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Red Canaries in Putin's Coal Mine?

In the midst of the focus on the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, little attention has been paid to the effects this war will have on the internal politics of Russia. However, the consequences of this war may turn out to be quite catastrophic for the man who initiated it, President Vladimir Putin, and may include his potential removal from power by his erstwhile subservient colleagues.

Until this past weekend, Putin appeared to remain secure in this position as the dominant figure in Russian politics (which he has been since the beginning of the century). Although much has been made of his “fear” of a grassroots opposition emerging and mass protests, he has survived mass protests before, in 2011 and in 2018. The dependence of the elite on him suggests he could survive the current protests as well. As much of the existing literature on autocracies suggest, most autocrats are removed by regime insiders, and in that way Putin seemed secure.

However, this may be changing. Recently two members of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (Kommunistichesskii Partii Rossiskovo Federatsii or KPRF), Oleg Smolin and Mikhail Matveyev, were the first members of the Russian State Duma to publicly oppose this war.

The KPRF has been dismissed by many western media experts as merely a compliant “rubber stamp” opposition party. In reality, the party is something more than that. It has evolved into a real opposition party to Putin and his “party of power,” United Russia, since 2011. The KPRF frequently points out persistent inequalities in society and campaigns against regime corruption, although it has toed the line in supporting whole heartedly the foreign policy goals of the regime.

Following the 2011 parliamentary elections -- which were widely viewed as fraudulent -- the KPRF has consistently challenged United Russia and Putin particularly on domestic issues. In 2018, the party organized mass protests to the proposed pension reform -- the largest in the history of the Russian Federation up to that point (Ishiyama and Rybalko 2021). Further, the party has improved its electoral performance and increased its share of the vote from about 13% in 2016 to 19% in 2021. In many ways, the KPRF has benefitted from Alexei Navalny’s “smart voting” strategy, which counseled that opposition voters rally around opposition candidates regardless of their ideology or political orientation. Many KPRF members of the State Duma elected in 2021 owed their election to this “smart voting” strategy.

In light of the position the KPRF holds in Russian politics, it is interesting that both Smolin and Matveyev were elected in the Single Member Plurality Districts (SMD) and not on the Proportional Representation (PR) list: those elected through the SMDs have to be particularly sensitive to the sentiments of their constituencies. Both Smolin and Matveyev were elected recently (Smolin in 2016 and reelected in 2021 and Matveyev in a very close election in 2021). Both are part of the new “reformist” wing of the KPRF that seeks a more active role in opposing Putin and United Russia, and a more social democratic ideology. Importantly, both have openly challenged Putin on foreign policy, arguing that they had voted last week to recognize the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic, but that they DID NOT VOTE TO AUTHORIZE THIS WAR.

It is unclear whether Gennady Zyuganov, who has been the party leader since its inception in 1993, shares their position on criticizing Putin’s foreign policy actions. After all, the KPRF introduced the legislation to recognize the Luhansk and Donetsk Peoples Republics (abbreviated as LPR and DPR). Zyuganov’s statement of 22 February 2022, prior to the invasion, provides some clues. In many ways it parrots the Kremlin’s line that faults NATO for the crisis and claims that the Ukrainian authorities were Fascist. But it also focuses on the “recognition” of the independence of the LPR and DPR as “as the key to curbing the aggression against the two republics and to protecting their populations” ( Zyuganov did not advocate overthrow of the regime in Kyiv, although he did say that a “series of measures must be taken to coerce the initiators of mass bloodshed into peace.” It is unlikely he meant invasion of the entire Ukraine.

Matveyev and Smolin likely sense a growing anti-war sentiment in Russia that presents an opportunity for the KPRF. It is not likely that Matveyev and Smolin’s actions represent open contradiction to Zyuganov, who has remained silent

The actions of these two members of the State Duma may be a warning sign for Putin. Others in the political establishment, and perhaps even some in the political elite around him -- such as Dmitry Peskov and possibly former President Dmitry Medvedev -- may support recognition of the LPR and DPR, but may not have expected, nor support, this war.

As anti-war sentiment grows in Russia, the more difficult it will be to continue it. Even if it ends soon and Zelensky is removed, an occupation and insurgency will prove to be very difficult for Russia to handle. Plus, the effect of the sanctions will start to cause economic hardship. As a result, there is a non-zero possibility that Putin may be removed by the elite, just as happened to Khrushchev in 1964. Indeed, the most frequent way autocrats have been removed since the 1950s is by their inner elite (Kendall-Taylor and Frantz 2014-

Despite all the focus on the popular protests to the war in Russia, if is removed Putin it will be engineered by regime insiders. I did not think this was possible until I saw these members of the State Duma publicly opposing the war. They may be the canaries in the coal mine for Putin and his future.

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