In recent days Vladimir Putin has gone on the offensive – or at least he wants us to believe he has. He has the Russian military prancing around. He’s showing off the terrible conditions Alexei Navalny is facing in prison. And he just passed legislation that will allow him to remain in power for years to come.
The thing is, though, none of this is real. The reality is that Putin is at his weakest and most vulnerable point in at least a decade. He’s lost Trump. The Republican Senators he had influence over have lost majority control. He never did get U.S. sanctions against Russia eased during the Trump era. And now President Biden has hit Russia with even costlier sanctions.
So Putin is doing what a strongman does when he’s becoming weak: he’s making a point of trying to project strength, so as to distract from the fact that he’s becoming weak. He tried building up troops on the border with Ukraine, but now that Biden has called him out on that, he’s reduced to having his military run exercises in the Arctic. It’s theater, in a place where no one is going to care.
Everyone already knows that Putin is in position to remain in power for as long as his political muscle and favor with the oligarchs lasts. So why would he need to pass legislation allowing him to remain in power for a certain amount of time? He doesn’t. This legislation is purely for show, to give the illusion that he’s now set to remain in power for another fifteen years. Again, it’s theater.
Putin clearly fears Navalny, or he wouldn’t have imprisoned him to begin with. But if Putin still had the muscle that he used to, he would have murdered Navalny immediately. As things now stand, Putin is reduced to just sort of hoping that poor prison conditions cause Navalny to kick the bucket.
That’s not to say that this isn’t a dangerous time. Putin has never been this weak, this cornered, this close to being tossed out (or worse) by the oligarchs, who surely hate how much money they’re losing to these worsening sanctions. What will Putin do once he’s down to his last few swings of the bat? Will he retire and walk away, or will he bet his life on some long shot scheme for regaining his relevance?
We’ll see. But the notion that Putin is “consolidating power” is a silly one. It simply doesn’t fit with the facts. Those who think Putin is securing his position are guilty of falling for the superficial nonsense that Putin is doing to try to create the illusion that he’s securing his position.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report