Putin’s 2024 Fears: Ukrainian Arms, Russian People, and Pretty Women
The Kremlin strongman doesn’t act as confident as he appears.
RUSSIA—AN OLD PROVERB HOLDS—IS NEVER as strong as it looks, nor as weak as it looks. The same could be said of the country’s septuagenarian leader, Vladimir Putin, who apparently has high hopes for 2024 and yet seems scared of a local politician, his own people, and the prospects of the war he started nearly two years ago.
Emboldened by the failures of the Ukrainian counteroffensive launched last summer—and by the political squabbling that is holding back American aid—Putin is clearly feeling victorious these days. A number of commentators have noted that the Kremlin strongman even looks more cheerful and vigorous than he did last spring. He certainly has no reason to doubt that the “election” scheduled for March will give him another six-year term in office. And yet there are also signs that his confidence is more fragile than he lets on: He seems to be afraid of an obscure female journalist and politician from a provincial town who has tried to challenge him for the presidency on an explicitly anti-war, anti-authoritarian platform.
The woman is 40-year-old Yekaterina Duntsova, a former television journalist in the city of Rzhev and, from 2019 until 2022, a member of the Rzhev city council. Duntsova announced her intention to run for the presidency with the slogan “Let’s take back our country’s future” in November, calling for an end to the war and the release of political prisoners including Alexei Navalny. On December 20, she submitted the required 500 signatures to be registered as a candidate. (The meeting of activists supporting her nomination in Moscow was briefly interrupted by a power shutdown in the building, and security guards tried to block some people from coming in.) Had Duntsova been registered, she would have faced the high bar of collecting another 300,000 signatures by the end of January to be placed on the ballot as an independent. But it didn’t even get that far: On December 23, Russia’s Central Electoral Commission unanimously rejected her candidacy based on “numerous violations” in the signatures (mainly typos in the names, plus the fact that one activist who signed the petition apparently uses a drawing of cartoon cat face in lieu of a signature). Electoral commission head Ella Pamfilova reassured Duntsova that she was still young with “everything ahead” of her, prompting some to remember that she had used the same words in 2017 when rejecting Navalny’s candidacy—making people wonder just what lay ahead for Duntsova. On December 29, the Russian Supreme Court upheld Duntsova’s rejection.
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The commission did register another candidate who has criticized the war and called for its end, 60-year-old physicist and mathematician Boris Nadezhdin. But Nadezhdin, who sometimes appears on Kremlin propaganda channels as the rare token liberal, is widely seen as the faux opposition, safe and tame enough to be allowed a platform. Duntsova, who has announced that she is starting her own party, could have been a wild card. While she couldn’t have been elected in a thoroughly rigged system, she could have started enough of a public conversation about the war, political repression, and Putinism to rock the boat. The fact that she is a woman on Russia’s extremely male-dominated political scene—what’s more, an attractive, conventionally feminine woman and a mother of three—would have gotten her some extra attention and made her difficult to attack. (Duntsova’s femaleness may have seemed especially alarming given the recent rise in war protests by soldiers’ wives and widows.) Finally, according to émigré political strategist and former Kremlin consultant Abbas Galyamov, Putin and his entourage may have had visions of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the Belarusian activist who was allowed to run against the dictator Alexander Lukashenko in 2020 and almost certainly beat him at the polls, only to be forced to leave the country.
Whether Duntsova will be able to parlay her blocked presidential run into a real presence in Russia’s stringently policed public spaces remains to be seen. (In an almost certainly deliberate catch-22, being allowed to criticize the regime and remain unmolested marks one for suspicion as a regime stooge.) But, if nothing else, her presence is a reminder that Russian civil society isn’t dead.
A NUMBER OF RUSSIA WATCHERS, such as expatriate political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, have noted that since the start of the war in Ukraine, the Putin regime has been rapidly evolving from authoritarianism to almost full-fledged totalitarianism, in some ways more aggressive and repressive than the Soviet regime in the Brezhnev era of the 1970s. Publishers and booksellers have been strong-armed into dropping popular dissident authors Boris Akunin and Dmitry Bykov, both of whom currently live outside Russia and have been officially branded “foreign agents.” Navalny, the imprisoned opposition leader, has been virtually cut off from communication with the outside world—and disappeared from view altogether for more than two weeks, around the same time that Putin announced his run for re-election. Navalny finally resurfaced in an almost inaccessible, “special-regime” penal colony near the Arctic Circle, known as the “Polar Wolf” colony. (A lesser-known political prisoner, Alexei Gorinov, a former municipal deputy imprisoned for proposing a “minute of silence” at a local council meeting to honor “victims of the ongoing military aggression in Ukraine” in March 2022, is also in a dire situation, facing both isolation and severe health problems.) And just before Christmas, a Moscow priest, Father Andrei Uminsky, was reportedly dismissed from his post at the Church of the Life-Giving Trinity in Khokhly because of antiwar comments.
But while the state’s repressive machinery picks up speed, the war machine isn’t doing so well, despite Putin’s swagger. Avdiivka, the largest current theater of World War I–style grueling attrition warfare, where Russia has suffered record losses of personnel and equipment, is still under Ukrainian control after three months of intense battles. Ukraine is scoring new hits against Russian bases in occupied Crimea.
Meanwhile, the direct impact of the war is being felt in other parts of Russia: The southwestern city of Belgorod, near the Ukrainian border, is offering evacuation to residents after Ukrainian strikes on December 30 left sixteen people dead and over a hundred injured. While Russia protested what it called “indiscriminate” bombing at the United Nations, these complaints made no mention of the Russian strikes on several Ukrainian cities which had killed at least 39 people and injured over 160 just the day before, destroying hospitals, schools, and residential buildings. While the dead in Belgorod were civilians—tragically including two children—the city is being targeted for a legitimate military reason: It provides bases from which the Russian military routinely conducts its air assaults on Ukraine.
Russian troops remain plagued by desertions and low morale; military analysts say that the Russian war effort in Ukraine is likely to falter without new manpower, yet a new round of mobilization will deepen the discontent masked by paper-thin nominal support for the war. There is probably a good reason Putin’s New Year’s address to the Russian people had no military theme—in stark contrast to last year’s address in which he faced the camera with (mostly fake) soldiers behind him—and barely mentioned the war at all: Putin may believe that the Ukrainian offensive was a bust, but he also knows that Russia has no real successes to report. With the election coming soon, even with no credible opposition, that’s not a great record to highlight, especially when Putin’s bragging about Russia’s better-than-expected, war-industry-fueled economic growth also masks major problems from runaway inflation to the tanking ruble and even the reappearance of food shortages. (Russian billionaire and Putin crony Oleg Deripaska colorfully predicted in late November that the Russian budget may suffer the effect of “butt hitting ice” in 2024.)
These insecurities are likely the reason Putin has been giving conflicting signals on peace talks with Ukraine, one moment suggesting that Russia is open to a ceasefire agreement, the next moment insisting that there will be no peace until Russia achieves its goals.
Any Western pressure on Ukraine to negotiate will help solidify Putin’s façade of strength, hurting not only Ukraine and Ukrainians but the opportunities for positive change within Russia and for Russians. Right now, those opportunities are vanishingly small. Any weakening of Putin will expand them.