Who is the real opposition to Putin?

Who is the real opposition to Putin?

Photo: unsplash.com / Random Institute
6 March 2024

Almost immediately after the murder of her husband, Yulia Navalnaya announced that she would continue what he did. Now comes the hard part. What exactly will she do? Will she return to Russia and go to jail? Will she expose more corruption in the Russian army (and incidentally make the Russian army more efficient in killing more people in Ukraine)? Will she advocate lifting sanctions on Russia (including sanctions on Russian oligarchs)? Will she organize a national uprising? Will she focus on giving talks and speeches in London, Berlin and other capitals?

Time will tell but, most likely, she will continue to cultivate the notion of “another Russia”. With some oversimplification, this notion has several elements. First, Russia is full of well-meaning people who condemn the war and it’s only Putin who is responsible for aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere. Second, there is pro-democratic opposition in Russia that can take power when the conditions are right. Third, Russia is a homogeneous nation and opposition appeals to different peoples of Russia.   

After experiencing Russia first-hand for so many centuries, Ukrainians believe that there is no other Russia and have a rather dim view of Russian opposition that gives them many reasons to be skeptical. For example, Aleksei Navalny told Ukrainians in 2014: “I advise the Ukrainians not to kid themselves. [Crimea] will remain part of Russia and will never become part of Ukraine in the foreseeable future.” From Ukraine’s perspective, the discussions of the “democratic Russia” simply waste precious time and distract people from the reality: Russia’s aggressiveness stems from its imperialism and therefore the only hope for change is Russia’s defeat in the war and subsequent dismantling of the empire. In other words, Russia is not capable of change from within. This conclusion flows from several observations.  

Can Russian elites remove Putin from power and bring democracy and peace? With some oversimplification, Russian elites can be grouped into four categories: i) coopted by Putin’s regime, ii) genuinely convinced in the Nazi-Ukraine nonsense, iii) paralyzed by fear, iv) eliminated (expelled, imprisoned, murdered) from Russia. Not surprisingly, with this state of affairs, the most successful challenge to Putin did not come from conventional leaders. Instead it was Prigozhin, the infamous leader of the terrorist Wagner Group. This simple fact says a lot about who has power and popular support in Russia and who can become the next tsar.  In these conditions, how can pro-democratic elites come to power?  If Konrad Adenauer, the post-WW2 leader of Germany, could do little under the Nazi regime, why would Russian opposition be more effective now?       

Hopes for the Russian masses to somehow overthrow Putin are equally futile.  Figure 1 shows how the approval ratings of Putin surged since 2022. Moreover, even the ratings of the usually unpopular Russian government and parliament surged after the start of the full-scale invasion. This picture is similar to 2014-2015, when Russia first attacked Ukraine, and to 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia. One can conclude that the Russian government (in the broad sense) does what Russian people want. And this want is conquering other countries. 

Of course, Russians think of themselves as the “good guys” doing the right thing: the recent University of Chicago study shows that the majority of Russians support the war viewing it as “defensive”. Moreover, Russians are generally optimistic about their future, have elevated levels of national pride, less fear of poverty and repression than even a year ago, and the protest potential remains very low. The share of people who believe that Russia will win the war is stable since 2022 at over 75%; 80% support Russian army actions in Ukraine and over 60% believe that Russians don’t bear any responsibility for the deaths of civilians and destruction in Ukraine. Even of those who do not approve of Putin and of those who think that the country is going in the wrong direction (which are the minority as Figure 2 shows), 20% think that the war should continue. 

Figure 1.

Source: Levada center data. 

Note: the figure shows the share of those who approve of the activity of a certain person or agency of those who provided a defined answer. Since 2005 the share of those who did not provide any answer is in the low single digits. Numbers above 50% show that the share of those who “approve” is higher than those who “disapprove”.

Figure 2.

Source: Levada center data. 

Finally, Russian society is atomized. There is little if any trust. For example, in 2019, only 23 percent of Russians said they trusted NGOs. In a throwback to Stalin’s repressions, Russians are snitching on colleagues and strangers. There is no organized movement that can challenge the regime. This is essential for the West to understand: the education and social norms in Russia formed generations of people who are perfectly fine with annexations and terrorism against other countries and a simple change of a leader won’t solve the problem.

In short, there is no “democratic and beautiful” Russia on the horizon. Only aggressive Russian fascism. Ukraine learned this bitter truth the hard way. The one and only opposition to Putin is the Ukrainian Army. This is the real force that can change the situation in Russia. This force is the only hope for Europe and the world that Russian fascism can be defeated. 

So if you want to support opposition to Putin and achieve a just, durable peace as quickly as possible, you should actively support the Ukrainian army. Those unwilling to support Ukrainians may support Russians who fight for Ukraine or promote the liberation of Tatars, Bashkorts, Chechens, and other peoples occupied by the Russian Empire. All other “opposition parties” distract attention and resources from tackling the real problem. 



The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations