The combination of the war in Ukraine and sanctions from the West is having an enormous impact on the political system in Russia.
At first glance, it may seem like a classic case of the population rallying around the flag, writes Professor Stefan Hedlund.
Russians have long felt humiliated by Western patronage and disdain. Now, President Vladimir Putin has shown that Russia can stand its ground. The Russian army has taken Crimea and is conducting a bloody proxy war in Ukraine’s Donbass. All the while, the Kremlin responds to Western sanctions with fiery defiance.
What is worrying is that Mr Putin’s popularity reflects something deeper than simply rallying around the leader. At a recent meeting with Western Russia-watchers, the President’s deputy chief of staff, Vyacheslav Volodin, noted that ‘while there is Putin, there is Russia; and when there is no Putin, there will be no Russia, either’. His remark captured the essence of what is happening.
Mr Putin has succeeded in building a regime that consists of himself and his courtiers. The country’s legal and political institutions have been hollowed out, to the point that they are a mere façade, concealing the reality which is a wilful exercise of power. The war in Ukraine has served to finally galvanise the Russian population who now herald Vladimir Putin the undisputed leader. And in the process, it has also cemented the system of unaccountable power the President has built for himself - which may yet prove to be his eventual undoing.
The dilemma is obvious. The impact of Western sanctions on the Russian economy is such that President Putin has become a liability to everyone. The business world is suffering massive losses, and the prospects for developing the energy sector are dire. Without help from Western service companies, Russian oil companies will not be able to work fields that require cutting-edge technology.
Calculations by information consultancy IHS CERA suggest that if sanctions are maintained, then Russia’s output of oil could drop from 10.5 million barrels per day at present to 7.6 million barrels per day in 2025. Given the extreme nature of Russia’s dependence on revenue from oil, this comes close to posing an existential threat.
Mr Putin, nevertheless, remains extremely popular. He is, at the same time, the man who has brought crippling sanctions upon his country, and the man who can bail out those who suffer. Here lies perhaps the main dilemma of the West.
Sanctions were imposed in the naïve belief that they would cause both the business elites and the population at large to turn against their leader. They have achieved precisely the opposite.
As the Russian economy turns sour, which would have been the case even without sanctions, the Kremlin will be able to blame all hardship on the West. And, as the business elites start losing big money, their only point of rescue will be the Kremlin.
It is, at present, more crucial than ever not to anger the man at the top. Western sanctions have therefore served to strengthen rather than weaken the regime.
But the situation is clearly not sustainable. One day, the pain will become overpowering and attempts will be made to dislodge Mr Putin. That is when we shall find out whether there can be a Russia without Putin.