Evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin is in trouble grows. He imposed an October deadline on his generals to stop Ukraine’s counteroffensive and to invade a large city, and a new poll is quietly underway in Russia to test the waters concerning the March 2024 presidential election.
It’s hard to believe, in a country without free elections or free speech, that Putin is interested in probing public opinion, but the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center is doing just that in an unusually candid way. Russians are being asked to comment on whether a Putin resignation would “improve, worsen or not change the situation” and also if “someone replace him as president and if so, who exactly?”
These are “two interesting questions,” Putin’s former speechwriter, Abbas Gallyamov, wrote on his Telegram channel. Naturally, there’s an ulterior motive and game afoot, but this is another sign of weakness. But the biggest failing is Putin’s naval retreat from the “permanent” home base of its Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol in Crimea.
Gallyamov, who lives in Israel, speculates that the poll is merely a gambit aimed at meeting one of three objectives. Putin, a dictator, has not declared he will run as yet, and this poll may simply be a way to create a fake and early groundswell for him to stay, based on bogus results. Another possibility, he guessed, is that Putin may want to retire and be looking for a successor. Thirdly, he suggested that Putin “is thinking about tearing off the head of someone who is close to him popularity.”
Whatever the motivation, the survey indicates an insecure Putin who knows that his future is dependent upon the outcome of a war that’s going badly. Public opinion, usually irrelevant, may become a factor, along with the will of the elites.
A cynic could argue that another development — nuclear drills that took place across the country on Oct. 3 — is designed to scare the public into support for him. Leaders took part in drills that imagined 70 percent of the country’s housing and infrastructure was destroyed by a nuclear attack and that there was the possibility of radioactive contamination.
Putin’s military deadline, polling and scare tactics coincide with the announcement by Washington that it will provide long-range ATACMS ammunition for their HIMARS systems in Ukraine and that Abrams tanks are in Ukraine, soon to be deployed. The missiles will be a game-changer for Crimea and, to underscore that reality, the day after the news broke Ukraine advised Ukrainians living in Crimea to evacuate as soon as possible and “await liberation.” Another setback for Russia is that Ukrainians have broken through in Zaporizhzhia in a drive to reach the coastline and cut Putin’s land bridge to Crimea.
By far the biggest climb-down of all is Putin’s decision to abandon ship in Sevastopol, touted as the “permanent” base for the Russian Navy in the strategically important Black Sea region. Quietly, following Ukrainian attacks that have sunk or damaged many ships, including the regional flagship Moskva, Russia’s warships and submarines have transferred to Novorossiysk and other ports along Russia’s shore. Their relocations were not announced, but gradually detected through surveillance — a damaging and significant naval retreat. Russian supply lines to its Ukrainian-based forces will be disrupted, missiles from its ships will be out of range and Russia’s ability to choke Ukraine economically by blocking its maritime trade will be reduced.
Putin is also losing the economic war. Inflation soars, the ruble is at an all-time low, imports have disappeared, and last month the Central Bank raised interest rates to postpone a currency collapse. The elite is unhappy about this, but most have socked their stolen wealth offshore. Besides that, Putin has been bribing them to stay onside: Loyal followers have been given the assets and companies confiscated from Western interests that left the country in protest against the war.
But Putin’s vulnerability increases as conditions deteriorate, because the public is increasingly damaged. This is why Putin is taking the pulse through his poll. “Opinion change will come to Russia — abruptly and unexpectedly,” wrote Russian opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza, just before he was sent to Siberia for 25 years after criticizing the war. “It’s only a matter of time … The windows of opportunity opened by revolutionary change are generally very small and close very quickly. The new government will have only a few months, at best a year, to make a decisive break with the totalitarian past and prevent its return.”
Diane Francis is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington at its Eurasia Center. She is editor at large at National Post in Canada, a columnist with Kyiv Post, author of 10 books, and specializes in geopolitics, white-collar crime, technology and business. She writes a newsletter about America and geopolitics twice weekly on Substack.