Opinion: Is Putin still bluffing?

One can bluff in politics, too, especially in interstate relations. The word has been used particularly profusely this year, after Russia attacked Ukraine. Many analysts, writing on Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s actions, used the word “bluff” time and again.

How is Putin bluffing? One of the more outstanding examples was his remark to the European Commission president that the Russian army could march to Kiev in a matter of days. Another example is the Kremlin’s statement that Russia does not rule out using limited nuclear strikes in response to Western pressure. Some experts rephrase it somewhat more bluntly: small nuclear bombs dropped on several European capitals.

Such talk is an excellent example of political bluffing – Moscow says it will use nuclear weapon, although it will not, but the opponents are thrown off balance, having their firm belief that no one will ever use nuclear weapon shaken. One recalls that this firm belief dates back to the times of the USSR, when both the Soviets and the Americans insisted they would not be the ones to start a nuclear stand-off. But here we have the Kremlin masters of today saying they do not rule out pushing the button first.

This kind of bluffing is a key part of the Kremlin’s policies. Lies abound, black is being called white, reversing the claims at convenience. The goal of such discourse is to confuse opponents, make them lose grip and any reference points for anticipating what the Kremlin will do next.

However, Russian author Viktor Shenderovich has recently said on the Ekho Moskvy radio that we might be wrong in assuming that Putin is bluffing. Shenderovich believes that, should speculations in the American media about Putin being terminally ill prove to be accurate, we are dealing with a truly unpredictable man who has taken us all hostage. One must add here that many of the Russian intelligentsia – scientists, authors, reporters – have publicly stated they cannot obtain information on how decisions are made in the Kremlin. The Russian government has turned into a “black box”, while Russians are forced to merely speculate what they can expect from their leaders and the president.

Let’s reject speculations about Putin’s terminal illness, but this hardly throws a beam of hope on the situation. Many experts agree that Putin’s central goal is to keep his power. The country’s economic and social situation is deteriorating with each passing day – and the trend will continue – so he jumps at any opportunity to distract his people, directing their attention to external enemies. There’s plenty of proof that he cares little about the future of the Russian state – only a man with no consideration for his country’s well-being can make enemies with Europe and America and make passes at China.

Milan Svolik of the University of Illinois has looked into how authoritarian leaders were overthrown in the world between 1946 and 2008. Over the 62 years in question, only 11 percent of dictators were toppled by popular revolts, while 68 percent met their end at the hands of their own entourage.

Western sanctions on Russia are primarily aimed at inspiring discontent with Putin’s actions in his immediate environment, hoping to have him replaced with a man more acceptable to Western countries. However, there do not seem to be any signs pointing to a palace coup, therefore we have to look forward to a popular unrest in Russia and hope that Putin will not have used the bomb by then.

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