Putin’s grip on power is weakening – Russia is entering a new era of decline

New Year is a big deal in Russia, and part of the tradition – whether tongue-in-cheek or serious – is to tune into Vladimir Putin’s address just before midnight.

Usually, this address is a paternal invocation of family, friendship and national unity. But last year, against a backdrop of camouflaged soldiers, Putin spoke of “difficult but necessary decisions” that had, he said, forced Russia to act. Given that this was his attempt to spin a war that had already gone off the rails, it is hard to see how he can offer anything more at the start of 2024.

On the face of it, Russia has had mixed fortunes in 2023. It has suffered heavy losses, failed in its efforts to freeze Ukraine into submission by hammering its electricity grid, and has seen a steadily growing inventory of modern Nato weapons transferred to its foe. On the other hand, the Ukrainian counter-offensive proved much less successful than expected, the domestic economy has switched quite effectively into wartime production, and Russians still seem willing to enlist to fight in the war.

Nonetheless, the foundations of the regime are undoubtedly being undermined and will all come under pressure in 2024: Putin’s own authority, his ability to throw money at intractable problems, and his unchallenged control of the security forces.

In March, Putin will be standing for re-election, and of course he will win. His political technologists are apparently determined to win a 75-80 per cent share of the vote on a 70+ per cent turnout, to give the impression of national unity. While no credible rival to Putin will be allowed to stand, even so, this will require sweeteners for various sectors of society – already it has been announced that the minimum wage is going up by a solid 18.5 per cent in January – a barrage of propaganda, and ultimately, systematic rigging.

The trouble is that the more the election is rigged, the greater the risk that this will spark protests, or at the very least undermine Putin’s legitimacy.

After 23 years of his direct or indirect rule, Russians are becoming wearier of a president increasingly referred to as the “old man”. Nor does he seem especially connected with his people: ever since Covid, he has travelled the country far less often, and even most of his official meetings are carried out over video link.

Although the economy is predicted to grow by up to three per cent across 2023, this is on the back of unsustainable military spending, accounting for at least a third of the total government budget.

While sanctions have had much less serious an impact overall than had been hoped by the West, according to the Russian Central Bank, all-important oil and natural gas revenues fell by 41 per cent in the first nine months of the year.

To afford the war, the finance ministry is gambling that the cost of the war will decline in 2025. Given that there is little reason to expect any Ukrainian capitulation in the coming year, this is a dangerous wager. No wonder 43 per cent of Russians expect the economy to worsen.

The two big concerns of Putin’s security chiefs are precisely mobilisation and economic crisis. He is clearly unwilling to repeat the massively unpopular mobilisation of reservists that took place in September-October 2022, when two to three Russians fled the country for every one actually brought under arms.

We will see no repeat before the elections, but if the supply of volunteers or the money to offer them fat bonuses dry up, he may have no choice by summer. Then, as one Russian security officer put it, “we’ll find out if the biggest threat to the [government] comes from Ukrainians or Russians”.

Economic pressures may also spark protests. Unemployment is at a record low of three per cent as defence factories move into full wartime gear. However, the civilian economy is feeling the pressure, and there are fears that if Moscow cannot afford to keep subsidising it, there may be a wave of closures or wage cuts, triggering the kind of strikes and protests that Russia hasn’t really seen since the 1980s.

The final backstop of Putin’s power in such circumstances has always been the security apparatus. However, during the mutiny by the Wagner mercenary group in June, many stood back, unwilling to join the rebellion but not much keener to stop it. If anger at election rigging or some other crisis brings people out on the streets, can the paramilitary National Guard still be counted on to suppress them?

Indeed, the anger of once-supportive nationalists may be focused by the trial next year of the outspoken critic Igor “Strelkov” Girkin on extremism charges. They may be relatively few, but they are disproportionately represented within the security and police agencies, which is why the Kremlin held off prosecuting Girkin for so long.

After the Wagner mutiny, a jumpy government felt it had to act, but now finds itself with another high-profile political prisoner on its hands, and one whose supporters are not West-leaning liberals this time, but hard men of the right. Girkin is even now campaigning to stand in the elections; it is pretty hard to imagine the Kremlin letting him, but this will only strengthen his reputation as a man whom Putin fears.

Next year will inevitably see more Russian successes and no doubt some triumphalist rhetoric to match. However, by the end of 2024, there will be less money in the treasury, fewer volunteers for the fight, and more Western ammunition factories finally coming online.

Putin had better celebrate this New Year, as he’ll likely have much less to toast the next – unless, of course, Donald Trump’s re-election is an unexpected gift from the American people.

Dr Mark Galeotti is the author of Putin’s Wars: from Chechnya to Ukraine, released by Osprey