By James Boggs
Putin is scared. His fear shows in the radical and aggressive policies he has taken up in the past seven months and particularly in his undeclared invasion of Ukraine.
His fear is well-founded and is based on real threats to his control of Russia itself and more broadly to Russia’s hegemonic dreams of a Eurasian Union.
Since the fall of the USSR in late 1991, democracy has been sweeping the world, and particularly Eastern Europe.
Now, more people than ever before live in countries that hold free and fair elections, according to the non-governmental watchdog organization Freedom House.
When Putin looked out his window last February and realized that even Ukraine, one of the founding members of the USSR and previously a stolid ally, had fallen to democracy, he was driven to take action out of fear and self-preservation.
Now, despite, or perhaps because of, his actions, his fear is being realized.
Thousands marched in Russia on Sunday to protest a war in the Crimea, which doesn’t officially exist.
It would not be realistic to say that the protests were major, or even very significant overall.
The attendance count ranges between 5,000 and 25,000, but neither turnout could be a real threat to Putin’s near dictatorial control over the country.
Indeed, along with the protesters were counter-protesters, advocating for what they saw as the liberation of Crimea from U.S.-backed fascism and Nazism.
Nevertheless, cracks are appearing in Putin’s previously united Russia.
More than just the largest opposition protest since Putin’s third inauguration in May of 2012, the Sunday peace march served as an indication that reality is seeping into Putin’s well-crafted illusion of Russian righteousness.
Using state-run media, Putin has been blasting his populace with doctored images of the Crimean conflict, insisting that the Ukrainian rebels are fascist Nazis committing terrible acts against the innocent population of the Crimea, according to Russian watchdog agency StopFake.org.
Even now, despite soldiers returning in body bags, Putin refuses to admit that there are Russian soldiers in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.
Mothers are receiving their sons’ bodies while the official news continues to blast denials and lies.
More than any political significance the protest could claim, it shows Putin that he is losing his grasp on the Russian people.
In past decades, these protests might have galvanized Putin into taking even more oppressive actions to muffle and destroy the voices of dissent.
Nowadays, that kind of direct suppression of dissent is no longer an appealing option to Putin because of the watchful presence of Western journalists and NGOs.
The EU is, for now, hesitant to impose any significant sanctions against Russia, since Russia supplies much of the EU’s oil and natural gas.
Any actions taken against Russia could run the risk of drastically increasing gas prices in the EU.
Yet if Russia were to brutally crack down on protesters while the whole world watched, EU member states would have a legitimate reason to give for the increased gas prices — a moral basis for the economic hardships incurred.
Moreover, any oil or gas sanctions placed on Russia would devastate its economy, sending the country into a downward spiral that would result in even more opposition to Putin’s reign.
Russia’s economic situation is already unstable, with looming inflation and international doubt concerning the country’s ability to pay its debts.
This backs Putin into an increasingly desperate corner, with few options.
Outright aggression against either the protesters or Ukraine will result in international backlash, while ignoring the situation will result in more dissension at home and fail to deal with the threat democracy poses to Putin’s rule.
In order to maintain the status quo while dealing with democracy’s potential incursion, Putin must rely on illusion, lies and manipulation.
He must convince his populace that Russia is both in the right to intercede in Ukraine while insisting that Russia isn’t invading Ukraine; maintain to the international community that he neither has nor ever had troops in the Ukraine and that he is not an aggressor; and still attempt to create a buffer zone between himself and the EU’s expanding influence.
This puts Putin in a delicate, nearly untenable position.
As cracks appear in his regime’s facade, he must work to either fill or isolate those cracks while simultaneously crafting more lies.
Though Putin is arguably the most well-equipped person on the planet to handle such a situation, it seems unlikely that even he will be able to hold his position forever.