2012 was a big watershed for Putin. That was the year when the Russian “mink coat protests” happened. The upper middle class wanted to become Westernized and was embarrassed by the clunky, outdated imperial pretensions of Putin and his low-class supporters. They came out to protest.
These were the largest peaceful protests in the entire Putin presidency. And the participants were all chi-chi fru-fru, hence the name “mink coat protests.” Society ladies, fashion bloggers, mistresses of mini-oligarchs (known as pocket crocodiles in Russia). They are a small minority, incapable of street fighting, so the protests failed.
But what happened during the protests is that the truth about Putin’s arrangement with Chechnya came out. When Putin first came to power, nobody in Russia knew his name. He was a complete non-entity, appointed to the job by the 7 leading oligarchs. At that time, Chechen terrorism was a major problem in Russia. Putin made warmongering, aggressive statements about Chechnya. People ate it all up. Massive support, huge popularity.
And it seemed to work. Putin pacified Chechnya, his strongman tactics bore fruit.
But the reality was different. Putin had entered into the agreement with the Chechens. They’d be exempt from Russian laws on their territory. They’ll have their Shariah law. And in addition, Russia would pay them vassal duties so that they wouldn’t have to work. Since then, Chechens are Putin’s biggest fans.
As the mink protests were being crushed, the highly educated mink-wearers who constitute the majority of the chattering class got distracted from their European vacations and yachts and started investigating what had really happened in Chechnya. Numbers were published and massively publicized, everything.
Putin was humiliated. His rankings were in the toilet. He cried on TV. He got booed at a sports match. This is not a guy who deals with public humiliation well.
Then, a few months later, Ukraine rises against their Putin-puppet president and throws him out. The entire chattering class goes, “yay, Ukraine!” And the oil prices start to drop. Putin’s popularity by that time was at the lowest point.
So what to do? How to reassure the 90% of the population that isn’t upper-middle class? Putin does what always works and invades Ukraine in 2014. Immediately, the ratings shoot up.
People say he’s irrational. But is it irrational for an elected leader to do what his electorate wants?
Yes, Putin is a bad dude. But there’s a whole story here that happened over 20+ years. The simplistic narrative of “dictator Putin” doesn’t explain anything. There’s a trajectory. The public grows jaded, needs bloodier entertainment, so he provides it. Then the public gets inured again, so he escalates. This isn’t a tyranny. This is something much worse because you can’t solve it with the removal of the tyrant. The tyrant is 130 million people strong. Putin is simply their errand boy.