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What Comes Next ? The Future of Vladimir Putin’s Regime

What Comes Next ? The Future of Vladimir Putin’s Regime
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

Many pundits view the June Wagner mutiny as a clear challenge to Putin’s grip on power. It would be premature to make definitive conclusions given that the Russian President still has plenty of “trump cards” in his deck to regain the initiative. But it is undeniable that his regime’s stability is being tested by the war in Ukraine.

Michel Duclos, Senior Fellow at Institut Montaigne, attempts to answer two key and related questions: What factors would undermine the stability of Vladimir Putin’s regime in the near future? And what scenarios can we envisage?  His analysis is based on a series of interviews with Russian citizens (most of them are in exile), as well as European analysts and experts of Russia. Their identities have been kept confidential.

The author thanks Camille Le Mitouard in Institut Montaigne's Europe Program who was instrumental in writing this paper, as well as Georgina Wright and Louise Chetcuti in their edits.

Until the Wagner mercenary group's revolt the assumption was that the Russian regime could withstand adversity. Three factors explain this resilience.

By and large, Russians have accepted the constraints of the Ukraine war.

Ultra-nationalist influences in the media and social networks could be interpreted as a reflection, or even as a result, of the years-long campaign of indoctrination orchestrated by the regime. It is very difficult to evaluate the societal impact of this "Z Generation" (to borrow a term from Ian Garner), which has been molded by this indoctrination campaign. For now, the Russian population is mostly passive. Even in major cities, most Russians are primarily preoccupied with day-to-day survival, not the state of the Russian regime. The urban middle class is bearing the brunt of the sanctions, grappling with a new reality of limited travel and reduced access to foreign consumer goods.

Contrary to the widespread perception of an unflinching dictatorial regime indifferent to the general population, the Russian leadership has demonstrated a cautious approach, balancing increased repression while avoiding full-down disruption to everyday life. Strategies to carry this out include sparing the middle classes from military service, increasing social expenditure, offering substantial benefits to enlisted soldiers and their families, and, at least at the start, keeping borders open to those who fled. A contradiction exists between the Kremlin’s desire to balance a sense of normalcy with its narrative of "existential threat" to the Russian state to justify his bellicose stance. Furthermore, the regime has leveraged the deep-seated sense of imperialism ingrained in the Russian national psyche and the pervasive belief that "we are being attacked by the West". Something we heard time and time again from our sources is that while Russians initially viewed the war as unnecessary, a Russian defeat would be unacceptable to them. That said, who knows how, if, or when popular sentiment will evolve, should the economic situation deteriorate or repression levels escalate?

Russia withstood the effects of sanctions.

The toll sanctions have taken on the Russian economy cannot be understated: a contraction of 2.3% in GDP in 2022 (which was expected to rise by at least 3%), and large swathes of industry in dire straits, most notably the automotive sector. The economic outlook for the coming years remains grim and it’s not clear that GDP will rise in 2023 or 2024 despite signs to the contrary, especially given the increasing opacity of available budgetary data. Russia is being deprived of oxygen in the form of investment and technology from the West. This reality, compounded by the brain drain of highly-educated young professionals who have emigrated, will be a significant challenge for an economy that has been stagnant for some time.

However, Russia has also found alternative markets for its hydrocarbons beyond Europe, and inflation appears to be under control (after reaching a peak of 17.8% in April 2022). Despite a 10% decrease in household consumption in 2022 and declining product quality, household purchasing power has not collapsed. Additionally, Russia has substantial foreign exchange reserves with the Central Bank around $300 billion or more) and the sovereign wealth fund (around $100 billion) although the latter has been partially depleted. If we add the capacity of domestic banks to purchase sovereign debt, all those elements put together suggest that Moscow possesses the fiscal capacity to sustain the war effort, at least at its present level, for an extended duration.

Are the elites under control?

Putin’s administration has progressively evolved to resemble a feudal or mafia-esque construct, where power is derived from the capacity to instill fear but also to resolve disputes among the ruling elite. In the early stages of Putin’s reign, oligarchs were eradicated as a source of independent power. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the ‘siloviki’ (so-called security forces) expanded their influence not only in government but also in the economy. As a result, Putin’s arbitral role shifted from managing disputes between the siloviki and the so-called "systemic liberals" (technocrats) to managing disputes between different factions within the siloviki, which vie for control and rival with each other to protect their interests. According to multiple sources, they are divided between a "hawkish" faction - possibly led by the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev - and a "less radical" faction, incarnated by Sergey Chemezov, a former KGB agent and lifelong friend of Vladimir Putin, who became an influential businessman.

Putin’s administration has progressively evolved to resemble a feudal or mafia-esque construct, where power is derived from the capacity to instill fear but also to resolve disputes among the ruling elite.

One of Putin’s strengths is his reliance on his long-time associates’ loyalty, such as Nikolai Patrushev, Mikhail Bogdanov, and Sergey Naryshkin. In addition, he has displayed strategic acumen for knowing how to promote young state security operatives and military generals since 2012 (to an even greater extent between 2016 and 2017), as well as civilian personnel, ensuring that they occupy key roles in government.

Due to the conflict in Ukraine, the monopoly of state control over the use of force has been weakened. The upsurge of mainly militia groups, exemplified by Wagner, with the threat of violence spreading throughout society, is eloquent in this regard. Russian sociologists are greatly concerned by these developments, particularly given Ukraine war veterans’ return, some of whom are Wagner’s newest recruits.

The Wagner mutiny needs to be evaluated in this context. Putin’s failure to respond quickly not only revealed his indecisiveness but spotlighted systemic vulnerabilities in his system. These include a near paralysis of intelligence services, a lackluster response from the military, potential acquiescence from certain factions, and elites fleeing Moscow on June 24th. Of equal concern is the public’s seeming indifference, (some even hinting at support for the rebels). The crack in the regime’s stability was, in reality, quickly patched up, but not without jolting Putin’s aura of invincibility. He must now navigate a highly complex political landscape. Purges are clearly underway, yet a critical question emerges: how far can these purges continue without destabalizing the war effort? This concern arises against the backdrop of the elites’ deep-seated discontent since February 2022. When Yevgeny Prigozhin openly challenged the legitimacy of the Ukraine war on June 26, 2023, he publicly voiced what many privately thought but were afraid to say due to fear of reprisal.

As for oligarchs, their power has been controlled by Putin since the 2000s, leaving them with no alternative but to endorse the regime. In fact, major conglomerates have found new revenue streams in the war economy. Prominent figures within Putin’s close circle, such as Arkady Rotenberg, Yury Kovalchuk, Gennady Timchenko, Sergey Chemezov, and Igor Sechin, are reaping substantial benefits from these circumstances.

Three potential turning points worth monitoring

The long-term effect of sanctions

Russia is not Venezuela. The world’s ninth-largest economy is unlikely to collapse. What’s more, Western sanctions currently in place do not stop gas and LNG exports, and leave vital financial arteries open for business - including for nuclear fuel. But sanctions are poised to exacerbate economic weaknesses (demographic problems, low productivity) that have been manifesting for years. Additionally, the visible effects of climate change will likely lead to a drop in demand for Russian fossil fuels.

Determining when sanctions will hit Moscow’s war effort is hard to predict. Some economists suggest that in two to three years–perhaps even sooner–a contraction in GDP will compel Russian authorities to make a difficult choice between "guns and butter". According to some sources, the initial sentiment among some siloviki when the war broke out was that they could easily withstand three years of conflict but beyond five years it would be impossible. Oil revenues are already becoming less profitable. In March, despite peak exports, they reached $12.7 billion, marking a decline of more than 40% compared to a year ago. The uptick in military spending coupled with the downturn in revenue have predictably led to a substantial budget deficit. SCOPE, a European rating agency, forecasted a deficit equivalent to 3.5% of Russia’s GDP for 2023.

Determining when sanctions will hit Moscow’s war effort is hard to predict.

At the June 2023 St. Petersburg Forum, Russia’s Finance Minister Anton Siluanov underscored the challenges to Russian authorities. To sustain the war effort, the government will either have to raise taxes or cut social programs. Although borrowing remains an option, it may inadvertently trigger inflation, compromising the vitality of the broader economy.

The other approach, put forth in The Economist, argues that sanctions will constrain the Kremlin’s strategic decision-making. While they do not explicitly curtail the funding of the war at its current level, their broader repercussions on Russia’s economy could impede Moscow to finance an intensification of the war.

The ramifications of a possible setback or defeat in Ukraine

Russian history is filled with examples of military failure precipitating the downfall of a regime, as seen by the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent unraveling of communism.

In stark contrast, and as mentioned previously, the consensus among most of our Russian sources is that the prevailing regime is resilient enough to recover from a military setback in Ukraine. Their argument is twofold. Firstly, the government’s substantial control over the media and public discourse can enable a nuanced representation of a strategic retreat as a calculated forward move. The second argument leans on the apathetic nature of Russian public sentiment.

Would these arguments still hold if Crimea were lost? Contrary to intuitive reasoning, a highly regarded Russian political analyst suggests that the nationalistic enthusiasm that followed Crimea’s annexation was more short-lived than is generally believed.

The China factor

It was Vladimir Putin himself who forged closer ties with Beijing after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, culminating in a historical $400 billion agreement between Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Corporation on May 21, 2014. Notably, this rapprochement happened despite the Russian establishment’s initial reluctance, particularly within its energy sector.

It seems inevitable that the current fracture with the West will lead to an ever-closer alliance between China and Russia, a development that could relegate Russia to a subsidiary role in this partnership. Is this compatible with the siloviki ultra-nationalism? Some of our sources suggest that the siloviki seem to have accepted this "China option" as the default course. Meanwhile, despite a noticeable rise in Chinese exports to Russia (+12.8% in 2022), they remain relatively limited in value. And while Russian oil shipments to China increased, China will likely want to maintain a diversified portfolio of supply sources to ensure its energy security. The real test of this "no-limits friendship" may come when Russia’s finances deteriorate to the point where Chinese loans become necessary. Regardless, the "patriotic backlash against overreliance on China" could materialize as a critical indicator that only lights up in a post-Putin era… when his day of reckoning arrives. 

It seems inevitable that the current fracture with the West will lead to an ever-closer alliance between China and Russia, a development that could relegate Russia to a subsidiary role in this partnership.

 Inside the mind of Vladimir Putin
Putin and the fate of arms

While the regime might withstand a Ukrainian defeat, the real issue is that Putin himself might personally tie the survival of his regime - and his mark on history - unequivocally with a Russian victory.

Accordingly, Putin is perceived to be operating within the framework of an enduring conflict–one that is economically sustainable, yet potentially indefinite. The narrative of an "endless war" is preferable for him anyway, as it boosts his regime’s credibility. Through this lens, it can also be surmised that, should there be a dramatic reversal of fortunes (such as Ukraine threatening Russia’s positions in Crimea) Putin could be open if not to using nuclear weapons, at least rattling the nuclear saber.

The prospect of using nuclear weapons has already been hinted at by two prominent strategic analysts, Sergey Karaganov and Dmitri Trenin, but their views are contested in Russian strategic circles. While a nuclear strike ordered by the Kremlin isn’t the most likely scenario, a "nuclear crisis" (raising nuclear alert levels, deploying nuclear forces, threats, etc.) remains a possibility. The immediate fear is that the next crisis could stem from a Russian operation on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, with catastrophic consequences for Europe.

While a nuclear strike ordered by the Kremlin isn’t the most likely scenario, a "nuclear crisis" remains a possibility.

A potential deterrent here might be the Russian public’s disapproval for the nuclear option, reflected in multiple polls. Chinese leaders have also regularly condemned this course of action. Let’s not forget, however, that Putin had announced the mobilization and annexation of Ukrainian oblasts in September 2022, just two days after the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Samarkand, where both Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi urged caution.

The Kremlin’s Roadmap

Other than Putin’s "legacy", Putin is also banking on the waning support of the West and the prospect of Trump’s return to power in 2024. He may also have the prospect of an open US-China Confrontation over Taiwan in mind.

The autumn of the Patriarch

There was a time when Vladimir Putin considered his succession as a possibility, testing potential "heirs" and allowing his associates to explore different transition models. His abrupt constitutional reform in early 2020 shows this is no longer the case.

What’s more, Putin’s worldview hardened considerably in recent years.

Internally, Putin’s governance has not yet fully tipped over into a totalitarian system, one that would invariably necessitate the comprehensive mobilization of the population and unrestrained political repression. However, the precursors for "totalitarianism 2.0" are becoming increasingly visible. This is apparent in legislative initiatives such as the enactment of laws related to the digitalization of mobilization and ongoing discussions to broaden the scope for Russia’s “foreign agents” law.

Above all, the clash with the West has taken on an almost "mystical" ideological dimension for the President and his cronies, with a deep-rooted conviction of Western injustice. The idea that the West refuses to acknowledge Russia’s legitimate historical prerogatives over its European hinterland now appears to be deeply entrenched.

This phenomenon is all the more striking given that the "Patriarch" had so far been able to balance internal stability with external aggression. The Wagner episode seems to reverse this trend. Furthermore, the ideology of Russia’s historical rights over former imperial lands makes it difficult to imagine that honest negotiations regarding the security of Europe could take place.


The four clocks of Russian power

War and Economy

It would be tempting to hold the following as true: in this conflict, time appears to be on Russia’s side since Ukraine has less manpower, less strategic depth, and less capacity to hold out over the long term. However, when taking into account the deferred effects of  sanctions, the economic countdown could backfire on Moscow.

As we’ve seen it’s rather difficult to nail down a point in time where Moscow would be compelled to choose between "guns and butter", or might potentially exhaust its capacity to financially sustain the war effort. However, if we agree that sanctions are an effective tool to limit Russia’s strategic choices, we can propose the following: should the Ukrainian resistance be able to endure over the coming months – and, more pointedly, should they score any significant military victories – supplying advanced combat aircraft and longer-range missiles to the Ukrainian forces could eventually (as soon as late 2023 - first quarter of 2024?) trigger the aforementioned “intensification of war” that Russia, straining under the weight of economic sanctions, might not have the economic means to sustain. If the deliveries of British Storm Shadow and French Scalp missiles are followed by other shipments of similar advanced weaponry, and if Ukraine finally receives the F-16 fighter jets it was promised by an international coalition, Russia could be thrust into a perilous situation – possibly as early as next year – not just from a military standpoint, but also in terms of economic sustainability.

Russian domestic politics and foreign policy

For Russia’s "personalist authoritarianism", elections matter. What counts the most is not the outcome of elections but their execution, the level of participation, and the population accepting the results. Strange as it may seem, the issue at stake is the dictator’s popularity - the linchpin of his authority. A key concern for the Kremlin would be the resurgence of large-scale protests reminiscent of 2011-2012, or or even worse, a state of chaos resembling the post-presidential elections in Belarus.

It becomes crucial for Putin to ensure the success and perceived legitimacy of the spring 2024 elections.

It becomes crucial for Putin to ensure the success and perceived legitimacy of the spring 2024 elections. If these were to be postponed, it would serve as a clear signal of the regime’s instability. The goal is to secure 75 % of the votes. Moscow's September municipal elections are not expected to pose much of a problem for the incumbent, Sergey Sobyanin, who greatly improved life in the capital and has been careful to avoid taking public stances in favor of the war.

Internationally, summits are increasingly challenging for Putin, as witnessed during the G20. India, the current SCO Chair, chose to hold the latest summit virtually. Vladimir Putin had to give up the idea of attending Pretoria’s summit of the BRICS late August this year. In the meantime, following African leaders’ disappointment in their mediation efforts and the cancellation by Moscow of the Grain deal, the Russia-Africa Summit in late July serves as a crucial test.

However, from the Kremlin’s perspective, the most crucial upcoming events will be the 2024 elections in both Europe (with the potential rise of pro-Russian far-right forces) and above all, the US presidential elections, which are seen as the ultimate hope and topmost concern for Russian authorities. To what extent could a disappointing result in November 2024 persuade Putin to change his strategy?

Five scenarios
Regime continuity

Here, Putin’s regime is able to withstand future shocks (as appears likely from the Wagner mutiny). Far from setting a precedent, this incident prompts protective mechanisms, for instance, arming the National Guard. It should be noted Prigozhin is a unique case. With Putin re-elected in 2024, he manages to withstand war-related internal tensions. Irrespective of the war’s evolution the regime is able to present the outcome as a success. More than likely, in an attempt to offset escalating difficulties, the President further restricts domestic freedoms and digs in his heels in a hostile stance towards the West. He may even succeed in avoiding a second drafting. The Russian economy continues to deteriorate, but Russia remains a "poor power", as the expression goes, more or less integrated into a China-led Central Asian geostrategic framework.

A triumphant regime

The regime not only survives, it triumphs. All it would take for Russia to claim victory is Ukraine failing to regain sufficient territory and failing to cut off the land corridor between the Donbass and Crimea. The West’s failure to provide Ukraine with necessary weaponry, or Ukraine’s own exhaustion, could explain such a scenario. A Trump White House could pave the way for negotiations towards a peace settlement that benefits Russia. Alternatively, Russia’s position in Crimea is threatened and Putin triggers a nuclear crisis, which, like the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, ends with a Russo-American deal.

These first two scenarios (continuity and triumph) have a common background, which involves a Western policymakers’ anxiety over Russia’s nuclear capabilities, and fear of internal turmoil in Russia. A second concern may be to revisit the Kissinger-era "US-China-Russia triangle" as an "inverted" triangle where the West rekindles relations with Russia in an attempt to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing.

These first two scenarios have a common background, which involves a Western policymakers’ anxiety over Russia’s nuclear capabilities, and fear of internal turmoil in Russia.

A silent regime crisis

In this scenario, change occurs due to mounting issues and a decline in Putin's popularity. A critical faction within the siloviki - in contact with the oligarchs and technocrats - voice concern over losing base support and worry about a perpetuation of the conflict. Such circumstances could materialize in situations of a sharp rise in inflation or a  significant drop in oil prices. What’s more, violence escalation in tandem with "warlordism" could destabilize the regime’s social fabric. In a mafia-type system, the impoverishment of the country will result in a reduction in the shares of the cake at various levels of the corruption chain. This prospect might give middle-ranking officials, who want a promising career trajectory, cause for concern. The day comes when an official communiqué announces that the president of the Russian Federation is suffering from a health predicament requiring him to convalesce in Sochi and transfer his powers to another “strongman,” or as stipulated by the Constitution, to the Prime Minister. 

A bump in the road

This scenario is a variant of the previous one: the crisis is not a standalone event but emerges in response to an unexpected shock against the backdrop of the same issues. Potential catalysts include a tumultuous 2024 elections, a serious health issue or even the sudden death of the President, an industrial mishap (due to the deterioration of the aviation fleet for instance), military dysfunction (a corruption scandal or other allegations), or perhaps even an attempted coup by a so-called "warlord".

In these last two scenarios, three possible profiles for a successor emerge:

- A moderate character, perhaps a technocrat, untouched by Western sanctions, appointed to mend relations with the West. This appears unlikely given the current regime’s disposition towards the West. A intermediary figure might, however, be capable of successfully reconciling the siloviki factions;

- A staunch "hardliner" who could essentially serve as a second iteration of Putin, steering the country towards greater isolation, often referred to as “Iranian-style”. Under this scenario, Russia not only survives sanctions for three or five years but manages to withstand them for a decade like the Iranian Islamic Republic, and sustains a low-intensity war;

- Another "hardliner", (from the siloviki) but one concerned about the country’s social and economic situation. Out of pragmatism, he might display willingness to negotiate with the United States and Europe to end the war and lift sanctions. In such a circumstance, a "liberal" prime minister could be appointed, who isn’t under Western sanctions (or at the very least not likely to be labeled a war criminal by the ICC).

An uncontrolled overthrow

This scenario represents an escalation of the preceding two, with the regime crisis igniting a form of civil war, fueled by intra-factional rivalries among the siloviki and a proliferation of militias, against a backdrop of a civil society roiled by violence. The secession of certain Republics in such a situation cannot be ruled out, not as the precipitating factor leading to the fragmentation of the nation, but rather as a consequence of the weakening central authority.

The cast of characters

Many argue that it is  best to keep Vladimir Putin in power since there are no viable alternatives to him. This is a common trope used across autocratic regimes. Yet in reality, there are plenty of potential successors.

The sudden death of Vladimir Putin would pave the way for Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, who constitutionally stands as the apparent heir in the event of the President’s demise.

The sudden death of Vladimir Putin would pave the way for Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, who constitutionally stands as the apparent  heir in the event of the President’s demise. Though not a former siloviki, he seems rather compatible and could be a transitional figure (though there is no doubt about his personal ambitions). We should note that the President has the prerogative to replace the Prime Minister until the very last minute.

If the kingmaker(s) lean(s) towards the hardline siloviki, they might opt for Vyacheslav Volodin, the current Chairman of the State Duma and a close ally of Putin. Dmitry Medvedev, the former President and Prime Minister, may still stand a chance, or Nikolai Patrushev could be tempted to promote his son Dmitry, the current Minister of Agriculture. If the kingmaker(s) lean(s) towards the "moderates" (sic), influential figures like Sergey Sobyanin (the influential Mayor of Moscow), Denis Manturov (Minister of Trade and Industry), or Sergey Chemezov himself could personify a firm stance, while exhibiting attuned sensitivity to economic realities, and thereby being more open to the West. Here, the "systemic liberals" camp could easily supply a prime minister who is compatible with Western interests – for instance, the perennial gray cardinal of Putin’s regime, Alexei Kudrin, or the brilliant and accomplished chairwoman of the Central Bank, Elvira Nabiullina. Both have remained untouched by Western sanctions.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t other potential contenders. For instance, Sergey Kiriyenko, currently second-in-command within the presidential administration, a former Prime Minister under Boris Yeltsin and a successful businessman could garner a form of consensus. Or a "young governor" like Aleksey Dyumin, Gleb Nikitin, or Andrey Nikitin could get the call. The sudden emergence of a former "hero" – until recently, the firebrand of Donbass, Igor Strelkov – could cater to the vindictive faction of public opinion. To make a long story short, rather than a dearth of alternatives, the succession landscape could be characterized by an "embarrassment of riches".


Based on the preceding analyses, it is conceivable that there could be a break in Vladimir Putin's regime, though the control of the nation is likely to remain in the hands of the siloviki. Since March 2022, the luck that had long smiled upon President Putin appears to be running out. The overarching trend, however, remains in favor of regime continuity; as noted in the "upture" scenarios, even a "regime crisis" could well lead to a Putin 2.0. However, it is essential to qualify this continuity. Signs of decline are already evident, indicating the likelihood of upcoming instability concurrent with various deeply rooted obstacles, structural weaknesses, and a widespread "deinstitutionalization" that leaves public sentiment adrift. A crucial parameter that must be explored (which we will revisit later) to validate this prognosis is whether Putin’s Russia is capable of pivoting its economy towards the Global South (or in fact the East) to make up for its ties with the West.

We recommend several lines of action to Western policymakers:

- Putin’s power structure could collapse before Ukraine loses the war or support from the West. In this context, reducing or maintaining current support for Ukraine would be misguided. Sending more sophisticated weapons to the Ukrainians is useful from a military point of view but also from an economic standpoint : it would lead to the intensification of the conflict that the Russian economy will not be able to withstand. The ongoing sanctions and bolstering Ukraine's military capabilities are the best chance of a prompt resolution of the conflict.

- Western governments should never publicly advocate for regime change in Moscow. They would be wise, however, to prepare contingency plans tailored to a variety of potential shifts in Russia’s power dynamics. Specifically, two scenarios warrant consideration. A hardline yet pragmatic successor to Putin would provide the West with negotiation levers. And in the event of an uncontrolled regime overthrow, having a well-thought-out damage control strategy would prove useful. Although the task would be more complex, exploring the options available for influencing the regime during “regime crises” may also be a worthwhile endeavor.

- Finally, although timing may not be ripe for starting negotiations with Moscow, it could be advantageous for the West to outline a vision for European security's future before 2023 ends. This approach would have a positive impact on how both Moscow and Southern states perceive the situation. A set of proposals could be spearheaded by a consortium consisting of key European States (including Poland), the United States, and Ukraine. Similarly, it is crucial for Europe to develop a strategy for sustained engagement with Russian public opinion and elites. We must prevent  the “West is against us” narrative from becoming irreversibly entrenched in the Russian psyche.



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