Putin is flexing his power with the deaths of his opponents — but he may also be highlighting the weakness of his government

  • Vladimir Putin is racking up strongman wins, including the opposition leader Alexey Navalny's death.

  • But Putin's brazen displays of power highlight the weakness of his leadership, experts said.

  • Going after his opponents is par for the course for Putin.

Ahead of the two-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the country's leader, Vladimir Putin, is likely behind a series of exorbitant displays of his authoritarian power.

Alexey Navalny, Putin's longtime political nemesis, died suddenly in a Russian prison earlier this month at the age of 47. Around the same time, a Russian pilot who defected to Ukraine with a Mi-8 helicopter last year was found shot to death in Spain, reports citing Ukraine's military intelligence said.

The apparent crackdown on Putin's opponents, though par for the course for the president's brutality, comes as Russia racks up a string of military wins, including Ukraine's recent withdrawal from the embattled eastern town of Avdiivka.

It would certainly seem that Putin is relishing in flexing his unrivaled power. But Russia experts say the president's brazen saber-rattling is actually indicative of the inherent weakness baked into his personalistic government —a de facto dictatorship in which all the power rests in Putin's hands.

"To maintain a cult of personality, you have to use a lot of force," said Matthew Schmidt, an assistant professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven who previously taught planning at the US Army's School of Advanced Military Studies.

"And that's a fundamentally weak style of government even if the person in power is a strongman," he added.

Putin is committed to maintaining an illusion of total power

The pilot's death was likely a case of Russia protecting its military morale by taking out a confirmed defector and scaring other would-be traitors, experts said.

"The message is loud and clear: We will find you anywhere in the world. We will kill you just to send a message to the next person thinking about it," Schmidt said. "That's an extraordinary power, and Putin did it effectively, making sure it wound up in the news."

The display of power by the Russian state, while jarring, is not out of the norm for Putin's government, which has been accused of assassinations abroad for decades.

Both Navalny's and the pilot's deaths fit Putin's playbook to a T, exemplifying the lengths to which Russia will go to maintain the illusion of total power, Schmidt said.

"It absolutely is a crackdown," he said of the recent deaths. "But it's a crackdown that is always going on."

The death of Navalny, who frequently challenged and openly criticized Putin, also represented a major win for the Russian president.

For years, Navalny represented the most formidable threat to Putin's government, criticizing corruption in the Russian state and organizing powerful anti-Kremlin protests.

The specifics surrounding Navalny's death remain unclear. Russia's federal prison service said Navalny died after losing consciousness following a walk.

Regardless of how he wound up dead, the Kremlin was ultimately responsible for Navalny's demise, Simon Miles, an assistant professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy and a historian of the Soviet Union and US-Soviet relations, told Business Insider.

"If it were not for the regime, he would be alive," Miles said.

Navalny's death shows Putin is easily threatened

The two experts said Navalny's death, rather than simply displaying Putin's power, highlighted the Russian leader's weakness.

"If a guy locked up in the Gulag is too high a threat to live, that tells me Putin thinks his position is extremely vulnerable," Miles said.

"You have total control over this person's life, and you choose to extinguish it?" he added. "That's coercive power, not an impressive form of power."

Navalny's death was undoubtedly meant to send a message to other would-be opposition leaders, experts said, especially as Putin prepared for a presidential election in less than a month that he's all but certain to win.

"He can arrest and kill at will. Being able to visit terror upon anyone you want is a kind of strength," Schmidt said. "But it's a strength that will eventually turn on you."

Soon after the Ukraine war began in February 2022, Russia experts told BI that Putin was responsible for creating an autocratic culture of fear that could eventually collapse.

That collapse is likely still years down the line, Schmidt said this week. But displays of mourning for Navalny across Russia, as well as wartime resentment among Russian citizens, signal Putin's control isn't foolproof.

"The real Ukrainian victory will happen in the streets of Moscow," Schmidt said. "Ukrainians are not only liberating themselves; they are liberating Russians from the Putinist idea of a 'Russian world' on which Putin has waged this war."

But Robert English, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies Russia, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe, disagreed that Navalny's death made Putin look weak.

He told BI the entire saga exemplified just how emboldened Putin felt: "Putin is so confident and cocksure that he does not fear international backlash over Navalny."

Viewing the latest events as somehow indicative of Russia's weakness is on par with what he described as the "central flaw in the West's coverage of this war," which has been "cheerleading and wishful thinking" for Ukraine.

"How many stories and confident predictions of Russia's coming economic collapse, how the sanctions would 'strangle' Russia and 'cripple' its war effort?" he said. "How many about the Prigozhin rebellion and how it showed Putin's weakness, that another coup or mutiny could bring him down?

"On and on and on, always denigrating and underestimating Russia's resilience and resourcefulness."

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