Putin Faces ‘Most Precarious Moment’ of His Decades in Power: Russia Expert

  • Angela Stent told Insider that Putin is facing the “most dangerous moment” of his presidency.
  • Stent, a leading Russia expert, said Putin’s grip on power slipped because of Russia’s mounting failure in Ukraine.
  • The Russian army appears “incompetent”, said Stent, and for Putin “the situation looks bad”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ruled his country with an iron fist for more than two decades, brutally cracking down on dissent while tightening his grip on the levers of power in Russia. Those who defied the Russian leader have often ended up behind bars or found dead. But Russia’s mounting failures in Ukraine have presented new challenges to Putin’s authority.

Angela Stent, a senior Russia expert who served in the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning from 1999-2001 and as the national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council from 2004-2006, told Insider that “his grasp on above power is clearly not as strong as it was on “February 23”, the day before Putin launched Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The war did not go Putin’s way. The Pentagon said in August Russian casualties could be as high as 80,000, and that number has likely risen in recent months. To address Russia’s personnel problems, Putin recently announced a partial military mobilization as well as various stop-loss measures, but things are not going well. There is local opposition to the draft, and tens of thousands of Russians have fled the country.

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Putin also announced the annexation of four Ukrainian regions last week, though Russia does not fully control or occupy those regions. Since then, Ukrainian forces have recaptured areas in these areas. Recent reports suggest that even members of Putin’s inner circle have begun to openly criticize the botched invasion, an action that can be dangerous and even deadly.

The Russian army appears “incompetent”, said Stent, and for Putin “the situation looks bad”. “This is definitely the most precarious moment” in Putin’s 22 years in power, she said, adding that what is happening is entirely “self-inflicted”.

“He didn’t have to invade Ukraine in February, but obviously he made the decision that this was the right time to do it,” said Stent, now a Georgetown professor and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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Even if the war didn’t go as planned for the Russian leader, that doesn’t necessarily mean Putin’s downfall is imminent. “He still conveys the image of a self-confident man,” said Stent, referring to Putin’s “fiery” speech on the annexations.

And there has been no mass public uprising against Putin, showing how effective his efforts have been in quelling dissent. Putin’s most prominent critic, Alexei Navalny, is in prison on charges widely perceived as politically motivated. Protesting the war could mean jail time for some Russians, and shortly after the invasion began, Putin signed a vague law criminalizing the spread of so-called “fake news” about the military.

“The problem is that Putin created the system with increasing repression,” Stent said, “it’s a big stumbling block to protest.”

“There is no single person or even a small group of people who would mobilize people,” she added. “If you want change in Russia, it has to happen in Moscow and probably in St. Petersburg, and you just didn’t see the willingness to shake people up.”

Stent also said that the OPEC+ alliance’s recent decision to significantly cut oil production at a time when Russia’s war in Ukraine is causing an energy crisis seems to indicate Putin’s ongoing geopolitical influence. The Saudis and other members of the coalition would essentially “support Putin’s war effort,” Stent said. “Although his situation does not look good, there are a large number of countries around the world that still support Russia.”

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But there are also signs that countries like India and China, which tend to side with Moscow on the global stage but are not openly supportive of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, are “cautious” about what Putin is doing , stent said.

Last month, Putin acknowledged that both countries have concerns about the war in Ukraine when he met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a summit in Uzbekistan. Modi criticized the conflict directly in Putin’s face, stating: “Today’s era is not an era of war and I spoke to you about it on the phone.”

Putin’s repeated nuclear threats since the war began are likely “mitigating” the possibility of such countries fully supporting Russia’s war in Ukraine, Stent said.

“The nuclear threat does not help Putin”

A Russian nuclear missile is seen during a parade in Moscow.

A Russian nuclear missile rolls down Red Square during the military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi defeat June 24, 2020 in Moscow, Russia.

Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

As Russia struggles in Ukraine and Putin faces perhaps the worst predicament of his time in power, many leaders, officials, Russia observers, and military experts in Ukraine and the West have expressed concerns that the Russian leader is resorting to nuclear weapons could .

In late September, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the US had privately told Russia there would be “catastrophic consequences” if nuclear weapons were used.

A number of analysts have suggested that Putin’s nuclear threats are largely a bluff aimed at intimidating the West into dissuading it from continued support for Kyiv. The US has provided Ukraine with billions of dollars in security aid, including weapons that have played a key role on the battlefield.

If that’s Putin’s goal, it’s not working, Stent said, adding that “the nuclear threat doesn’t help Putin vis-à-vis the West.”

Putin’s nuclear rhetoric is “to be taken seriously,” she said, but there is “an exaggeration of the impending danger.”

“I don’t think anybody thinks that using a tactical nuclear weapon is going to happen anytime soon,” Stent said, stressing that Putin wants to wait and see if the mobilization works before taking escalating moves about attacks on infrastructure like power plants and dams .

But that doesn’t mean that Putin’s nuclear threats should be dismissed entirely.

“Putin has said he’s not bluffing, and some of our political leaders have said we need to take that seriously,” Stent said. “Therefore, the government is clearly communicating with the Kremlin – telling them that if they did something like that, there would be very serious consequences.”

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