The well-known Russian political scientist Valery Solovey has talked a lot recently about possible political change in his country, but he was particularly emphatic in a tweet on Sunday, the day after 60,000 Russians protested on the streets of Moscow: "I have a growing feeling that this fall mass protests will enter a self-sustaining trajectory. This is even faster than I expected and what I have publicly talked about. The underbrush of mass discontent has become parched. And the government is stubbornly bringing a match to it."
But does Solovey's scenario—based on the premise that the Putin regime has gone too far in suppressing peaceful protesters—take into account the huge punitive machine that the Kremlin has to douse the flames it is igniting?
Not only are Putin's loyal siloviki (those who run the “institutions of force”) showing no hesitation in unleashing their might against the democratic opposition; the rank and file forces under them are zealously following orders and unlikely to rebel. As one responder to Solovey tweeted:
"No one has explained to ordinary police officers what would happen to them when the power changes, so they will continue to come down furiously with their clubs. After all, they, like Putin, are very afraid of revolution."
This video of police on Saturday beating up a young woman illustrates the point and has caused a huge stir in the Russian independent media. She later was hospitalized with a concussion:
Russia's mass street protests over election fraud in 2011-12 shook the Kremlin to its core and were a nightmare for Putin, who blamed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the unrest. She publicly expressed “serious concern” about irregularities in the 2011 Duma election, and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper among others has suggested Putin's enduring grudge against Clinton may partly explain his aggressive support for Trump in 2016.
Mindful of those protests eight years ago, Putin has long been preparing for another such outbreak, which this time began in July and was fueled by the decision of Russia's Central Election Commission to ban numerous independent candidates from running in Moscow's municipal election on September 8.
In 2016, Putin created a National Guard (Rosgvardia), which reports directly to him and numbers an estimated 350,000 men, including special forces and internal troops that used to be under the MVD (the Ministry of Internal Affairs).
Designed to quell mass unrest, Rosgvardia is headed by Viktor Zolotov, a KGB veteran who became a close Putin ally when the two worked for the St. Petersburg mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, in the early '90s. (Zolotov was Sobchak's bodyguard.)
The FSB (Federal Security Service) not only arrests and investigates Russian citizens for such crimes as "extremism," and corruption; it also has its own special forces, which are designated mainly for anti-terrorism, but could be called upon to suppress public disorders.
FSB chief Aleksandr Bortnikov, who joined the KGB in Leningrad in 1975, is a direct protégé of Putin. The MVD, which operates the regular police, is also loyal to Putin. MVD chief Vladimir Kolokoltsev is not a "piterskii" (part of Putin's St. Petersburg clan), but he is a dedicated career cop, (he formerly headed the Moscow police) known for coming down hard against real or perceived lawbreakers.
And finally, the powerful Russian Investigative Committee, which recently opened a criminal case against Aleksei Navalny's Foundation Against Corruption (FBK) on charges of money laundering, is also under Putin's thumb. Its chief is Aleksandr Bastrykin, a fellow law student with Putin at Leningrad State University in the '70s and a long-time Putin crony. (The Kremlin has reportedly awarded staffers from the Investigative Committee a 20 percent pay raise.)
Navalny, a leading opposition figure, and several of his colleagues are languishing in jail for organizing unauthorized protests; if the Investigative Committee's criminal case against them proceeds, they could end up in labor camps, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled former head of the oil company Yukos, who was arrested in 2003 on Putin’s orders and spent 10 years behind bars.
The Putin regime may have overreacted in its response to the protests, with the bungled jail poisoning of Navalny recently, the thousands of arrests, and the excessive, indiscriminate use of force against protesters. The whole crisis might have been avoided if the authorities had allowed at least a few candidates to appear on the Moscow ballot, which would have hardly threatened the Kremlin's grip on the city's government.
But the siloviki have good reason to maintain their resolve. They are all incredibly corrupt, as demonstrated in the numerous exposes by Navalny's FBK, and would suffer bad consequences if Putin's regime fell. (Recall the fate of the corrupt Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovich, who was forced to flee to Russia by the seat of his pants in 2014.)
As for ordinary policemen and guard troops, rather than getting their news from the internet, where Navalny and others make their case against the Kremlin, they apparently watch state-controlled television, which portrays the protesters as pawns of the West.
Radio Liberty's Mike Eckel wrote last week: "Conspiracies of foreign intelligence agency meddling have also trickled down to the precinct level for Moscow police. One man who was detained during the protests, even though he said he was merely a bystander, was berated by an officer during his two days in police custody: 'Guys, you understand nothing. You’re being controlled. It’s the CIA that is manipulating you… The protests are just the beginning. This is part of a protracted campaign to oust the regime and seize Russia’s resources.'”
As in 2011-2012, the authorities prefer to see the current ferment as Western inspired, rather than to question their own policies.
After the August 3 street demonstrations, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused the U.S. Embassy in Moscow of encouraging turnout and "interfering in the internal affairs of our country" because the embassy published a map of the planned route: In fact, the Americans intended the map as a warning to its citizens to stay away from the protests.
And on Sunday, Roskomnadzor, the government agency that oversees the internet, demanded in a formal complaint that Google prohibit users of YouTube, its subsidiary, from posting notifications about the protests.
Roskomnadzor threatened Google with an “adequate response” in case of refusal to comply with its requirements: “The Russian Federation will regard this as interference in the sovereign affairs of the state, and also as hostile and hindering the conduction of democratic elections in Russia.”
Russian journalist Iulia Latynina (forced to flee Russia in 2017 because her life was threatened) observed after Saturday's protests: "It is very interesting to watch [on YouTube] the riot police, because they have the special tactics and strategy of a war against their own people. These police went through combat coordination, that is, they know how to act… They beat people as if they were going after Germans at the entrance to the Kremlin."
Latynina claims that members of the riot police and the security organs think of themselves as a righteous sect, surrounded by enemies who are supported by the U.S. State Department. Their violence is arbitrary because it doesn't matter to them whether the person who is arrested or beaten is just an innocent bystander or an oppositionist.
Drawing parallels with Stalin's terror, Latynina concludes: "We have a lot of commentators who say: 'This violence is ineffective. It only makes people angry.' Well guys, sorry, please. Of course, violence is effective… and the history of our country, unfortunately, is direct evidence of this. Look what Stalin did. Stalin destroyed the Russian people and not only the Russian people but the Soviet people, all the people that were there. How many rebellions were there against Stalin?"
Former FSB lieutenant-colonel Gennady Gudkov, who used to serve in the Russian Duma, seems to share Latynina's pessimism. In a blog for radio Echo of Moscow on Sunday, Gudkov wrote: "If we discard the version that the Kremlin and its inhabitants are completely crazy, then we are left with one single impression: that the regime ordered its police to act extremely cruel with only one purpose—to anger society, sow indignation, hatred, and a desire to take revenge."
Gudkov goes on to explain that the Kremlin's end game may be to provoke enough public unrest to justify the declaration of a state of emergency, which would result in a cancellation of all future elections, complete censorship of the press and the internet, a shutdown of the independent media, and even curfews.
"One gets the impression," Gudkov continued, "that today the regime deliberately acts on the principle of 'the worse, the better.' If so, then you and I have entered the last stage of Putin's rule: the masks are dropped, the image in the world is gone, there is only one way—a la North Korea and the complete 'freezing' of public life for decades. And holding on until there are no longer enough forces, money, and ammunition for the fighters of the 'Rosgvardiya.' A bloody road to nowhere."
Whatever the likelihood of these grim prognoses, which probably give the Kremlin too much credit for having a strategy, the authorities are keeping up some appearance of abiding by the rules. On Saturday, when police with black masks arrested Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer and producer of videos for Navalny's FBK, as well as a would-be candidate for the Moscow elections, they came with policewomen. Thirty-one-year-old Sobol, who has been on a hunger strike for over three weeks in protest against the election commission's decision, tweeted later: "The female police were hauled along just 'for show.' They were under the command of other officers… The police car that took me away stopped literally around the corner and let the policewomen out."
Sobol, the mother of a toddler, was released only after several hours of questioning, so she missed the demonstration. On the way home she thanked all the protesters for their solidarity with the opposition and urged them not to give up.
On Monday, the FBK posted a stunning expose, revealing the extensive corruption of a key member of the Central Election Commission, Boris Ebzeyev. Noting that Navalny and several colleagues are sitting behind bars and that its offices were raided last week, the FBK voiced defiance: "They are obviously trying to destroy us and make it so that we cannot go about our business—the fight against corruption. But this, of course, will not work. And to be honest, it only infuriates and energizes us."
The democratic opposition is calling for another street demonstration on August 17, despite the fact that the Moscow mayor's office has refused to authorize it.
Political scientist Solovey observed in May that revolutions aren’t made by majorities, but by ambitious minorities “who suddenly understand that they have a chance to do now what they could not do earlier." Maybe he is right, after all.