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Window on Eurasia — New Series: Putin Shifts His Approach to Rule from Manipulation to the Direct Use of Force, Travin Says


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Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 24 – The Putin regime is again changing its approach to rule in order to ensure its survival, Dmitry Travin says. But its current shift from relying primarily on manipulation to one based on the direct use of force instead is “bad both for the people and for the president.”

            The senior scholar at the European University in St. Petersburg says in the first decade of his rule, Putin relied on what might be called “’an honest autocracy.” He didn’t promise democracy but Russians didn’t especially care because high oil prices were dramatically improving their lives (rosbalt.ru/blogs/2020/09/24/1865015.html).

            But after the onset of the economic crisis in 2008-2009, Putin had to make a change and relied instead on manipulation of the population, distracting the attention of the population by the Olympics and the Crimean Anschluss from the all too real economic failures and the “fake ‘political victories.’”

            For some time, Travin says, manipulation, combined with targeted attacks on those who might threaten him like Aleksey Navalny, served its purpose. But now the pandemic has inflicted ever more serious harm on Putin’s rating. His “charisma has disappeared,” and the rising generation doesn’t remember “the energetic Putin” of two decades ago.

            Worse from Putin’s perspective, the manipulation he has been engaging in has become so open and obvious that almost everyone can see through it. And there is a sense that in 2024, when Putin will be 72, he will be past it. Indeed, “it is possible that already this year will be a turning point.”

            His authoritarian regime is rapidly replacing manipulating with a reliance on force. “The role of brainwashing is declining, and the role of direct threats increasing.” Putin is even quite pleased to point to what Lukashenka is doing in Belarus and to challenge Russians to reflect on the fact that the same thing could happen in Russia.

            For the regime, voting no longer matters that much. What does matter is “the neutralization of protest leaders. Each of them – actual or potential – from this year will begin to understand that his life, health and freedom aren’t defended by anyone.” That is how Putin plans the runup to the 2024 elections.

            In reality, Travin says, the next four years are a transitional period. “It is obvious that manipulation no longer works, but a massive application of force is still not required.” Putin can watch and wait regarding Khabarovsk, something Lukashenka can’t do with the protests roiling the cities of his country.

            According to the St. Petersburg scholar, “the manipulators are passionately resisting the transformation of the regime and want to preserve their influence and positions. In a regime based on open force, the role of the Kremlin administration will be reduced and the role of the FSB will rise.”

            In that new regime, “there won’t be any sense in paying television propagandists so much,” Travin argues. In that case, “the money should go to the fighters of the Russian Guard.” What one can say is that “the people are defeating the manipulators,” although the likely victor in the short and medium term will be the siloviki.

            “For Putin by the way,” he continues, “such a transformation is bad news as for all of us as well” because there was far greater room for maneuver in the old regime than there will be in the new one. But Putin cares above all about power and much less about the form in which he exercises it. 

            However, regimes based on force alone often end when those who have the force turn on those who created the regime. Russia isn’t Latin America, however. And Putin may remain in power for a long time just as Brezhnev did, with the siloviki really having more power than the top man.

            What is striking, Travin says in conclusion, is that few are talking about this transition. On the one hand, Russians would rather talk about what they hope for than what they fear; and on the other, regimes based on force are generally so opaque that few outsiders really know how they operate. 

Window on Eurasia — New Series