Russians are isolated but what is Putin’s endgame? – Los Angeles Times


On a wintry January day in 1990, the grand opening of the first McDonald’s restaurant in what was then the Soviet Union was hailed as an emblem of the thawing Cold War. A serpentine line wound through the capital’s Pushkin Square, a throng of thousands waiting patiently for a first taste of American fast food.

This week, the chill seemed to descend anew.

After McDonald’s announced a suspension of business at its 850 restaurants across Russia in response to the devastating war in Ukraine, Olga Ryazanova, a 53-year-old travel agent, was ruminating not only on the loss of a cozy, affordable eating spot, but also on Russia’s dramatically abrupt alienation from the outside world.

“We don’t want to be isolated,” she said. “I think now is the time for wise decisions.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to subsume a sovereign neighboring state by laying waste to entire cities and battering civilians with air bombardment has triggered a dire severing of his own country’s international ties — economic, cultural and social — built up over the three decades since the Soviet collapse.

U.S. and European sanctions are pummeling the Russian economy, sending the ruble into free fall. Russian aircraft are banned from most Western skies. Some of the best-known U.S. and European brands, including Starbucks and Coca-Cola, have voluntarily paused business activities in Russia. Sports and cultural exchanges are curtailed.

Customers visit the first Russian McDonald's at Pushkin Square in Moscow, Russia.

Customers visit the first Russian McDonald’s, at Pushkin Square in Moscow. McDonald’s announced it would temporarily close all 847 of its restaurants in Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

(Oleg Nikishin / Getty Images)

But if the West is anticipating that public anger over Russia’s newfound pariah status will weaken Putin to the point of forcing him to forgo his wish to subjugate Ukraine — or even pose a threat to his own rule — some analysts believe those hopes may be misplaced.

Sanctions-caused hardships, they say, give the 69-year-old Russian leader an opening to invoke a Soviet-era narrative dating to the days when Moscow and Washington were the only world powers: that the West hates Russia and wants it to fail.

In line with that message, Putin on Thursday brushed aside the issue of his invasion of Ukraine, declaring that the United States and its allies were merely seeking a pretext to punish Russia.

“These sanctions would have been imposed in any case,” he said at a televised government meeting. The ultimate result of Western efforts to punish Russia, he said, would be an increase of “our independence, our self-sufficiency and our sovereignty.”

As the Ukraine crisis intensifies, Putin has jangled nerves worldwide with Cold War-style nuclear saber-rattling. But even as an economic vise tightens on Moscow, the Russian leader is relying on sheer intimidation to quash any hint of dissent at home.

Almost anyone in a position to mount a significant challenge to Putin’s internal authority, including members of Russia’s wealthy elite and a tight, tense political inner circle, is afraid to do so, said Irina Borogan, a nonresident senior fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis.

“Right now, nobody can check him,” she said of the Russian leader. Oligarchs, she said, “are frightened to death, and people in the ministries — they are even more frightened.”

Despite a failure to swiftly seize Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and depose President Volodymyr Zelensky in the war’s first two weeks, Putin still has powerful tools at his disposal at home, including an arsenal of propaganda, a vast and feared state security network and harshly repressive measures that have targeted independent media and kept a tight lid on street protests.

During more than 20 years in power, the former KGB officer has constructed an elaborate apparatus meant to make those closest to him believe that they would be betrayed by one another, with terrible consequences, if they sought to move against him in any way, analysts say.

“Putin has actually consolidated his power probably more completely than anyone since Stalin,” said Edward Geist, a Russia policy researcher at Rand Corp., referring to the Soviet dictator who ruled by terror, causing the death of millions, in the three decades before his death in 1953.

Geist said he was not drawing a parallel between the two, but pointed out that Putin, like Josef Stalin, intentionally surrounded himself with individuals who were “nonentities — who is going to mount a palace coup against him?”

People standing in line at an ATM in Russia

People wait in line to withdraw money from an ATM in St. Petersburg, Russia. Western sanctions have caused the ruble to plummet in value.

(Dmitri Lovetsky / Associated Press)

A domestic Russian audience, especially older people who mainly get their news from state media, largely accepts the Kremlin’s depiction of a “special military operation” — not a war — meant to liberate a brotherly Slavic nation from Nazi-style oppressors.

Ukrainians with family ties in Russia regularly report encountering disbelief and furious denial when they telephone and try to tell their Russian relatives of freezing and being starved and terrorized by artillery fire on their homes.

Days after the fighting began, Current Time TV, a Russian-language broadcaster headquartered in Prague, the Czech capital, put together a memorable montage of ordinary Russians’ reaction when shown photos of wartime scenes from Ukraine — bombed-out buildings, crumpled bodies.

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“I support Putin. I won’t look at these photos,” said one woman. Another, clad in a pink hat, grimaced as she turned on her heel and walked away.

“It’s all on Zelensky and the Americans,” one man declared.

“No one is bombing Kyiv. I don’t believe it,” said another man, chortling derisively.

In the course of the Ukraine offensive, Zelensky has repeatedly appealed directly to Russians — often addressing them in their own language — to rise up against the war, not only for the sake of Ukraine, but also themselves.

“Citizens of Russia, for you, this is a struggle not only for peace in Ukraine — it is a struggle for your country, for the best there was of it,” he said in a video address Sunday. “For the freedom that you saw, for the prosperity that you experienced.”

In past years, Russian protesters have braved police beatings and heavy penalties. In 2021, tens of thousands took part in nationwide demonstrations in support of jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny, who survived a poisoning attempt widely blamed on Russian military intelligence.

A movement of such scope has not materialized in response to the war in Ukraine. Even so, street protests over the last two weeks have resulted in more than 13,000 arrests, according to the monitoring group OVD-Info.

The rights group has described even more draconian punishment of current protesters than in previous years. At one Moscow police station, it said, detainees were “hit in the face and head with bottles, kicked in the legs, kneed in the stomach, dragged by their hair and sanitizer sprayed in their faces.”

Some veterans of the protest movement say they are demoralized not only by the crackdown, but also by the attitudes of fellow citizens. A 25-year-old Moscow sports marketing specialist named Danila said she did not believe street demonstrations would be a tipping point in the Ukraine war.

“Right now, the only reason to take part is for my own peace of mind, not to feel shame,” said Danila, who did not want her full name used because she feared arrest. “I have resigned [myself] to the fact that we cannot change anything right now, unfortunately.”

As Putin’s forces commit a series of strategic stumbles in Ukraine, senior U.S. intelligence officials have painted a picture of a leader cornered and angry — an aloof man sitting alone at long tables, his minions in the wings.

“We assess Putin feels aggrieved,” Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, told a congressional panel this week, citing the Russian president’s sense that “the West does not give him proper deference.”

The CIA director, William Burns, told lawmakers that Putin “has no sustainable political endgame in the face of what is going to continue to be fierce resistance from the Ukrainians.”

Some analysts are far more skeptical of Putin’s long-term political viability. Olena Lennon, an adjunct professor of political science at the University of New Haven, said a leader who cultivated an image as a guardian of ordinary Russians’ well-being might not be able to withstand worsening economic hardship.

“I don’t see how Putin can reinvent himself at this point,” she told a webinar this week by the Washington-based Wilson Center. “Strategically, Putin has already lost.”

But despite domestic woes stemming from the invasion, Putin retains, for many Russians, a strongman’s aura of invincibility. Among the educated elite, there are fears that compatriots will respond to Western opprobrium with a redoubled belief that he alone is the country’s true protector.

“The general population is afraid of losing whatever stability they have,” said Ksenia, a 50-year-old Moscow accountant who opposes the war. She did not want her full name used because speaking ill of the war is now a crime.

“That’s the source of the aggressiveness — fear and feeling powerless,” she said. “People start feeling deceived, which is very difficult and scary. It’s easier to hide from all the problems.”

Special correspondent Korobtsova reported from Moscow and Times staff writer King from Washington.