LONDON: Vladimir Putin’s grip on power in Russia remains firm despite military setbacks in Ukraine, botched mobilization and internal political struggles, eight knowledgeable sources said, but some said that could change quickly if a defeat total was happening.
Most of them said the Russian president was in one of the most difficult situations of his more than two decades in power over Ukraine, where his invading forces were repelled in places by an armed Kyiv by the West.
But the sources, including current and former Western diplomats and government officials, said no imminent threat was apparent from those around him, the military or intelligence services.
“For now, Putin is hanging on,” said Anthony Brenton, former British ambassador to Russia.
He said he believed the Russian leader hoped to negotiate over Ukraine, likely with the Americans, and hoped Moscow’s faltering fortunes on the battlefield would pick up despite what the West says is a lack of manpower. manpower, equipment and even missiles.
In power since 1999, Putin has gone through many internal crises and wars, and more than once faced major street demonstrations before effectively banning any real opposition.
The 70-year-old’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine since February 24, however, has created the most tense East-West clash since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and triggered the toughest Western sanctions on Russia .
His army endured humiliating retreats as well as huge casualties, and hundreds of thousands of Russian men fled abroad to avoid combat. Putin has also engaged in nuclear slashing in what some interpret as a sign of desperation.
Some allies – from “Putin’s infantryman”, as the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya calls himself, to “Putin’s leader”, nickname of the leader of a once shadowy mercenary group – have accused the military leaders of having mismanaged the war.
Brenton, who dealt with Putin during his second term, said there had been no public criticism of him from the political or business elite or any signs of movement against him, but that might not last.
“If they find themselves continuing to retreat in the spring, in March/April of next year, then my instinct is that at that point things become really problematic for Putin – not on a popular level, but at the elite level.
“You have a group of people out there who are fundamentally self-interested and don’t want to be part of any possible debacle.”
“Working Arguments”
Protests over the mobilization of relatives, Ukraine’s vow not to deal with Putin, and a seemingly unscripted and quickly retracted assertion by US President Joe Biden that Putin should not be allowed to stay in power, fueled the speculation about his future.
Dmitry Peskov, Cheese friesPutin’s spokesman said this month that a Washington Post report that a member of Putin’s inner circle had confronted him about the war was “absolutely untrue”, but said there had a frank political debate.
“There are working arguments: on the economy, on the conduct of the military operation,” Peskov told reporters. “It’s not a sign of a split.”
The Kremlin says Putin is backed by an overwhelming majority of Russians and won a landslide victory in 2018.
Russia’s political system is notoriously opaque, although Washington has shown in the run-up to the invasion that it can discern Moscow’s plans.
A senior Western official who is following the situation closely and declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter, said there had been no major defections so far.
There were signs of infighting, complaints and slow decision-making, the official said: “But there’s no indication he’s lost control.”
A US official who declined to be named for the same reason said Washington and its allies assumed Putin’s position was secure. “That said, many of his recent actions – including the mobilization – clearly show that Putin is on the back foot.”
With powerful intelligence services underpinning a political system made up of closely watched loyalists, it would be difficult and dangerous for anyone to oppose him.
Andrew Weiss, Putin scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, said while ‘anything is possible’ in Russia, public opinion is less important there than in the West, real opponents fled or were imprisoned and Putin was surrounded by loyalists .
“Show me the person who’s going to speak in Putin’s office and say you’re done. Who would have the audacity to do that?” said Weiss, who has held various political roles on the US National Security Council and has written a book on Putin.
The Russian leader could be toppled by a palace coup, an elite rebellion or a popular “storming of the Bastille”, he said, while noting that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had ruled for more a decade after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait was thwarted. .
“Fear Reigns”
Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of analytics firm R Politik, said Putin would be in trouble if he ran out of options to escalate the conflict.
In that case, the elite would try to persuade Putin to step down, she predicted, adding that there were no signs yet of the kind of coup that toppled Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1964 or targeted Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991.
“If he is able to… fulfill his unspoken obligations to the elite and the people — stability, peace, pensions and wages — then nothing will threaten him,” Stanovaya said.
“But if…the Russian army is pushed back to the former borders of Russia before annexation, if the Ukrainian army continues its offensive…and if the budget cannot cope and there is delays in pensions…the elite will gradually mobilize.”
Although opinion polls in Russia show growing public concern, a French diplomatic source said they believe Putin, who dominates influential state media, could maintain his grip.
“Let’s not forget that fear reigns,” the source said. “I still think a majority of Russians will support Putin no matter what he decides.”
A senior European official said Putin would clearly have to lose the war to be overthrown.
If and when that time came, former British ambassador Brenton said, his successor was unlikely to be a friend of the West.
“The people who are going to make the decisions are tough securocrats. We’re not going to have a cuddly liberal.”

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