TLDRUpFront: A mega-mullet overview of all the context you’re missing on the Russian Navalny protests, Putin’s hold power, and how a Dictator’s Dilemma could expose a fracturing among the elites leading to a possible collapse of the regime in Russia in the next few years.
Putin’s regime feeling a bit surrounded by popular protests.
Over 8,000 have been arrested in back-to-back weekend anti-corruption protests in Russia sponsored by the opposition figure Navalny. Navalny himself was arrested on return to Russia from Germany just over a week ago, where he’d been recovering after an August poisoning attack. 
The repetition over a second weekend, sheer size, and geographic dispersion of protests, which occurred all over Russia, is a key divergence from past Moscow-centric one-and-done protests in the past against Putin. Largely fed by social media connections, protests erupted over ninety cities reaching western Russia, across its north, and even as far away as Yatusk in Siberia. Pictures of crowds vary in size from what looks like several thousand to several dozen. And the rhythmic style of protesting, “if it’s Sunday we march, if not lay low,” mirrors the Yellow Vests’ tactics in France and during the Hong Kong protests of 2019. Indeed, Navalny supporters have now straddled Putin on the horns of a Dictator’s Dilemma.
The starting point of this current cycle of instability traces back to the July 2020 effort to pass a new Russian Constitution as described here. A persistent problem of states worldwide is continuismo, which means continuing a current authority or regime that refuses to yield power. This problem manifested in many Latin American and African nations resulting in democracies that morphed into dictatorships. In Russia, continuismo manifests as a dictatorship desiring to stay a dictatorship while maintaining the appearance of a democracy.
Before the 2020 changes, Russian Presidents could not serve consecutive terms and were limited to a finite number of administrations. This required a few musical chairs when President Putin “stepped down,” allowing President Medvedev to “step up.” With an appropriate break in continuity, President Putin returned to power. But this is a bit complicated for an aging dictator.
First, the previous limitation on consecutive terms was removed, allowing Putin to serve without interruption until hitting the finite limit on terms. And to ensure Putin wouldn’t hit that limit, the Constitution also nullified the previous terms of both Putin and Medvedev, effectively setting them to “zero.” This means in 2024, Putin will be running for President for his ‘first time.’ Despite being in defacto power since 2000. And the term limits in the Constitution won’t apply to him until 2036, when he is 83 years old. Continuismo. The Constitution also includes nativist language prohibiting foreign-born citizens from ever holding Presidency. The US Constitution contains a similar clause. But the Russian version goes further, banning anyone who is, or has ever, held split citizenship from serving as Russian President, even if they are Russian born. This ban is a hedge against oligarchs who’ve enjoyed split citizenship between Russia and European countries for economic reasons running against Putin in the future. Now, these elite threats to Putin are barred from running. Put a pin in that. Because we’ll come back to it later.
In addition to Presidential changes, the Constitution weakened the independence of other institutions. Parliament’s power was cut considerably. On top of that, all laws the Parliament does manage to pass will face a Court review for legality. This is before they go to the President for signature. The clever clause allows laws to be scuttled by a Court packed with Putin appointees without Putin himself having to do it. What had previously been known as Putin’s circle of cronies was relabeled a “State Council” and given statutory powers.
And just to remove any doubt, the President’s position was made immune from prosecution either during or after leaving office. All law enforcement leadership, even down to local levels, are now directly appointed by the President.
A spoonful of sugar for the medicine included a mix of social welfare, and national chauvinist measures were tossed in. Minimum wages could never be lower than a subsistence level, and pensions were indexed. However, with inflation rates ranging from ~3%-16% per year, well above European averages, these measures only ensure a steady supply of increasingly worthless currency at ever higher denominations. The Constitution also banned any smack-talk of the Soviet Union, especially its heroic acts during World War II, declared Russia’s national religion to be Orthodox Christianity, and “defended” marriage by announcing it could only be between a man and a woman. Notably, the social justice and national chauvinist teasers apparently did little to sway the population for and against. The Constitution was ratified 78% to 22%, which generally tracks the hard-core plus calculating supporters of Putin (see below) versus an opposition minority.
In Russia, the Poisoned Well is Brought to You
A bonafide pain-in-the butt blogger since 2012, Navalny ran as the Mayor of Moscow in 2013 and came in second with a decent showing of 37%. Arrested several times before and since Navalny mastered the use of new social media platforms including YouTube to reach Russians with information state-controlled TV would never show. Though used to hearing their leader is authoritarian, Navalny mobilized audiences with in-depth investigations into the corruption that lays at the regime’s heart. Making Putin appear less of a strongman and more an aging kleptocrat. The machismo chauvinism of a “strong leader” is a key appeal of Putin. Which is why there’s enough state-sponsored photographs of a bare-chested Vladimir doing manly things to fill a daily calendar. But what Navalny showed was a state-sponsored plunderer, living in opulent wealth while the people of Russia suffered. For years Putin tried to ignore the Gadfly of Gorky Park. Officials refused to use his name, instead referring to the “blogger” or other less kind euphemisms.
But someone must have said “Bloody Navalny” three times looking in a mirror during the Constitutional referendum because ‘the blogger’ showed up in force campaigning against the changes. He described the ruling party that Putin controls, United Russia, a party of crooks and thieves. That the Constitutional changes including immunity from prosecution was less about the need for a ‘strong’ government than a gang of thieves protecting themselves from consequences.
This earned Navalny a visit from the nerve-agent fairy in August of 2020. He fell ill rapidly during an airline flight By the time the plane landed Navalny was almost near death. But poisonings don’t come attached with an arrest warrant or ban on leaving the country. And Navalny was able to relocate to Germany, hospitalized for months from the poisoning. An investigation by Bellingcat points the finger at a multi-year operation by the FSB to target Navalny with poison. 
Putin’s Dictator Dilemma
The now-opposition-leader-in-exile recuperated in Germany but still managed to poke the bear with the stick. Navalny’s YouTube channel continued publishing exposes on corruption. One of them featured Navalny doing a passable impersonation of a security official on a recorded phone call. On the other end, a chemical expert who was alleged to be part of the FSB team. The chemist seemed to confirm the poison type and delivery mechanism. Then, with all eyes fixed on Washington DC imploding in insurrection and wondering what President Trump might do before his term expired, Navalny stole a night-march by abruptly returning to Moscow. The move caught the regime by sufficient surprise. Security agencies diverted Navalny’s flight at the last minute to avoid it landing at a major Moscow airport to a hero’s return. Instead, the flight landed at a smaller airport outside of Moscow, where Navalny was promptly detained. The very next weekend, protests began all over Russia.
The protesters appear to be using a previous tactic in Hong Kong and Yellow Vest protests in France. A sustained rhythm of periodic protesting on certain days of the week at set intervals. This makes it easier to organize while denying a continuously occupied location, as seen in the Arab Spring and OWS protests, which gives a central target for the authorities to break. This confronts Putin with the Dictator’s Dilemma asymmetric archetype, depicted below and explained fully in the Hong Kong case study. And here’s a video walk-through of how it works.
The “current reforms” being demanded by Russia for the Future, Navalny’s political party, are to secure fair elections in time for the next legislative vote on the State Duma. This vote must happen by September giving a timeline for the Dictator’s Dilemma to play out. If he can do that, and Russia for the Future makes a good showing in seats, Navalny will probably seek to run against Putin himself in 2024. 
Most Dictator’s Dilemmas begin with a slow burn from the demand for reforms to street battles. But Putin, a known slugger, stepped up like Casey at the Bat, resulting in the last two weekends’ worth of violence and arrests.
The trick of the Dictator’s Dilemma here is that Navalny himself is not widely popular. Although his poisoning increased awareness of the opposition leader, his unfavorable ratings still exceed his favorable ratings.  But when state security forces thump heads far and wide, and those images are shared widely, it provokes the arms race on the right side of the diagram. Of less concern is Navalny’s favorable and more “that looks like my mom being arrested.”
This means control of information is a key battlefront in the Dictator’s Dilemma. And with Putin’s monopoly on state-controlled TV, this battlefront has shifted to the internet and social media. Only 50% of Russians have access to a reliable internet connection. As support for Navalny has spread out from Moscow to small towns, it has been through these internet connections giving access to social media.
There is some speculation by Russian analysts that Navalny is a front-figure for disaffected elite supporters of Putin. Remember the oligarchs banned by the new Constitution from running against Putin? Yup. Those ones.
Tipping Points and Threshold Effects of Instability
Emerging-state actor theory describes how states fracture and new-states form. In it, populations are distributed between four “buckets” based on their perception of a state or non-state actor. This perception is called a “double-anchor” and consists of both long and short-term views. The extent to which a state is stable vs. unstable or at risk of failing, in one way, can be measured by determining the amount of population in any one bucket and the rate of change between buckets.
The first bucket consists of the most ardent supporters perceiving the state actor as legitimate. They opt into their rules and norms with whole-hearted zeal. The second bucket is called calculated-legitimacy and includes populations who have made strategic choices to support the actor because they appear to be “the best choice for now.” They may not rock the boat, but they’re no manning the oars either. The third group view the actor as a coercive first and actively resist policing efforts. The fourth group, unaligned, are those that have not aligned themselves to any one faction.
In simple terms, if the population of coerced and unaligned combined exceed the legitimate and calculated-legitimacy buckets, that’s a failed state. Held together for a small group of elites by the resources of policing onto the coerced population. And a high-velocity draining of calculated-legitimacy population into coerced is a leading indicator of a failing state.
One Russian analyst has described the population distribution right now in terms like this. One minority of citizens view Putin as legitimate. They are “all-in” for Putin. Another minority has shifted to the coerced viewpoint and rallied around Navalny. But the vast majority are in the middle bucket of calculated legitimacy.
The Enemy of My Enemy May still be a Populist Nationalist
It’s important to put Navalny’s critiques of Russian corruption and Putin’s authoritarianism in the context of a larger understanding of his politics. Navalny is a Russian nationalist of the populist bent. He advocates for fewer foreign interventions by Russia, which is reasonable. However, he’s also has blamed many of Russian’s current problems on migrants in the past. This is less reasonable given the obvious critiques he’s made of the Russian oligarchy at the root of the country’s problems. Indeed, Navalny has been called a right-wing nationalist and compared as “Russia’s Trump.”  Navalny’s breed of populist-nationalism is less batshit crazy than Trump’s. But it still blends healthy doses of racism, ethnonationalism, disdain for foreign wars, and a desire to focus on fixing Russia for the “Russian people.” Who looks and acts a lot like Navalny, we imagine.  And although his close brush with death from a Novichok nerve agent may have softened his views, it’s important to keep this context in mind.
The Dictator’s Dictator no longer Dictates
This isn’t Putin’s first rodeo with the Dictator’s Dilemma. And he has a proven history of getting to outcome #2: “Dictator Crushes the People.” However, the small faction of elites that keep Putin in power, the same elites Navalny’s been investigating, may be losing confidence in their strongman. Suppose Putin is not able to quickly crush the Navalny protest movements. In that case, the Dictator Dilemma may morph into outcome #4: “Red-Queen Race between Dictator and People.”
That a Red-Queen race is even a possibility for the man who was once the very model of a modern major dictator for the 21st Century. One of the earliest InfoMullet posts in our historical archive examines the release of the “Putin Doctrine” in September 2002. Even claiming first-publication bragging rights by beating President Bush’s own preemption doctrine by eight days. And unlike President Bush, Putin knew how to accomplish the mission. For most of the 21st Century, Putin’s trademark strategy could be simplified as “push until someone makes you stop.” Expanding Russian’s influence into a powerful regional hegemon by crushing insurgency in Chechnya, intervening in Georgia, destabilizing Ukraine, and then intervening in Syria after first making a laughing stock of President Obama’s Secretary of State Kerry’s clownish approach to enforce a chemical weapons disarmament in Syria. One of the few world leaders to make Putin blink during this uninterrupted run, and only but those two times. The first was in April 2017. As President Trump prepared retaliation against Syria for its use of chemical weapons, Russian military generals warned any strike on Syria would result in a Russian retaliation on US assets launching bombers. This included not only foreign air bases but US carriers. President Trump called the bluff, struck at Syria, and Putin did nothing. And a year after that in the Battle of Kasham in February 2018. Hundreds of Russian mercenaries of the Wagner Group supporting Syrian forces were either killed or wounded when they got too close to a US military outpost in Syria.  Beyond those two instances, Putin’s strategy of push-until-someone-pushes back has expanded a regional hegemony and influence in a sphere extending a thousand miles from the Russian border.
Putin’s now the Sick Man of Eurasia
That Navalny has gotten this far just highlights how far Putin and Russia have fallen since then. The protests come as Putin, and thus Russia’s influence suffered a dramatic drubbing in 2020. Less regional hegemon than a hanging-on hedgehog. Russia’s hit its peak influence in the Red Wedding of January 2017. A Yalta-conference style triple alliance between three regional hegemons, each anchored by a strong political and military leader with proven experience. Russia with Putin, Turkey with Erdogan, and Iran with General Soleimani.
Four years on, and the alliance has collapsed. General Soleimani was killed in a US airstrike at the beginning of 2020. Iran’s foreign strategy of a double encirclement of the Gulf Cooperation States now looks more like a series of regional quagmires. It can neither win nor fully exit from Syria and Libya.
Turkey first downed a Russian plane so long ago it is less well-remembered than Game of Thrones. The practice of clown-shoeing the vaunted Russian anti-air capabilities is common. Either directly or through proxies in Syria, Libya, and most recently, when Russia lost another proxy war to Turkey in the Armenian v. Azerbaijan conflict of summer 2020. Putin’s consolation prize is to provide troops to “keep the peace” favorable to Turkey-backed Azerbaijan. Which is the foreign-affairs equivalent of being asked to chaperone the high-school dance you didn’t get asked to, stationed at the punch bowl for all to see.
In 2021, President Erdogan in Turkey is calling the shots as the regional hegemon of the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East with strong nationalist support and a decent COVID19 pandemic response. Putin’s Russia is now figuratively the “Sick Man of Eurasia”  blocked in the center by Turkey and too weak to do more than nod at China’s regional hegemony. It’s also literally the sick man as its COVID19 response is well above Turkey or China, exceeded only by Iran.
Comparing COVID19 Cumulative Deaths per Million Population of Regional Hegemons
The private mercenary force, the Wagner Group, was once considered the Blackwater of Russia. Putin’s key ‘elite’ force to project military capability where he needed plausible deniability over conventional Russian forces.  With a losing streak to match the Jaguars, we’d want to deny any association with the Wagner Group as well. Wagner was involved in all recent Russian military setbacks beginning with the Battle of Kasham mentioned above and more recent conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan. It even tried its hand against indigenous insurgent forces in Mozambique, failing there as well.
The causes of this are not new. Kleptocratic regimes ultimately always run afoul of their own bankruptcy and self-inflicted errors. (Coughs in Trump) Even as Putin showed a deft hand in his foreign policy plays a moribund economy, heavy inflation, and weak institutions and infrastructure plagued the country. When oil briefly went negative in real values during an OPEC spat with Saudi Arabia, that was more a coda than an intro.
An Opening and Not the End Game
This isn’t to say Putin doesn’t have more cards to play. He’s been stacking the deck for decades. His core support remains at ~30% and with the calculated legitimacy of a majority nears 80% overall. Long before the 2020 Constitution made it official, Putin was putting key allies into security agencies loyal to him. Given current conditions, regime change in Russia is less likely to come from an uprising from below. And more likely to originate in a “fracturing of the elites.” Similar to the initial collapse of the USSR or the briefly attempted coup to restore it.  Putin can ban the oligarchs from running for President. But he can’t erase their power in a corrupt system he helped build. And the Navalny opposition movement is proving stubborn to disperse. Whether opposed oligarchs are actively using Navalny is less important than if the Dictator’s Dilemma manages to tip that threshold effect. If the large majority of the population granting Putin a calculated legitimacy shift away from him, elites may decide it’s time to fold rather than double-down their support for Putin.
Before that, the protests have to sustain themselves for the third weekend and then a fourth. The next Presidential elections are years away, and there’s still a month to the legislative elections. Whether Putin can smother the Navalny challenge by ending the Dictator’s Dilemma before then will go a long way to securing his flank. With both the majority population and the elite support, he needs to stay in power.