Putin is suffering from image damage, but his grip remains very strong in his own country

International14 Nov ’22 20:26Author: Bram van Eijndhoven

The image of Russian President Vladimir Putin has suffered significant damage in recent weeks: the Ukrainian province of Kherson has been virtually liberated, relations with China are under pressure and he had to reluctantly resume the grain agreement with Ukraine. But in his own country his grip is still very strong. ‘We must not underestimate the pressure that the autocratic regime is putting on the population,’ says Hans van Koningsbrugge, Russia expert at the University of Groningen.

More and more former Soviet republics around Russia seem to be becoming more and more critical of the war in Ukraine and Russia’s role in it. According to Van Koningsbrugge, this is a clear signal that Russian influence is waning there as well. “The President of Kazakhstan even openly expressed his disapproval at the economic forum in St. Petersburg. It is also typical that Armenia and Azerbaijan talk to each other in America, and not in Moscow.’


Relations with China, a key ally of Russia, also appear to be coming under increasing pressure. ‘China was not enthusiastic about the invasion of Ukraine from the start,’ says Van Koningsbrugge. ‘Beijing probably said the raid had to end quickly. That didn’t happen, which resulted in China starting to distance itself more and more.’

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According to Van Koningsbrugge, another important factor in the growing Chinese aloofness is the Western sanctions against Russia. “China knows very well that certain things cannot be supplied to Russia, and Chinese companies may become victims of a Western boycott if they do so. They don’t want that, because the Chinese economy isn’t the best in terms of growth at the moment either.’


Tomorrow starts the G20 summit in Bali, which will include Chinese leader Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden. Putin is conspicuous by his absence. Van Koningsbrugge: ‘I think he understands that he can count on a little friendship there, so there is not much to gain. The basis of trust is completely missing from the West at the moment and China is not thrilled. So what are you going to do there?’

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Van Koningsbrugge also doesn’t think Putin was very excited to see Xi Jinping again. “Xi has his hands full with the issue of Taiwan and his own economy. I think he is very disappointed with his ‘dear Chinese friend,’ as he once said.’

Own people

In Russia, Putin is not yet under real pressure. ‘The Russian elite consists of several factions, and Putin has always been a kind of mediator between some groups,’ explains Van Koningsbrugge. “The elite do not draw a single line, but they are still dependent on Putin. They can lose everything, even their lives. So the elite will only do something against Putin if they think they have nothing to gain from this strategy.’

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According to journalist Derk Sauer, Putin is starting to get a handle on the narrative surrounding the war after months of chaos. According to him, the emphasis is on the story that Russia is saving soldiers’ lives and that they are deliberately going into a long battle. Van Koningsbrugge only partially agrees. “They emphasize that it will be a long battle, but you also find many reports of poorly equipped soldiers who, on top of that, have to buy their own equipment and are abandoned by officers. If the army doesn’t do better, I don’t think the new narrative will capture the people’.


The image of Russia and Putin therefore seems somewhat damaged abroad, but at home he seems to maintain a very strong grip on power. “It is because of the media, which tells a story that Ukrainians are Nazis and Satanists. If you’re inundated with propaganda for decades, something sticks’.

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The defeat of the Russian army and the many casualties that the war in Ukraine has already claimed would possibly spoil that image: “But until very recently you saw nothing of the war in Moscow,” says Van Koningsbrugge. ‘For it to stand out, there has to be some kind of organization or leader that stands out and demands clarity. But Putin has personal control over a 400,000-strong National Guard. It’s not an army unit, he can use it however he wants. We must not underestimate the pressure that the autocratic regime puts on the population.’

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (ANP/Associated Press)

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