- - Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Faced with growing discontent over his nation’s faltering economy and massive street demonstrations provoked by the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the regime of Russian president Vladimir Putin responded with an iron fist.

State security forces arrested more than 10,000 people who participated in arguably the most significant protests against Mr. Putin’s rule since he assumed power in late 1999.

Meanwhile, Navalny is headed for a penal colony for the next two years and eight months as the state moves to suffocate dissenting voices. Navalny’s anti-corruption video, Putin’s Palace, has been viewed more than 110-million times. It accuses Mr. Putin of living a life of opulence and gross corruption.

The heavy-handed police tactics, along with the expulsion of three EU diplomats from Russia, drew international condemnation but appear to have solidified the regime’s hold on power.

Navalny’s arrest, and the popular unrest it helped provoke, refocused Americans’ attention on the authoritarian leader’s historic staying power as well as Russia’s importance on the geopolitical stage. Maintaining Russia’s global status continues to be Mr. Putin’s primary goal, according to Tom Graham, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and cofounder of the Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies program at Yale University.

“I don’t think Putin’s goal is to stay in power as long as he possibly can,” said Graham in an interview for the latest episode of History As It Happens. “That may his secondary goal. His primary goal since emerging as the supreme Russian leader at the very end of 1999 has actually been to restore Russia to the global stage as a great power. Remember he came to power after a period of decline and economic collapse, a time when Russia didn’t account for very much on the global stage.”

Graham expects Putin to hold onto power as long as he maintains the loyalty of the elites with whom he runs the country along with state security forces. Graham, who served on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration, does not expect the outcry provoked by Navalny’s arrest to disrupt the regime’s power base.

“The demonstrations we’ve seen recently are quite spectacular… almost unique in post-Soviet history. So that does present a challenge, and there is significant discontent within the population over the state of socio-economic conditions,” said Graham. “That said, you have to remember Russia is an elite-dominated system. And as long as Putin maintains the loyalty of the elites and the instruments of coercion… then what Navalny has done is not going to pose an existential challenge.”

Russia’s economic problems, caused in part by the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic, are eroding whatever popularity Mr. Putin attained through his foreign policy adventurism, namely the 2014 annexation of Crimea and efforts, by supporting armed conflict in the Donbass region, to separate eastern Ukraine from the rest of that country.

Mr. Putin views himself as a great state-builder in line with past Russian leaders going back to 18th- and 19th-century tsars through the early Soviet period, Graham said. Putin famously stated that he viewed the collapse of the USSR in 1991 as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.”

“The Soviet period is obviously a very complicated one,” Graham said. “Putin tends to focus on Stalin’s role as a state-builder, and sort of push into the background some of what we could call crimes. He has spoken out against the gulags and he has spoken out against the Great Terror, but what he focuses on, which is very important to his own legitimacy, is the tremendous victory in the Second World War, which he would argue would not have been possible without Stalin’s iron rule at the time.”

For more on Mr. Graham’s thoughts on U.S.-Russia relations and Mr. Putin’s power base, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.

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