- Putin’s situation becoming desperate.
- Is a coup possible?
- Is a fascist-type dictatorship possible?
- Is there a social base and an armed force for such a dictatorship?
- What is the working class alternative?
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not going well for him. So far, though, he has hesitated to carry out an all-out air attack on Ukraine’s principle cities, especially on Kyiv. But few think he won’t do it if necessary. After all, he did that in the Chechen city of Grozny in 2000 as well as throughout Syria for years. In those cases the US was entirely willing to give Putin a pass. In the case of Syria, they actually helped Putin by refusing to allow the rebels to get ahold of anti-aircraft weapons. The US capitalist class did that because they feared that if Assad fell the Islamic fundamentalists would take his place. As for the people of Syria, the US rulers cared no more for them then they did for the Vietnamese, the Chileans or the US working class and the especially oppressed at home for that matter. Putin may topple Zelensky through an all-out air war. However, as the US imperialists discovered in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s one thing to topple a government; it’s another thing to establish a replacement. So even accomplishing that will only lead him into a deeper quagmire.
Can he survive that quagmire?
Putin’s Cabinet of Toadies
Putin has had 22 years to consolidate his personal rule. If you think of how Trump built a cabinet of complete toadies in just four years, you get a little vision of what Putin was able to accomplish in 22 years. In one cabinet meeting, he had his foreign minister Sergey Lavrov give a report. When Lavrov was finished, Putin just dismissed him as if he were a little child. “I see. Take your seat, please,” he told him. Then there is the famous instance in which he publicly humiliated his head of security Sergei Naryshkin.
A number of newspapers have commented on this. The Wall St. Journal editors have explained that Putin now “knows that the flattering ‘experts’ who reinforced his prejudices about the weakness of Ukrainian national identity were talking through their hats.” The Washington Post explained “U.S. and European intelligence officials say that Russian President Vladimir Putin appears isolated and reliant on a small coterie of advisers who have not told him the truth about how difficult and costly conquering Ukraine is turning out to be.”
Some on the left might claim this is just US war propaganda. Those would be the same people who said the same thing about all Biden’s warnings that Putin was planning to invade Ukraine. It is not just wartime propaganda; it is the inevitable outcome of a form of capitalist rule by a one person dictatorship, and it shows why the capitalist class prefers to rule through “democratic” means.
Putin’s Desperate Position
So Putin is in a difficult position. He cannot win the war, but neither can he afford to lose it. As a student of history of sorts, he knows what happened in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5: A defeated Russia experienced the “general dress rehearsal” of the Russian revolution. The further defeat of the Russian military in all except name only in WW I led to the victorious Russian Revolution. Tsar Nicholas lost not only his throne but his life. Putin also knows what happened to Gaddafi when he was overthrown in Libya.
An increasingly desperate Putin can take increasingly desperate measures. An article in The Atlantic speculated that the Russian occupation of Chernobyl could be an implied threat to cause a similar disaster at one of Ukraine’s other nuclear power plants. Sure enough, just a few days later Russian forces took over a functioning power plant, causing a fire in the process. There is even serious speculation that he might use a “tactical” nuclear weapon – either as a bomb “test” like the US and the Soviets used to do in the old days or even explode one over Kyiv.
Can Putin be Stopped by his Generals?
There is opposition to Putin at the tops of the Russian military. Oaklandsocialist reported on the outspoken opposition of Russia’s top retired officer, Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov back in January. There have been other reports about discontent within the ranks of the military’s top brass and speculation about a coup. There are some real difficulties with that: Bloomberg News explains that Putin has had 22 years to: “ensure… there is no obvious alternative to his leadership, no easy replacement. Ben Noble at University College London, who studies Russian domestic politics, points out that it’s by design that there is no modern equivalent of the politburo, which enabled Nikita Khrushchev to be removed in 1964…. Tatiana Stanovaya of R.Politik, a political analysis firm, points to deep resentment within the Russian elite, now unsure of what to expect for the future. That discontent is largely silent….” As for that “elite”, the oligarchs, they are so corrupt and degenerate that they are scarcely able to act as a united class, in the interests of their class as a whole rather than in their own self-interest.
Note: We are nowhere near being in the situation where we can say that a coup is impossible. We are only pointing out what may stand in the way.
Popular Opposition to Putin vs. Putin Crackdown
The numbers of Russians protesting the invasion give some hope, but realistically, at this time there doesn’t seem to be a movement anywhere near large enough to overthrow Putin from below. It seems that a plurality if not an outright majority support his invasion. That is because of his success in building a “Make Russia Great Again” sentiment plus Putin’s domination of the news sources today. One ethnic Russian Ukrainian reported telling a relative in Russia about Ukraine cities being bombed and that relative simply refused to believe her.
The new law establishing a 15 year prison sentence for anybody who even calls Putin’s invasion a “war” vs. Putin’s preferred term, “special military operation”, gives a hint of the road down which Putin aims to travel – a vast crackdown.
Social Base for Crackdown
There is also a social base for such a widespread crackdown – the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). The ROC plays a political role similar to the Christian fundamentalist churches in the US, but with a Russian flavor. It appeals to myths of an ancient and great Tsarist Russia. It is the ROC’s ideology that forms the basis for the anti-LGBTQ and the misogynist laws. Its membership has been estimated to be between 40% and 75% of the Russian population. Not all those members would be extreme right wing bigots and reactionaries, but given the nature of the ROC hierarchy, a lot of the members must be.
National Guard or “Rosgvardia”
Such a wave of repression needs an armed force behind it. The police might not be adequate. While the discontent of the Russian generals might make the army not completely reliable for a vast crackdown, Putin does have another force at his disposal: the National Guard or “Rosgvardia”.
Established through a law passed in 2016, this 400,000 member force is controlled by former Putin bodyguard Viktor Zolotov, who reports directly to Putin. In other words, this is a personal army of Putin, himself. Initially, there was a struggle within Putin’s regime in which the ministry of the interior, the MVD, sought to control the Rosgvardia. They lost that struggle.
One think tank that focuses on Russia explained that the Rosgvardia was formed as a response to the “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe in 2004 as well as the Maidan protest of 2014 that brought down the corrupt, pro-Russian Ukrainian president Yanukovich. It has “unprecedented powers”, including tending to override the government’s internal security service, the FSB. It links both domestic and foreign “security challenges”.
One independent military analyst, Pavel Felgengauer, described the Rosgvardia as “a kind of Praetorian Guard to deal with the internal enemy…” Even Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is leery of it. He has commented that “The newly established National Guard is the president’s army in the literal sense of the word. An army, which can be used without intermediaries in the form of a defense minister and without the constitutional rules on the use of the Armed Forces.”
The Rosgvardia is armed with rocket launches, machine guns, AK-74 and 74M rifles, sub-sonic suppressed assault rifles, underwater sabotage forces, armored boats, helicopters, remotely operated riot suppression vehicles, sniper rifles,, mine resistant ambush protected vehicles, anti-saboteur ships and pistols. It also has a small section of attack boats, giving it a capability similar to the US’s Coast Guard and has also been involved in the invasion of Ukraine.
The Rosgvardia stands over the much smaller (4,000 member) Wagner Group of private mercenaries. It seems they could form some sort of private hit squad in such a crackdown.
The Rosgvardia could not stand up to Russia’s 1 million plus member army in an open conflict. However, the question is whether the generals, as unhappy as they may be, would lead what would amount to a civil war in Russia. From the outside, it seems the only way that the soldiers would combat the Rosgvardia would be if they were recruited into an organized and aroused working class movement. In turn, for such a movement to develop, it would have to go beyond the issues of the war and of democratic rights; it would have to move against the corrupt and degenerate oligarchy itself. That would leave it no other course but to move to overthrow capitalism itself in Russia.
Outside of Russia, and without any direct information on what is happening in the Russian working class, it is impossible to predict how such a movement might begin. Possibly the workers movements in Iran and Turkey could play a role, as could a renewed movement of the US working class, up to and including the building of a mass, radical and fighting working class party here.
Lacking direct contact within Russia, we can only give an estimate of the different forces at work and make some educated guesses about the possibilities. However, we can say this: Up until now, Putin’s rule has been a one person dictatorship or “Bonapartism”, combined with elements of capitalist democracy. There are elections, but serious opposition candidates are often put in jail. There has been some media critical of Putin, but opposition journalists are often assassinated. And there does not seem to be the right to strike in Russia. If it happens, Putin’s seizure of complete personal power would mean a qualitative change; it would be a step similar to the creation of a fascist dictatorship. This would mean a new era in world capitalism, including the possibility of WW III, which would threaten the continued existence of the human species. It means the most dangerous era in human history is opening up. With every danger, though, comes opportunity. In order to seize this opportunity, our first task is to understand, which means challenging all our old prejudices and abandoning those preconceptions that have proven to have been inaccurate and taking those steps which may lead to conflicts with those we prefer not to have conflicts with.
What, after all, is the alternative?
Note: For a more in depth background on Putin himself, see Oaklandsocialist’s pamphlet Putin, Assad, and the Syrian Disaster