The unraveling of Vladimir Putin

The unraveling of Vladimir Putin
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Early last month, as tens of thousands of protesters once again took to the streets in Moscow to protest upcoming municipal elections, Russian state television showed a smiling President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinBiden expresses shock that Trump considers attending Russia May Day event Harris swipes at Trump on Russia: 'Always nice to spend time with supporters on the campaign trail' Trump says he's considering attending Russia's May Day parade MORE riding with the Night Wolves motorcycle club in Crimea. It was a typical scene that showcased the president doing tough guy stuff at the location of his most popular act of annexation of Crimea. Meanwhile, the internet streamed up close views of the savage beatings and arrests of protesters by the police in Moscow.

The public relations experts in the Kremlin and the state media have had many years of practice framing competing unfolding stories for national consumption on television, where most ordinary Russians get their news and shape their views. The Kremlin playbook for responding to large street demonstrations includes blaming them on Western interference, charging the protesters as violent criminals, and warning citizens across the country that such demonstrations threaten to plunge Russia into chaos.

Yet there was another story unfolding in Russia that week that did not have a page in the Kremlin playbook. A military accident in northern Russia last month left seven dead and several others injured by radiation. Military accidents are not a rare occurrence in Russia. Accidents that cause radiation gauges to spike in nearby towns are. Survivors of the military accident were taken for treatment in nearby Arkhangelsk, however, the civilian doctors were not warned of the radiation risks.

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Several medical staff involved later received treatment in Moscow as a precaution. A town close to the accident was ordered to evacuate, but the evacuation order was soon rescinded. All the while, the Kremlin shifted from silence to cryptic and evasive public statements. The Russian state response to the military accident followed a different playbook, the one used by the Soviet state in response to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

The radiation disaster this month is not remotely as serious as the Chernobyl explosion, but its timing was unfortunate. Many in Russia have watched the popular HBO miniseries about Chernobyl, and the show convincingly places blame for both the slow government response and the accident itself on the pervasive culture of lies in the Soviet system. A Russian response to the HBO show is in production now, and reportedly features a CIA agent playing a central role in the Chernobyl disaster.

The recent accident also comes on the heels of six years of stagnant or declining living standards for ordinary Russians. The decline in living standards across the country sets up a debate between the empty refrigerators of average Russians and the “all is well” narrative on television. The Kremlin is counting on television to win that debate.

For years, that has proven to be a good bet, but past may not be prologue here. According to recent pollingby the Levada Center, nearly 80 percent of Russians trusted what they saw on television back in 2009. Today, that figure has dropped to 55 percent. Among young people, that trust number for Russian state television is 28 percent, whereas 42 percent mistrust it. Russians also trust Putin less because they have faith in his ability to solve problems than because they see no alternative to him.

Putin and his leadership circle have enjoyed remarkable success for the last several years pursuing an aggressive agenda abroad and using that success to bolster the impression of his popularity and inevitability at home. A large part of his long run of success comes from the belief that his leadership is essential to prevent the chaos of the 1990s, when Russia experienced an economic decline worse than the Great Depression.

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It has been 20 years since Putin first rose to national leadership, tapped by Boris Yeltsin to be the prime minister. He has governed Russia longer than Leonid Brezhnev, and many of the protesters on the streets of Moscow have no living memory of any leader but Putin. The aura of inevitability comes at the price of responsibility when things go wrong. For a growing number of ordinary Russians, things appear to be going wrong. Six years of declining living standards remind them of the dreaded 1990s. The violent police beatings of protesters, including both young and old people, suggest that the stability established by Putin has its own costs.

The most recent Kremlin use of the old Soviet playbook in responding to a nuclear accident threatens to shake the very legitimacy of Putin and his government. Mikhail Gorbachev had once observed that Chernobyl was “perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.” The military accident last month was no Chernobyl, but it will cause another thread to unravel from the legitimacy of Putin, and that of his carefully built system of Russian leadership. How many threads are left?

Joseph Dresen is a senior program associate with the Kennan Institute for Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.