it clear that Putin is at a disadvantage.”

With powerful intelligence services supporting a political system staffed by closely watched loyalists, it would be difficult and dangerous for anyone to act against it.

“Everything is possible in Russia”

Andrew Weiss, a specialist at the Carnegie Endowment, said that while “anything is possible in Russia”, public opinion is less important than in the West, real opponents have fled or been imprisoned, and Putin has been surrounded by loyalists.

“Show me the person who will walk into Putin’s office and tell him it’s over. Who would have the guts to do that?” Weiss said.

The Russian leader could be brought down by a palace coup, an elite rebellion or a “storming of the Bastille” from the grassroots, he said, noting that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ruled for more than a decade after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait was shaken.

Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of research firm R.Politik, said Putin could be in trouble if he ran out of options to escalate the conflict.

And in that case, the elites would try to persuade Putin to back down, adding that there are still no signs of coups of the kind that ousted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1964 or targeted Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991.

“If he is able to … fulfill his unspoken obligations to the elite and the population – stability, peace, pensions and wages – then nothing will threaten him,” Stanovaia said.

“But if … the Russian military is pushed back to Russia’s old pre-annexation borders, if the Ukrainian military goes on the offensive … and if the budget can’t cope and there are pension delays … the elite will mobilize gradually,” she says.

“Most Russians will still support Putin”

Although opinion polls in Russia show growing public anxiety, a French diplomatic source said he believed Vladimir Putin, who dominates influential state media, could maintain control. “Let’s not forget that fear reigns,” the source said.

“I still believe that the majority of Russians will support Putin, no matter what he decides,” commented the source.

A senior European official has said that Vladimir Putin would have to lose the war demonstratively to be removed.

If and when that time comes, former British ambassador Brenton said, his successor is unlikely to be a friend of the West. “The people who will make the decisions are hard security. We will not have a nice liberal.”

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