NewsPutin stands firm: Russia's resilience in an age of sanctions and a looming fifth term

Putin stands firm: Russia's resilience in an age of sanctions and a looming fifth term

Saint Basil's Cathedral, Spasskaya Tower & Red Square in Moscow.
Saint Basil's Cathedral, Spasskaya Tower & Red Square in Moscow.
Images source: © Adobe Stock | Ekaterina Belova
10:42 AM EST, January 5, 2024

"Our tasks pile up like snow, but we are Russia, a winter country and we embrace the snow. Look at how much has already fallen," confidently anticipates the upcoming year, Putin, at a mid-December congress of his ruling party, 'One Russia'.

Undoubtedly, the most influential domestic political event in the next twelve months will be the presidential elections in mid-March. However, their outcome appears preordained. Putin is vying for this office for the fifth time, and currently, he faces no formidable rivals.

The village's only store

"Putin's popularity among his compatriots notwithstanding almost two years of warfare and significant Russian losses in Ukraine is virtually inconsequential," states Aleksander Kyniew, an independent political scientist from Moscow, in a conversation with DW.

"If your village has a solitary store, nobody contemplates gauging its popularity."

Kyniew expressed that "people are certainly unhappy with multiple issues. However, the political landscape has been swept clean. The country is vast, and nobody possesses the resources to wrestle for the presidency." Nobody except Putin.

Putin's most significant challenge thus becomes securing a high voter turnout, to give his re-election a guise of legitimization. "The Kremlin's interest lies not so much in escalating Putin's popularity but majorly in persuading people to partake in the elections," explains sociologist Denis Volkov from the Moscow Levada Center, an independent Russian public opinion research institute.

"Putin's objective is primarily to curb public resentment," explains Kyniew.

According to Kyniew, the majority of Russians historically have been politically indifferent and wary of changes. Additionally, the society is worn out from the so-called "special military operation," as Russia officially refers to the war in Ukraine. "People long for an end to all of this," says the political scientist.

Optimism prevails among Russians

"Presently, Russians are more optimistic than they were at the commencement of the war," says Denis Volkov. The amount of individuals who believe their situation is worsening has halved compared to the previous year. The cultural anthropologist foresees this trend to persist for multiple reasons.

On one hand, the government has exerted significant effort to alleviate Western sanctions' impacts and stabilize the Russian banking system. The Russian economy thus far has evaded collapse and won't collapse in 2024, as per the beliefs of Moscow economist Natalia Zubarevich.

"The Russian economy is robust. European Union sanctions will not impact differently than they have till now. Primarily, they are ineffective, as there are numerous alternatives beyond the EU to source goods covered by the sanctions," she explains. She further highlights that Russia has been increasingly exporting to China, India, and the Middle East.

War? What war?

Denis Volkov believes that the predominantly positive sentiment in the country is also due to the Ukrainian counteroffensive, which till now has mostly failed. This has minimized Russians' fear of military defeat and its repercussions. Initially, even arms supplies from the West to Ukraine concerned only the Russian population.

In the meantime, the number of those who assert that Russia effectively conducts the war has increased. "People are accustomed to the war, seeing it as a routine phenomenon, but themselves are majorly not involved in it. Indeed, there's war somewhere far away."

In Aleksander Kyniew's viewpoint, there was, theoretically, an opportunity for a power transition in the Kremlin right after the war's onset in February and March 2022, "if all those who previously joined protests massively took to the streets, instead of broadly leaving Russia". This applies to hundreds of thousands of Russians who departed abroad in protest against Putin's policy or fearing mobilization.

An immense repressive machine

Irina Shcherbakova, who resides abroad, vehemently contradicts this analysis. The historian is a co-founder of the prestigious human rights association, Memorial Association, whose activity was prohibited in Russia in 2021 and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.

In her conversation with DW, Irina Shcherbakova points to the prevailing atmosphere of fear in Russia: "An immense repressive machine operates, extending the long reach of dictatorship deeply into people's lives, increasingly trying to ostracize critics or dissenters of Putin's policy from the cultural scene."

Discussing this, the activist also indicates the increasingly stringent Russian legislation, which labels the international LGBTQ movement as extremist. In this context, she sees "no optimistic prospects" for 2024.

In terms of the attitude towards the war in Ukraine, many people in Russia aim to dissociate themselves from this reality, for instance, by avoiding discussions about certain sensitive topics. Russian citizens no longer have faith in state institutions or democracy.- However, they believe in Putin's regime's stability and fear escalating matters would exacerbate circumstances.

Despite this, Irina Shcherbakova aspires to view the future optimistically. She believes one shouldn't succumb to the idea that "the war in Ukraine will persist indefinitely, and Putin will be eternal." Like the Berlin Wall's fall, such regimes can dissipate in just a few hours, given the appropriate timing and circumstances.

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