Russian howitzers move along Red Square during a Victory Day Parade in Moscow on May 9, 2014.

Russian howitzers move along Red Square during a Victory Day Parade in Moscow on May 9, 2014. Pavel Golovkin/AP

Counterrevolution? Don't Look Now But Russia's Regime Is Gaining Strength

As the Kremlin cracks down, popularity is rising amid a new 'social contract' with the Russian people. By Brian Whitmore

We haven't heard much about the "party of swindlers and thieves" for some time now. There aren't so many exposes of officials' luxury villas in the south of France. And, by the way, when was the last time you read a snarky blog post about Russian President Vladimir Putin's Botox habit? But we sure are hearing a lot about "national traitors" and "fascists" bent on undermining Russia's restored greatness. And the early 20th-century Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera—or at least a grotesque caricature of him—has made a comeback as a national boogeyman.

In the space of a few months, Putin has managed to change the conversation. The Kremlin no longer looks like it is out of ideas and running out of time. Putin's approval rating is at 83 percent. Even the ruling United Russia party—you know, the one made up of all those swindlers and thieves—is polling at 60 percent.

And the Kremlin's critics have been effectively silenced. With the world's eyes on the Ukraine crisis, an ongoing crackdown on NGOs in Russia intensified this week with prosecutors conducting raids on organizations in Kazan, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod. Independent media is being muzzled, bloggers are being stifled, and officials are dreaming up measures to squash dissent that make thecrackdown of 2012-13 look almost quaint. "The Ukrainian revolution is becoming the prelude to a Russian counterrevolution," political commentator and onetime Kremlin spinmeister Gleb Pavlovsky wrote recently.

And if you believe the polls, the public—including that vaunted "creative class" that not long ago was clamoring for more pluralism and for a "Russia Without Putin"—appears to be on board. Writing this week in The Moscow Times, opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov argues that Putin is in the process of forging a new "social contract" with the Russian people.

"His first social contract in the early and mid-2000s was based on the principle that most Russians would accept the government's restrictions on personal freedoms and democracy as long as they received higher standards of living," Ryzhkov wrote. "Now, judging by the results of a recent Levada Center poll, most Russians have shifted their focus to another value: returning Russia to its great-power status. It seems that the ruling regime has found its political 'second wind' and if this wind continues to blow for the next couple of years, Putin's re-election in the 2018 presidential race is all but a given." That is, assuming there is even an election in 2018.

Anybody remember Alexei Navalny? Not long ago, the anti-corruption blogger, opposition leader, and all-around gadfly seemed to be setting the agenda and riding a cresting wave of discontent with the regime. Now he's virtually invisible. The man who coined, branded, and marketed the "swindlers and thieves" label is languishing under house arrest. And to add insult to injury, it is now forbidden for third parties to repost his blogs.

"It is absolutely clear to me that it is just one more attempt to drive me into a corner," Navalny told reporters in April after a Moscow court found him guilty of slander. Yes it is. And it appears to be working. Navalny's blog remains active as ever—but it isn't driving the conversation like it once did. Not even close.

And hand-in-hand with the euphoria of the Kremlin's counterrevolution come the delusions of grandeur. Writing in The New Yorker, Joshua Yaffa recently quoted an unidentified United Russia lawmaker as saying that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was right to describe Putin as living "in another world." Putin, the deputy said, is "in a different league, he is in a dialogue with history."

The change in the zeitgeist has indeed been dizzying. And it raises a crucial question. In resetting the national conversation, has Putin managed to alter the underlying dynamics of Russian politics?

Since late 2011, the tectonic plates beneath the political order seemed to be shifting decisively against the regime. An emerging urban middle class that had grown wealthy, confident, and increasingly politically sophisticated was demanding change. The elite was deeply divided between technocrats advocating political reform and economic modernization and hard-liners seeking to maintain the status quo.

And Putin himself seemed to be rapidly losing his aura of invincibility. His vital role as "The Decider"—a trusted broker among elite factions—appeared in jeopardy. There was even talk of a succession battle emerging among his most trusted lieutenants. Russia's economy, dangerously dependent on energy exports, appeared headed for a deep recession—or worse.

It certainly looked like a perfect storm. Now, with the patriotic fervor unleashed by the Crimea annexation and the Ukraine crisis, Putin seems to have his mojo back. He's The Decider again. The elite remains divided, but those opposed to Putin's course have been largely cowed into silence.

And what longtime Kremlin-watcher Mark Galeotti calls the "consensual hallucination" that has sustained Putin's undisputed rule appears to be restored. But as Walter Russell Mead argued in a recent piece in The American Interest, the patriotic wave Putin is riding is similar to a drug dependency. "He needs triumphs abroad to vindicate and justify his rule and his repression at home, and foreign-policy victories are like cocaine when it comes to their impact on public opinion: the buzz of each hit soon wears off, leaving only the craving for another and larger dose," Mead wrote.

And cocaine is expensive. Russia's economy is already taking a significant hit from the Ukraine crisis. Capital flight in the first quarter of 2014 reached $63.7 billion, more than all of last year. The ruble has lost 6 percent against the dollar since January. GDP growth has been near zero throughout the year. Inflation is expected to rise to 7.6 percent in the second quarter. And the stock market remains vulnerable.

"If this process further develops, we can expect power struggles within the Russian elite that will be exacerbated once the scale and scope of the financial damage Putin has precipitated becomes clear," Avi Tiomkin, a hedge-fund advisor, wrote recently in Forbes.

"At that point, the ruling elite will conclude that Putin is not only no longer an asset, but has become a major liability. At the same time, Russian opposition parties and groups will be emboldened by the West's stance and expect support. This is when we may see a 'Russian Spring.'"