Russian state TV shows Putin nervously biting his lip
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When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, daily anti-war demonstrations and protests broke out across Russia, while a number of public figures, both cultural and political, released statements in opposition to the war. The protests were met with widespread repression by the Russian authorities, however, with Russian human rights group OVD-info having claimed that 14,906 people were detained from the start of the war in February to March 13. March 6 saw the most mass arrests in post-Soviet history, as Russian took to the streets to voice their opposition to Putin’s brutal Ukraine invasion.
The Kremlin has continued its initial response and cracked down on protest by rolling-out censorship laws most commonly seen in authoritarian regimes.
Putin clamped down on external news and comments about the war by blocking access to Facebook, Instagram and major foreign news outlets.
Those accused of spreading “false information” about the invasion are now subject to up to 15 years in prison.
Many critics argue that Putin’s crackdown on free speech may be due to his fear that he could be “ousted” from power..
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According to human rights reporter Amanda Taub, who visited Russia to assess the strength of Putin’s regime, the President fear’s that frequent demonstrations could see his closest allies turn on him.
The president reportedly believes he could suffer the same fate as Viktor Yanukovych, his Ukrainian counterpart who was removed from office in the Maidan Revolution in 2014 after a series of protests.
In 2015, writing for Vox, Ms Taub said:: “To Putin, Yanukovych’s fate is a reminder of the danger protests could pose to his own regime, not by unseating it directly via a mass uprising, but in causing Russian elites to push out Putin themselves.
“And that lesson has not been lost on the opposition either: Every single opposition figure I met with in Russia spoke of the need to ‘split the elite’ in order to bring down Putin’s regime.
“Putin, [former opposition politician Vladimir] Ryzhkov explained to me, is afraid that popular protests could cause him to suffer a similar fate ‒ that he could be ousted from power via ‘Maidan technology’.
“Although Putin tends to couch those fears in warnings of ‘foreign coups’ or ‘CIA plots’ when he speaks publicly, his concern is that another mass protest movement could force him into a similarly impossible choice between popular support, political control and the loyalty of different factions of Russia’s elite.”
Ms Taub continued: “Putin is probably right to be concerned.
“He simply cannot maintain his power without the support of Russia’s elites, the powerful factions within Russia’s security forces, business community, and political elite which provide vital support to Putin’s regime.
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“Their support for Putin is pragmatic, not ideological.
“If they sense that his control is slipping, or that Putin can no longer protect their interests, then they will abandon him, just as Ukraine’s elites abandon Yanukovych.”
In December 2011, tens of thousands of Russians streamed onto Moscow’s streets to protest against Putin’s regime.
At the time, Russian’s had been particularly exercised by the 2011 legislative elections, which had been fixed in favour of Putin’s ruling party, United Russia.
For a short while it appeared Putin may have been losing his grip on the Kremlin, but the protest movement never garnered broad support.
Many of the activists who led the opposition groups were exiled or put into prison.
Since, Putin’s government has cracked down on all forms of dissent.
Ms Taub wrote: “Even though Putin emerged from that crisis of legitimacy, he was clearly deeply shaken by the protests.
“It wasn’t just the protestors who believed their marches could shake Putin’s hold of power: Putin himself seemed worried about the same thing.”
When Ms Taub asked Vladimir Ryzkhov, who is now a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, why Putin had cracked down so harshly on dissent after the 2011 protests, the former opposition leader suggested that the President had an insecure grip on power.
Mr Ryzkhov said: “You know I had a very interesting conversation with Putin two years ago. It was a meeting with him and a small group of opposition leaders in 2013.
“There was an open part, after that, a 20-minutes closed part. And I asked him, ‘Why do you turn the screw so hard? Because you did it so strongly that the atmosphere is increasing pressure from inside’
“And he said, very sincerely, that, ‘You know, Vladimir’ ‒ he has known me for many years ‒ ‘You know Vladimir, I am afraid that if I turn back a little bit, Russia could be extremely destabilised.’
“He really believes that only through this hard line is it possible to keep control of this huge country. That’s his mind.”
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