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Putin's invasion of Ukraine 'is really splitting Russian society,' expert explains

·Director, Editorial
·4 min read

Russian President Vladimir Putin owns the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, one expert explained, and that means that the totalitarian leader will also own what comes next.

"This was a decision that was taken by a single individual in consultation with maybe a half dozen members of his national security council," Timothy Frye, professor of post-Soviet foreign policy at Columbia University, told Yahoo Finance (video above). "So there's very little elite buy-in. And the Russian public has always been skittish about conflict with Ukraine and is perfectly willing to recognize Ukrainian sovereignty. The public opinion is very clear on that question."

Frye added that in response to relatively few people besides Putin wanting to invade Ukraine, "what we've seen is a great deal of repression within Russia, both of the mass public and a real attempt to silence elite opinion. And that's a very difficult thing to do in a country with as diverse interest as Russia has."

Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron during a video conference call at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia June 26, 2020. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron during a video conference call at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia June 26, 2020. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

'This invasion is really splitting Russian society'

Frye, author of "Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia," added that this doesn't mean that Putin could easily be overthrown — after all, "it's really difficult to overthrow an autocrat." Instead, Russia experts are watching to see if significant cracks emerge in support for Putin from elites and the public.

"The information environment of Russia is really still controlled by the Russian state, even as lots of videos are getting through," Frye explained. "And it's really unclear what direction the kind of battle of hearts and minds are going to go. When your country is involved in a war, patriotic elements within the country often rise up. So I think this invasion is really splitting Russian society between those who favor a view of fortress Russia versus those who want to bring Russia into the 21st century. And it's really unclear which side is going to win out."

VORONEZH, RUSSIA - 2022/03/06: The police arrest an anti-war activist on the streets of Voronezh on a weekend of pro and anti-war actions.
Over the weekend, pro and anti-war actions were held in Voronezh, located several hundred kilometers from the border with Ukraine. (Photo by Mihail Siergiejevicz/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
The police arrest an anti-war activist on the streets of Voronezh, Russia, on a weekend of pro and anti-war protests. (Photo by Mihail Siergiejevicz/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, the West swiftly moved to punish Putin's regime by freezing Russian assets, cutting off some of the country’s banks from the SWIFT messaging system, sanctioning individual Russian oligarchs, and other measures. Various prominent companies also distanced themselves from Russia. Domestically, thousands of Russians have been arrested for protesting the war.

In terms of the economic pain, Frye noted that "the Russian economy is already at the threat of seizing up. The sanctions on the central bank are really unprecedented. And they're much greater than I think anyone expected, certainly than Vladimir Putin expected."

'One thing that Putin has always been very afraid of'

Asked about what comes next, Frye explained that "one thing that Putin has always been very afraid of domestic instability. So I think the impact of these sanctions and all of the Western policy are less to try to get the economic elites to turn on Putin than just trying to make the country ungovernable. And at some point, that might be one way we could constrain Putin from pushing further into Ukraine and to try to find some negotiated agreement."

The war status in Ukraine, according to the UK Ministry of Defence as Monday morning. (UK Ministry of Defence)
The war status in Ukraine, according to the UK Ministry of Defence as Monday morning. (UK Ministry of Defence)

In the meantime, there is a brutal war raging in Ukraine. Russia seems to have failed to meet its objectives thus far and is increasingly bombing civilians. The Ukrainian resistance, meanwhile, appears to be both strong in battle and determined to revolt against any attempt at Russian occupation of the country.

Negotiations between the two sides are ongoing.

"Russia's ability to occupy the country given the incredible hostility of the Ukrainian population towards Russia... would make a long-term occupation really difficult," Frye said, later adding: "Ukraine seems to be in no mood to negotiate. They feel like they can wear down the Russian government. And by inflicting costs, they can really make life uncomfortable for Putin."

Michael B. Kelley is an editor at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelBKelley.

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