This article is the third of three essays on the possible collapse of Putin’s Russia. The second is here.
In the study of post-post-Cold War Russia, Kremlinology has been superseded by Putinology, variously hailed as an indispensable tool or derided as a pathetic pseudoscience. This increasing focus on the persona of Vladimir Putin is in part misplaced, but in a larger measure justified.
On the one hand, as Thomas Graham has aptly noted, the West does not have a Putin problem, it has a Russia problem. Putin is not popular domestically because he has brainwashed his citizenry, but because his narrative about a humiliated but resurgent Russia—great, respected, and unbowed—resonates with Russians. Putin reflects the zeitgeist of modern Russia, and if he had been accidentally run over by a St. Petersburg trolleybus in the 1990s, whoever had become the second president of the Russian Federation in his stead would undoubtedly have had a very similar outlook and agenda.
On the other hand, in today’s Russia there is one man who towers above all others, a single individual whose vision drives policy to such a degree that a senior Russian official could, without inviting ridicule, equate Russia with Putin and Putin with Russia. And this is not the legendary “collective Putin” comprised of senior officials, oligarchs, and bureaucrats, but a single body, mind, and ego. Most Russians may very well believe that Crimea had been stolen from them, or even that Ukraine is an artificial construct. However, it was one man, Vladimir Putin, who decided to seize Crimea and launch the Novorossiya project, and a different individual in his position—even one who shared his opinions and perspective—might have decided otherwise.
This “power vertical,” with Putin at its pinnacle, has some indisputable advantages. It gives the Kremlin the freedom to make decisions quickly and implement them boldly without annoying second-guessing by an unruly legislature, independent courts, or naysaying opposition parties. There is no need to waste time building a painstaking consensus among political actors when there is only one player whose opinion matters. The speed and tactical brilliance of the Crimea operation or the military intervention in Syria, eliciting awe and admiration (sometimes grudging) from a wide range of observers, would be unimaginable in any Western country.
However, omnipotence is not omniscience, and the elimination of all other centers of power or authority in Russia means that there is no one to tell the Emperor that he has no clothes—or even to opine that he’s perhaps just a tad underdressed. No one has quite suggested yet that Putin is infallible even in terms of his policy choices, let alone in any ex cathedra, doctrinal sense. He and many other Russians may believe to their dying breath that Ukraine is a Frankenstein state stitched together of disparate, mismatched parts, many of them taken from Russia, and that the Ukrainians are simply Russians who either don’t realize it or are too stubborn to admit it. However, tens of millions of Ukrainians beg to differ, and any Russian policy that fails to reflect that hard fact is doomed to frustration and failure. Determined, resolute leadership will not in the least mitigate the fiasco resulting from misguided policy. Quite the contrary—the natural inclination of an autocrat to double down and stay the course is likely to prolong the agony.
Another problematic aspect of the Putin leadership phenomenon, noted more by Russian than foreign observers, is the hollowing out of the Russian state. People are accustomed to associating Russia with a strong state, and in the days when the duties of the state were largely limited to defending the borders, collecting taxes, and maintaining some semblance of domestic order, that perception was generally accurate. The modern state, however, has far more—and more complex—tasks of overseeing the economy, enhancing employment and growth, educating the populace, and providing a host of other social services. A country’s might (not to mention its welfare) is no longer determined principally by the strength of its army; one must also take stock of the ingenuity of its entrepreneurs and innovators, the attractiveness of its business climate, and the prowess of its educational system.
Russia has a mighty autocrat, world-class oligarchs, and a hypertrophied bureaucracy. However, by modern standards, it has a feeble, underperforming state. A couple of comparisons involving two modern states not usually considered as role models should help illustrate the point.
Belgium went 589 days in 2010–11 without an elected government. While the episode generated a mixture of puzzlement and mirth from foreign observers, and probably a certain cynical stoicism among Belgians, it actually had little impact on day-to-day life. Ordinary activities, from the postal service to public sanitation, continued pretty much as usual. No one took advantage of the interregnum to invade or even interfere in the country’s internal affairs—which, given Belgium’s history, is no small consolation.
The Belgian governmental autopilot, unthinkable in Russia, is the very antithesis of the Putinesque approach of a supreme leader maintaining manual control over just about everything. It does beg the question of where citizens live better: in a country with decisive, daring, hands-on leadership, or one where the bureaucracy pretty much runs itself. The former might be a more exciting place in many respects, but people in the latter are more likely to receive their pensions on time, and in general to lead more prosperous, dignified lives.
The crash of a Polish government plane near Smolensk, Russia, on April 10, 2010 killed 96 people, including President Kaczyński and senior members of the government, parliament, and military, nearly decapitating the country’s leadership. Before Poland had even recovered from its shock, a new phalanx of permanent or acting leaders had moved, according to the rules of succession, seamlessly and unchallenged into the vacant positions of authority. There were no rivals or pretenders, no challenges to the constitutional order, no martial law, no tanks in the streets. A national tragedy did not turn into a national crisis, precisely because of the health and durability of state institutions—all the more remarkable as Poland’s post-Communist institutions were barely a generation old.
Once again, it is hard to imagine such a placid, orderly denouement to a similar disaster in Russia. As the Medvedev presidential interlude demonstrated, power in Russia resides in the person, not in the office, and its peaceful, consensual transfer under catastrophic circumstances is by no means assured.
It is not only the Russian state but the economy that is at risk of being hollowed out by the corrosive effect of one-man rule. As Vladislav Inozemtsev pointed out in a recent essay on Russia’s decline, “the Russian elite actually owns the country, but formally cannot turn it into its property; therefore, its major aim is to plunder the national wealth rather than to increase it. In such a kleptocratic society any attempt to build something new seems counterproductive.”
One final aspect of Putin’s leadership is crucial for evaluating the resilience of his regime. Westerners sometimes ask whether Moscow “believes its own propaganda.” The answer is that it depends on which “propaganda” one has in mind. When the Kremlin claims that Russians are in mortal danger from roving bands of Ukrainian fascists, or spins an endless web of conspiracy theories about the destruction of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, it is engaging in intentional disinformation—in the one case creating a pretext for intervention, in the other case deflecting the consequences of a tragic and embarrassing error. This propaganda is purely operational, and, while ordinary Russians might accept it as fact (as, indeed, they are intended to), the leadership certainly knows better.
Quite a different matter is the official Russian narrative about the decadence and malevolence of the West. I’m persuaded that Russian leaders genuinely believe that the West is a whited sepulcher—effete, indolent, and ultimately no match for a heroic and purposeful nation like Russia. Notwithstanding the material advantages on the West’s side of the ledger, surely the passionarnost of the Russians must prevail.
Nevertheless, despite the overall impression of the West’s languid degeneracy, there is one place where the West displays exceptional vigor and uncharacteristic singleness of purpose. It is the notional institution that Russians have dubbed “the Washington Obkom.” An obkom was a Soviet-era regional committee of the Communist Party, and its use in the term “Washington Obkom” conveys a sense of dogmatism, fanaticism, and conspiracy. The Washington Obkom is a virtual collective comprised of those policymakers and policyshapers who have taken upon themselves the single-minded, 24/7 task of keeping Russia down. Even as the sun sets on the West, the imperialists are grimly determined, with the last flickering energy of their dying world, to prevent the emergence of a more worthy Eurasian civilization.
This Russian perception of the West is the filter through which the Kremlin analyzes Western motives and actions. It is, if you will, “propaganda that they believe.” The beauty of it lies in its ability to elucidate and systematize a vast array of disparate and otherwise inexplicable phenomena, both domestic and foreign. Have “color revolutions” broken out in various parts of the post-Soviet space? The cause lies not in local conditions, but in plots hatched in the bowels of the U.S. State Department. Have demonstrators taken to the streets of Russian cities to protest perceived falsification of elections? It’s because Hillary Clinton gave them the signal. Speaking of the devil, didn’t she once reproach Moscow for trying to recreate the Soviet Union? Obviously, Eurasian integration is lagging only because the United States is putting on a full-court press to block it. Have hydrocarbon prices collapsed? Once again, it’s all the fault of those fracking Americans.
What, then, can we say about the stability of Putin’s Russia? Can we weigh all the factors, trace a trajectory, and predict an outcome? Alas, no—ye shall know neither the day nor the hour. There is no checklist of indicators to verify a safe passage through the storm on the one hand, or to signal impending disaster on the other. There might not be a point of no return on the path to ruin. Even if there is one, it will probably not be clearly marked as such, and neither Russian nor foreign observers may even recognize its passing. One is reminded of the old adage about the decay of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where the situation was assessed as “hopeless but not yet serious.” About a year into the current crisis, Putin stated that “the situation is difficult but not critical.” The lurking danger to Russia is that the situation in some key respect might actually become critical before it becomes palpably difficult. With 20/20 hindsight, we might look back from the vantage point of the year 2024 and see Crimea, Novorossiya, and the cyclical plunge in energy prices as just so many minor bumps on the road to Russian glory. Alternatively, they might be seen clearly in retrospect as the loose threads that ultimately caused the whole garment to unravel.
What I would hazard to offer at this point in time is this: While Putin’s regime is highly unlikely to collapse in the near term, it faces a thorny dilemma that makes its medium-term survival problematic.
Stimulating economic growth by unleashing Russia’s entrepreneurial potential would require considerable dismantling of the power vertical, a hefty measure of decentralization and diffusion of authority, and the sharing of control over economic resources. Such an approach would permit the emergence of other domestic power centers and ultimately the possibility of executive power slipping out of Putin’s hands.
Alternatively, stimulating growth through massive state subsidization of industry poses none of these political dangers, but Russia would probably blow quickly through its cash reserves and have nothing to show for it but a brief, unsustainable spike in production.
Finally, Russia can limp along for quite some time with an unreformed economy—but only if the Kremlin would be satisfied with anemic growth rates. Moscow might nurture illusions that the next boom in commodity prices would produce a reprise of the growth rates of Putin’s first two terms, but the two-year stagnation of 2012 through mid-2014, even at a time of high oil prices, ought to temper those hopes. No, if the Kremlin fears the political risks of systemic reform—and those risks are genuine—it will have to settle for a Russia slowly slipping down the ranking of global economic powers.
To bring Russia through the immediate crisis, the Kremlin has opted for full mobilization of the state and society to consolidate the absorption of Crimea, maintain pressure on Kyiv, and push back against the West. Russia is now in its third year of this mobilization, and as Maxim Trudolyubov recently observed in the context of military measures, “Moscow is running out of capacity exactly when others have started to respond to Russia’s assertive behavior.” One has the impression of an athlete straining every sinew while his opponent has yet to break a sweat. True, the West might simply choose not to engage, and to back down from even the modest sanctions currently in place. Otherwise, however, a Russia sprinting breathlessly toward the finish line might find itself instead only in the first leg of a marathon.
Moreover, there are limits to what one can achieve by the patriotic mobilization of the population. The Soviet Union didn’t collapse because Russians were insufficiently patriotic or incapable of self-abnegation. Scarred by war and convinced of the West’s bellicose intentions, Russians were willing to endure considerable material deprivation if they thought they could thereby preserve peace. However, the Soviet state’s endless exhortation could not prevent people from pilfering state property, create economic incentives for better work discipline (let alone innovation), or ultimately inspire Russians to embrace their internationalist duty to support the just struggle of the Afghan workers and peasants against imperialist aggression. Similarly, the Kremlin’s current campaign of patriotic mobilization cannot stop predatory oligarchic rent-taking, nurture a nimble, entrepreneurial business culture, or reconcile post-Soviet neighbors alienated by Moscow’s policies. “Work a little harder, steal a little less” will only get you so far.
The problem is not that Putin needs to “buy off” the Russian people with high growth rates in order to cling desperately to power. The Russian people, who have endured far worse deprivation within living memory, are unlikely to turn against him solely because of a modest economic downturn or even an extended period of slow growth. In any event, his enormous popularity could take a sizable hit without putting him in any real political jeopardy.
Rather, Putin’s quandary lies in the fact that, with a chronically stagnant economy, he cannot hope to realize the vision of Russia as the core of a mighty, reintegrated Eurasia asserting itself as one of the principal actors in the multipolar world of the 21st century. The inexorable drift of Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors away from the old imperial metropole is bound to accelerate as Russia runs low on the resources required either to attract, coerce, or subsidize (regarding the latter, it is quite likely that Moscow, whatever it may suppose, has not so much been buying its clients’ loyalty as merely renting it). It is the failure of this vision of Russian power and majesty, rather than mediocre economic performance per se, that could erode the ideological basis of support for Putin’s rule. And the Kremlin’s most audacious efforts to reverse centripetal tendencies in the near abroad—the invasions of Georgia and Ukraine—have only accelerated them.
Thus, it comes down, in large measure, to the subjective factor: the persona of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. As the sole arbiter of his country’s policies—arguably, of its very destiny—how will he go about squaring the circle of the mismatch between ambitions and capabilities? Will he simply batten down the hatches during the current storm, with the expectation of resuming Russia’s triumphal advance with the return of fairer weather? Will he choose one program or another to stimulate the Russian economy, fiddle inconclusively with economic reform, or reject reform altogether? Will frustration and impatience with the slow, uneven pace of Russia’s economic and geopolitical renaissance goad him to overreach? Or is it even possible he might grow to accept, if only for the sake of self-preservation, a scaled-back vision of Russia’s place in the world, commensurate with the country’s actual resources and its genuine, not mythical, degree of attractiveness to its Eurasian neighbors?
As he replaces many of his old lieutenants with loyal nonentities, Putin increases the risk of getting trapped in an echo chamber where he never hears a thought or opinion at variance with his own. While Putin is hardly reckless, he has demonstrated that he’s not exactly risk-averse, either. Moreover, his perception of events, and of Russia’s options, is shaped by his upbringing, training and worldview. The potential for miscalculation is therefore considerable. With his power vertical, Putin has set himself up as a single point of failure for all of Russia at the same time that he is, to paraphrase Angela Merkel, living in his own Russian World. It is a combination that does not bode well for the durability of the system he has created.