What keeps Putin awake at night?
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“Не приведи Бог видеть русский бунт — бессмысленный и беспощадный! (God save us from having to see a Russian rebellion - it is senseless and pitiless!)” -Alexander Pushkin, The Captain's Daughter

Russian President Vladimir Putin presents himself as the champion of the Russian people worldwide, the embodiment of Russian nationalism, but this is a fraud. The nationalists believed his claims that he cared about Russian prestige, traditions, and religious values, and supported him; but now they believe he has betrayed them. They have turned against him, and he now fears them and is using his repressive apparatus against them. This is Putin’s greatest weakness, and President Trump has an opportunity to exploit it.

In a previous commentary I wrote of the challenges to Putin’s power from Russia’s growing Muslim population and the leverage that Trump holds over Putin if he threatens the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan. The Russian Foreign Ministry reacted by warning that NATO cannot afford to withdraw from Afghanistan, because it would cause “a complete collapse of the country.” But Putin’s focus should be on domestic challenges, and the threat of collapse inside Russia, not the foreign distractions that he is so keen on creating. His dependence on Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov to counter nationalist insurgence is a real threat to his regime that he can no longer mask.

Russian nationalists were Putin’s natural constituency. They support an expansionist foreign policy, and believe in preserving traditions and restoring the patrimony of bygone Russian empires. They want to regain as much land as possible, and install puppet regimes where they can’t seize the land. Some very vocal far-right ultranationalists join them, but those are a small minority in comparison to the nationalist movement as a whole.

Putin dreamed from the beginning of restoring a grand Russian empire, promoting the idea with emotional appeals such as defending “oppressed Russians” in the near abroad and bringing back the ancient federation of Kievan Rus. The nationalists supported those goals enthusiastically. But losing Ukraine in the Maidan Revolution in 2014 was a devastating blow to his imperial dreams.

Undeterred, he turned his sights to a smaller prize with a similar emotional tug, the historically Russian territory of Novorossiya. He warned the Russian people that their standard of living was going to fall, but promised that it was all in the cause of greater Russian glory, using nationalist aspirations and language to justify his ambitions. He explained, "The Russian man, or to say more inclusively, the man of the Russian world, thinks that there is a certain moral calling … Western ideals of individualism are not enough for us … Patriotic self-sacrifice and readiness to die for the motherland is what defines the Russian people.”

Those promises are broken, however, as Putin instead has presided over a complete collapse of Russian influence on the world scene. Having first lost Kiev, he also failed to regain Novorossiya when cities like Odessa and Kharkiv refused to support his invasion. The nationalists feel like their sacrifices have been made in vain, and even Russians in the Donbas are worse off now than before the Russian invasion.

In a 47-page report prepared in 2015 by SOVA, a Moscow-based human rights organization, the authors noted “It is possible that the authorities are afraid that the nationalists, being significantly more oriented toward the use of force than are liberals and most left-wing groups, may become an important force element in a potential and more radical protest movement.” The government expressed particular concern about “militants returning from the Donbas.”

This “force element” is what Putin fears most.  He is oppressing the nationalists, jailing and killing them; and in fulfillment of their greatest nightmares, he is using Chechens to do it. They feel betrayed, and believe the entire Russian people have been betrayed. These are not the liberals, the Boris Nemtsovs, who hated Putin’s authoritarianism: these are the people who trusted him, and believed he was going to achieve their dreams. But he betrayed them, and now he fears them.

Putin has not made Russia greater or more powerful, but has presided over the diminishing extent of Russian empire, compared to its Tsarist or Soviet past. Russia belongs in the West. Russian music, art, literature, and political thought all are part of the European tradition. But it is no longer the empire the nationalists long for: the great protector of Christendom, the nation that saved Europe from Napoleon and the Nazis. Putin’s Grand Russian Empire is a Potemkin village: the Russian standard of living has fallen precipitously, and there have been no great achievements in art, literature, science, technology or sports in the Putin years. 

Instead, they have a vast kleptocracy run by Putin and his cronies for his benefit.  Some analysts claim he is the world’s richest man; estimates of his net worth vary from at least $40 billion to as much as $200 billion. One wag told me, “Putin wants to rule like Stalin, but live like Abramovich.” Russians see the better standard of living elsewhere, and ask why they can’t have it at home. As they increasingly fix their sights on Putin as the reason, the atmosphere will get ugly. Russians have an unfortunate tradition of liquidating and imprisoning overthrown rulers and their families. Alexander Pushkin wrote: “Не приведи Бог видеть русский бунт — бессмысленный и беспощадный! (God save us from having to see a Russian rebellion - it is senseless and pitiless!)” 

The post 2012 authoritarian regime that Putin has created leaves no room for liberal reform: his regime will collapse if genuine political reforms take place in Russia’s current economic environment. He and his inner circle know this, and will do anything to maintain power. They know they have crossed the Rubicon: if they lose power now, then those who seize it will not spare their lives, or the lives of their families.  Putin and Trump are playing for entirely different stakes: one is playing for his legacy, and the other is playing for his life. This is what keeps Putin up at night.

Bart Marcois was the principal deputy assistant secretary of energy for international affairs during the Bush administration, and was previously a career foreign service officer.

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