A quick scan of the press, social media and even some scholarly literature reveals significant discussion about the prospects for instability that are facing Russia. The general theory usually goes something like this: The dramatic drop in world oil prices, coupled with Western economic sanctions in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, will cause enough economic and social unrest in Russia to become a threat to President Vladimir Putin's government. In support of this theory, observers point to recent protests (such as those by Russian long-haul truckers because of increased tolls), anti-Putin rhetoric authored by Russian opposition bloggers on the Internet, and even incidents such as the still-unsolved murder of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov. Some claim these are examples of how instability is growing in Russia, and the extent to which the Kremlin needs to go to stifle it.
While it is tempting (and for some, emotionally satisfying) to predict the beginning of the end for Putin, or at least a slow downward spiral that might result in political change in Russia, such theories suffer from a pervasive problem in reporting and analysis of Russia: They analyze Putin, the Kremlin and events in Russia from an overly Western perspective. In fact, Putin's hold on power in Russia and his command over the Russian people remains strong, despite circumstances that would normally spell disaster for a Western leader. Ultimately, significant instability in Russia is unlikely. The trick to more accurately predicting unrest there is to get past Western assumptions and premises that simply do not hold true in Russia.
Leaving Behind the Western Perspective
The first flawed assumption people usually make is that Putin is actually very concerned about what the Russian population thinks or does. It is worth remembering that Putin's power does not emanate from the people he governs in the way of Western democracies. Putin relies much more (albeit not exclusively) on coercive measures to control his country. Some pundits overemphasize the importance of Putin's former career with the KGB, and it is certainly true that there is much more to Putin than simply his background in Russian intelligence. But being a member of the KGB, or its successor organization, the FSB, or any of the previous iterations of the security organs of Russia, does carry with it a certain view of the world. Current and former members of what Russians refer to as "the special services" consider themselves Chekists, that is, in the direct lineage of the Cheka, the secret police created by Lenin. This worldview fully embraces the use of coercive measures against one's own population when needed. Both Putin and the Russian citizenry understand this, and it frees Putin from having to be overly concerned about popular uprisings over the price of food or other commodities.
The second assumption follows from the first, namely, that Putin is concerned about how Russians express their displeasure, such as demonstrations, protests, riots and the like, and that such expressions have an effect on his decisions. Western commentators and reporters sometimes allude to protests in Russia as harbingers of change or barometers of discontent, but it is important to remember how carefully protests in Russia are monitored, and how much work by the security services goes into controlling, penetrating and extracting information on the organizers for later use. (Witness the immense presence of the security apparatus during the Bolotnaya Square protests in 2011.) Putin understands it is highly unlikely that protests will reach a level that his security services (or, in a more serious scenario, the Russian military) can no longer control. In fact, Putin actually sees value in allowing some protests, since it enables him to paint a picture of a democratic Russia, a place where opposition forces are allowed to manifest. This can be useful in international forums such as the United Nations, the European Union and so forth.
The final assumption is that if economic conditions continue to deteriorate in Russia, the Russian people will finally reach the point of a significant uprising that would threaten the current status quo. While such a premise is completely reasonable in the West, most Russians do not view scarcity the same way Westerners do. Russians take great pride in suffering (an interesting trait that extends to other Slavic cultures but is less prominent elsewhere). When the Russian government explains economic hardship in a nationalistic fashion and blames external forces such as the European Union or the United States, tolerating scarcity becomes almost a national sport, and certainly a matter of great national pride. It is another way for Russians to stand up to an international community portrayed by the Kremlin as fundamentally anti-Russian. This explains some of Putin's actions that confound Western economists, such as Russia enacting counter-sanctions against Western trading partners, which actually creates more suffering for the average Russian family.
Most Russians are more than willing to sacrifice what many in the West would consider basic rights in the name of stability — even if that stability means fewer goods, less services and limited liberties.
Many commentators believe that at some point, when things get bad enough economically in Russia, Putin's popularity will drop, no matter how much the country loves him now. In the first place, this premise has already been shown to be faulty in that it presupposes Putin cares about his popularity in a political sense. (Given what we know of Putin, it is of course likely that he finds his popularity personally gratifying, but less likely that it is an important factor in his political calculus.) As noted above, even if his popularity drops significantly, Putin still has the resources of his security services available to make this matter moot. Putin would not hesitate to use intimidation and coercion to undermine opposition forces; the persecution of the girl band Pussy Riot and the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya are good examples. Interestingly, Russians differ from many in the West in another way that speaks to this issue. Russians have traditionally shown a strong preference for stability over what they often refer to as the "chaos" of real democracy. Most Russians are more than willing to sacrifice what many in the West would consider basic rights in the name of stability — even if that stability means fewer goods, less services and limited liberties. And of course Putin is widely seen by Russians as the first strong leader Russia has had in post-Soviet times, making it that much more unlikely that his popularity will drop in any event.
The Real Threat to Putin's Power
What, then, would significantly increase the likelihood of instability in Putin's Russia? Actions taken to unseat Putin by Russian oligarchs and perhaps the leadership of the security services would be much more seriously destabilizing than the threat of a popular uprising. Putin of course realizes this and has taken several prophylactic measures.
First, he made a strong example of prominent oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who made the near-fatal mistake of challenging Putin politically. Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest businessman, was subsequently sentenced to a lengthy term in a Siberian prison, followed by exile from Russia. Current oligarchs certainly must understand a similar fate would await them should they move strongly against the Russian president. They would also immediately understand that even exile does not provide complete protection should they break with Putin, as the numerous murders of high-profile Russians outside of Russia, including Alexander Litvinenko, shows.
Second, it is likely Putin closely compartmentalizes his relationships with oligarchs and those with strong ties to the security services (the "siloviki"), thus making it that much harder for them to collude against him. Putin most likely learned the importance of controlling his senior lieutenants during the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev that occurred during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin was a mid-level KGB officer in St. Petersburg in 1991 when several Soviet hard-liners — including senior KGB officials — made an abortive attempt to oust Gorbachev because of his plans to increase the autonomy of the Soviet republics (which subsequently led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union).
Lastly, Putin and the oligarchs understand that both sides will continue to benefit under the current arrangement. This makes it less likely that anyone will make a serious attempt to change the political status quo.
In sum, perhaps the greatest impediment to understanding the prospects for instability in Putin's Russia is the West's strong tendency to project Western values and rationale onto a Russian system where Western assumptions simply do not hold. What is worse is that Putin and the Kremlin recognize this tendency, view it as a quaint element of the West's worldview and work actively to exploit it. Putin aggressively asserts that Russia is a democracy, with elections, a parliament, laws, judges and yes, even protests against the government. Putin understands that these claims will cause Western world leaders to make certain assumptions, such as, "Putin would never do X, because the Russian people would not stand for it". What is often overlooked is that neither Putin nor the Russian population would make anything like such an assertion. And while some will call it a return to the Cold War days, perhaps the best way to assess the plans and intentions of the Kremlin is almost purely in realpolitik terms. Putin will always act first in his own interest, and then in what he perceives to be Russia's interest. This is something Westerners can understand, but what they often miss is how it translates in a Russian context. As a senior Russian official once commented off the record,
"We are not Westerners. It is one of the biggest mistakes you Americans make. You don't make that same mistake with the Chinese, do you? It is because they do not look European, while we do."
While Putin and Russia may appear on the surface to be Western-oriented, just as Russia appears somewhat democratic with a parliament and occasional protests, they are only appearances. To accurately assess the prospect of instability inside the Russian Federation, one must first see the world — and more important, Russia itself — through a Russian lens.