Putin’s folly: Why Syria could hasten the end of the Russian despot

Vladimir Putin, once viewed as an adept politician, is stunningly out of touch. His close confidants are fleeing in droves, revealing the systemic corruption in his government. His poll numbers are dropping, raising the possibility that he may not win on the first vote in the upcoming (and rigged) presidential elections. And on Saturday, a record number of Russians defied freezing temperatures and threats of persecution to call for his removal.

How does Putin respond? By vetoing a U.N. resolution calling on the Syrian president to stop murdering his people. Instead of trying to counter his image as a totalitarian despot, Putin has doubled down. Instead of trying to recast himself as a supporter of human rights, Putin has told Russians that he won’t provide any meaningful reforms. And instead of trying to quell a restless Russia, Putin has cast himself as an enemy of democracy and freedom.

Putin has calculated that standing with despots like Assad is the best way to prevent an “Arab Spring” in Russia. But he has made a serious error. Putin’s decision will only increase his unpopularity at home and abroad. And if Assad falls, the Russian people will be even more emboldened to remove Putin.

For the past 13 years, Putin has kept his grip on power through the masterful use of intimidation, violence, and cronyism. True, he may once have been popular by arguing that things would be worse without him. But as the Russian economy has weakened and the Russian people have seen millions in the Middle East win their freedom, they have turned on Putin.

In the past, Putin used brutal tactics to squash public opposition. His authorities arrested protesters in order to cower Russians into silence. His henchmen used systemic violence, unjust prosecutions, and targeted killings to crush critics and political opponents. And Putin used his control over the media and Russian politicians to solidify his grip on power. For a while, it seemed to be working.

Then something changed: Russians, perhaps inspired by the Arab Spring, began to stand up to Putin. It started at an MMA match, where Putin was booed in public. This emboldened critics to plan a large street protest. Despite threats of arrests and violence, record numbers turned out. The next rally produced even more people. Soon politicians who had been too fearful to criticize Putin began breaking ranks. It was clear that Russians would no longer be cowed by fear. They wanted change, and they wanted it now.

Putin could have responded by enacting real and meaningful political reforms. He could have abstained from running for president again, unleashed Dmitry Medvedev from his leash, or allowed his political opponents to make their voices heard. Had he done so, Putin might have satisfied a fair amount of his critics. And he may have been able to regain popular support.