Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
The Harder They Come
By David G. Young
Washington, DC, September 20, 2022 --
Russian propagandists have built an image of invincibility around Putin. That image has been shattered by reality.
Souvenir t-shirts on sale on the streets of St. Petersburg often feature an image Russia's strongman leader. There are several variants: A bare-chested muscular Putin. Putin wielding a hunting rifle. Putin riding a bear. While hardly serious, these kitschy images reflect a well-curated image of a powerful and capable leader who can do almost anything.
While the graphics probably did not come from official channels, Russia's state-controlled media have been involved in some similarly fantastic imagery. In 2012, Putin was filmed flying a motorized hang glider leading endangered Russian cranes in their migration.1 A year earlier, he was photographed emerging from a dive in the Black sea carrying two ancient greek amphora.2 And back in 2008, he reportedly rescued a Russian TV crew by shooting an escaped Siberian tiger.3
Now such carefully curated strongman scenes have been dealt a body blow by reality. After Ukraine seized thousands of square kilometers of Russian occupied territory around Kharkiv last week, a visibly much older Putin was dressed down by world leaders at an economic conference in Uzbekistan. India's president Modi, who has remained neutral in the Ukrainian conflict, pointedly told Putin that this is not the time for war, and said he had told him this privately in multiple phone conversations.4
It is not just world leaders who have started to turn on Putin. Recent victories by Ukraine's capable and extremely motivated armed forces have pierced Putin's aura of invincibility inside Russia itself. Critics of the president's war effort are now coming out of the woodwork, and span the full political spectrum. On the right, pro-war commentators are criticizing the performance of Russia's armed forces. Igor Girkin, onetime leader of Ukraine's separatist Donetsk region, called for Russia's defense minister to be executed.5 Other military bloggers on Russia's popular Telegram social network have excoriated the Russian military's poor performance.6
Amongst liberals, domestic sources of criticism have until recently been hard to find. Most prominent critics of Putin have already been killed, jailed or exiled. For years, only those in exile have been free to speak out against Putin.
But cracks are now starting to show inside Russia itself. Last week, members of several town councils inside Russia called on Putin to resign7 and just yesterday, one of Russia's biggest pop stars, Alla Pugacheva, said she was against the war, and challenged the government to put her on a foreign agents list.8
In a regular democracy, such mild rebukes of government officials don't even make the news. But Putin's Russia is no ordinary country. Russians know that challenging their leader may get them poisoned with a nerve agent and sent to the Gulag like opposition leader Alexei Navalny, or shot dead on a bridge like Boris Nemtsov was seven years ago. The fact that Russians are now daring to speak out against Putin's war shows that people are starting to lose their fear of the strongman.
Once fear of a dictator is lost, opposition can build quickly. To survive, Putin must carefully act to silence his high-profile detractors without spawning outrage that serves to recruit even more.
His latest gambit is to schedule referenda in Ukraine's Luhansk and Donetsk provinces about joining Russia. The results of these referenda, if they go forward, are a foregone conclusion. But how will this play at home? Nationalist-minded Russians will certainly cheer, but how will ordinary citizens react if Putin starts drafting their sons or launching nukes to defend what he has just recently declared to be Russian soil?
Such moves are about as farcical as an image of a bare-chested Putin riding a bear. How will Russians express their displeasure?
On the streets of Washington,DC, tourist kiosks sell any number of offensive anti-Biden shirts, just as those on the streets of London long did for former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The fact that St. Petersburg kiosks sell only shirts depicting fawning images of Russia's leader indicates how far Russia's once nascent democracy has fallen. As Putin's disastrous war in Ukraine leads his people to ruin, anti-Putin shirts may still appear -- but only if Putin retains power long enough to see them.
2. The Guardian, Vladimir Putin's Greek Urns Claim Earns Ridicule, August 12, 2011
3. The Guardian, Putin Shoots a Tiger as Europe Grapples with Russian Aggression, September 1, 2008
4. CNN, Indian Leader Narendra Modi Tells Putin: Now is Not the Time for War, September 17, 2022
5. Insider, Putin is Facing Pressure From Russia's Hawkish Nationalists Who Want All-Out War in Ukraine, September 17, 2022 6. Ibid.
8. The Telegraph, Russia's Most Famous Pop Star Becomes Latest to Criticise War in Ukraine, September 19. 2022