The Russian tradition of top-down rule has a long history, but Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was not condemned to follow it over the past couple of decades. It was Putin who made the crucial decision to reinforce it further on his return to the Kremlin in 2012 by choosing repression over the cautious economic reforms that had been mooted in the Medvedev presidential interlude. He it was who seized Crimea in 2014 and invaded eastern Ukraine. He has overseen the decline in the Russian economy since 2008 and the continuing rise in corruption that has gone along with it. He is responsible for the servility of the Duma and the courts to the diktat of the executive branch, and for the predatory conduct of Russia’s various enforcement agencies.
The questions for Russia now are how, and whether, present political structures can in due course cope without Putin. “Putinism” is a convenient shorthand for describing the way Russia is ruled, but that is the result of a personalized process intended to enforce the unity of the Russian state and the obligation of its citizens to obey its requirements, not a construct defined in detail from the start. Its principal achievement has been that it has both protected and enhanced the role of the center. Putin’s re-election as President in 2018 confirmed authoritarianism as a process in continuing advance, its overriding purpose being to retain power in the interests of those already wielding it, and bound by loyalty to its central figure, at present Putin.
Putin does not of course literally rule alone. He cannot in the nature of things decide everything in Russia by himself. He could not, even if he wished it, prevent those holding some degree of power at any level from using it to their cumulative advantage without regard to the law, or to what most outsiders would see as common decency, for that matter. He is most immediately dependent on the support of a narrowing set of long-term collaborators, whether political-, security-, or business-related, whose interests are also dependent on the present disorder of things, together with the mutual and complicit trust among those collaborators essential to its preservation. Putin is the linchpin that holds them together. Hang together or hang separately is the English language proverb. There is no doubt a Russian one.
Putin’s present term ends in May 2024. He cannot under Russia’s Constitution stand again that year. But the personalized and repressive logic of Putinism implies that a way to allow him to remain in command must nevertheless be found. As Grigory Yavlinsky rightly put it in his updated and newly translated study of what he calls peripheral authoritarianism, in Russia and in other states similarly governed:
signs have become more pronounced that Russia’s autocracy is developing along the lines of long-term usurpation of power by a very close circle of people that see politics in terms of highly personal power play rather than as a mechanism to ensure the long-term survival of Russian statehood.
Yavlinsky concludes that the spectrum of remaining opportunities for change has narrowed, at least for the next decade. If that proves to be so, preserving a lasting claim to continuing legitimacy without addressing Russia’s external or internal problems would in effect, if it succeeded, be to freeze those problems in place.
The shadow of unknown and so far unpredictable change in 2024 has now fed into a shift in public attitudes since Putin’s re-election in 2018. Putin himself has become somewhat tarnished, losing in the process his image of being beyond politics, and of being Russia’s necessary savior. Putin is now held personally responsible for domestic problems that he could once deflect onto his Prime Minister’s shoulders. The argument that the Kremlin is the defender of “traditional values” on behalf of the Russian people has lost some of its force. The perception that Russia’s leaders are concerned for their own interests and those of their privileged dependents, rather than those of Russia’s ordinary citizens, is becoming the norm. Polls show that about 27-30 percent of the population are now ready, or at least say they are ready, to take part in street protests. These are becoming more common, not least outside Moscow, provoked for the most part by local issues and the misdeeds of local or regional office holders. But they all nevertheless reflect to some degree or another on the standing of the Kremlin.
None of this is to suggest that widespread public disturbance is imminent. What triggers that in any society is always unpredictable. There are, moreover, neither widely accepted ideas for better government nor public figures of sufficient standing to articulate them in Russia, for now at least, around whom such disturbances might crystallize on a nation-wide scale. But the existing and potentially developing shift in public attitudes does indicate that, if Putin chooses to stay in effective power after 2024, then continuity in the Kremlin will be dependent on popular resignation rather than enthusiasm. Russia’s economic prospects up to and beyond 2024 are poor, and neither Putin nor his authoritarian minded supporters have serious proposals for improving them. The “National Projects” he has put forward are similar in principle to others that have been tried in vain before. Assertions that innovative investment in the defense sector will pay off in promoting diversity across the economy as a whole have proved false. Per capita income has declined over the past five years and may not easily recover. Putin and his colleagues can no longer rely, as the Kremlin did ten or more years ago, on growing income from natural resources, however ill-managed, to bolster its popular appeal and to pay off its political allies. Around three-quarters of Russia’s GDP is by now state owned, meaning run by Putin sanctioned beneficiaries.
Significant capital flight has continued and is a clear marker of distrust of the authorities. So too is the less widely noted emigration of well educated and enterprising Russians to the Western democracies since 2000, whose rate rose significantly after Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012. The total over the past 19 years is estimated to be 1.6–2 million.
The Internal Backstop
Economic difficulties, a sense that Putinism has exhausted its political capital and resentment at the enforcement of top down control may perhaps make a further Putin term after 2024 troublesome to implement without some sort of domestic or foreign event to make it seem necessary. There are however significant numbers of Russians able to benefit from the complexities of the present state of affairs, or unsettled enough at the thought of Putin going without a clear and reasonably trusted successor in prospect to make Putin’s continuance in effective control seem by 2023 both inevitable and acceptable. Continued stagnation from 2024 on and uncertain relations with the outside world would, on the other hand, seem likely to fuel more and more discontent.
There is at present no sign of an aging Putin or his collaborators having anything fresh to offer on his home front, either before or after 2024. But he has a telling reserve of force at his disposal for the purpose of ensuring the survival of the regime in case of domestic violence. The National Guard is comparable in numbers to the Russian Armed Forces. Its declared purpose is to ensure public order, meaning in practice keeping Russian citizens in order by force, however violent. There are other internal agencies with similar powers. The extent of the network expresses ruthlessness but is also a mark of fear within the regime as to the committed loyalty of the Russian people in general. The same is true of the persistent effort made by Kremlin supporters to confine public discussion to their approved agenda of how Russia should develop, politically, economically or with regard to the rest of the world.
The effect is that Russia at present exists in a state of limbo, with its governing authorities incapable of addressing the issues of most importance to its citizens, its domestic concerns. The large share of the Russian budget devoted to domestic and international security gets in the way, along with the interest of privileged state contractors in using every opportunity to pursue and price projects designed to fill their pockets rather than benefit the public as a whole.
Stephen Kotkin records in his magisterial history of the Stalin years that, by 1937, “Perceived security imperatives and a need for absolute unity once again turned the quest in Russia to build a strong state into personal rule.” Stalin has of course been restored to eminent repute in Russia under Putin, and Putin has been influenced by Stalin’s train of thought, as well as borrowing his language from time to time. But I do not quote Kotkin to show that Putin is a Stalin clone, merely to point to the fact that Putin’s aim from the beginning has been, like Stalin’s and others’ before him, to build a strong state in Russia by means of a “vertical of power,” and that the end result is, once again, personal rule. Security imperatives, as Putin would see them, have been a driving force, with the need for absolute unity in meeting them as the inescapable corollary. Like Stalin before him, Putin does not draw a distinction between what he sees as threatening at home or abroad. The two shade into one another.
The tragedy of Beslan in September 2004, for instance, was by any normal criteria an internal affair, with the school seized by Chechen terrorists and the threat resolved with brutal slaughter by Russian forces. For Putin, it was also an attempt by unspecified foreign forces to seize a “juicy piece” of Russian territory, and a reason to abolish the autonomous standing of Russia’s Governors. He and his colleagues saw the 2004-05 Orange Revolution in Ukraine not as an internal crisis in that state, but as the result of foreign interference directed at Russia. He responded at home with increasingly stringent measures against non-governmental organizations in Russia, starting with any that had any form of external financial aid and the introduction and extension of measures directed against “extremism.” He argued that the street protests of 2011-12 were provoked and planned by Hillary Clinton. And so on, to the need to protect Fortress Russia today from internal Fifth Columnists and from hostile foreign powers determined to destroy it.
There are of course complexities in this process of hardening attitudes in official Russia as to its relationship with its own people, with its ex-Soviet neighbors, with former members of the Warsaw Pact, and with the West in general over the Putin years, but one strain is constant: Nothing is ever Russia’s fault. Moscow is always sinned against. Putin’s historic mission is to restore his country’s status as a great power, with the right to establish and protect its hegemony over its neighbors. Those neighbors have no right to object, let alone to look to outside powers to support their independence. Putin and his colleagues have public support in Russia for such a stance, as did their tsarist predecessors in analogous circumstances. But the Russian public would at the same time by now prefer there to be a less fraught relationship with the rest of Europe, and the United States too. The euphoria provoked by the Kremlin’s bloodless seizure of Crimea in 2014 has faded. The idea that their country has a special mission to defend itself, and that this has to be done by cowing its neighbors into effective submission, is still there as a general assumption, but not as an immediate aspiration.
It would be troubling in any country for its leader or leaders to see military might as the defining factor in its power and influence. It is particularly the case when its leader knows that its conventional forces are not sufficient to conquer and hold significant stretches of external and disputed territory. The reforms forced upon Russia’s Armed Forces under the now disgraced and, in the Ministry of Defense, much hated Anatoliy Serdyukov (Minister of Defense, 2007-12) were effective but not completed. What is therefore needed, in Putin’s mind as well as those of Russia’s Generals, is a substantial nuclear arsenal and a willingness to use it, so as to make Russia in some sense equal to the United States. The Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defense have a special place in the governing hierarchy of Putin’s Russia, and an in-grown cast of mind to go with it. The degree of military influence over the country’s policymaking may increase as Putin’s leading role in Moscow lasts up to or perhaps beyond 2024.
There are those in the West who see what Russia’s improved Armed Forces have enabled Putin to achieve in relation to China, the Middle East, and even Ukraine as successes. (Angela Stent’s recent published Russia Against the West and with the Rest provides an informed discussion of this argument.) Others wonder what they will have achieved for the people of Russia themselves over the longer term. No one doubts that Russia under Putin will continue its pursuit of glory, at the expense of the United States as occasion offers. The present Chief of Russia’s General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, has said, after all, that “we are already at war.” His definition of war is of course particular and wide-ranging. If Western countries were at war with Russia, we would among other things impound the capital exported to the West for safe keeping, very much including to the UK and United States. That wealth is a pillar of the Putin version of rule. We treat it kindly—arguably too kindly.
Outside powers have to take Russian militarism seriously, including its potential future development. Precautionary measures taken by outside powers, however necessary, in turn feed the Kremlin’s conviction of its right and need to build up its security, whether domestic or international. It is nonetheless not at all obvious how or when the Kremlin might judge itself secure, or how it might be satisfied that it had achieved some adequate recognition of its status as a Great Power. Putin himself spoke at the opening of the 70th UN General Assembly on September 28, 2015, of the Yalta system as having saved the world from large scale upheavals, an ahistorical, emotionally charged assertion. There are those who see the Kremlin’s stress on a history of Russian military victories, and the obsessive celebration of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in 1945, as essential to the Putinist system’s survival. It is however easier to see the emotional forces behind Russia’s aggressive pursuit of regional dominance and its antagonism towards the West in general and the United States in particular than it is to see what practical, constructive, and sustainable ends the Kremlin may seek.
Putinism Minus Putin
Yeltsin’s replacement by Putin in 2000 was comparatively simple to arrange. The search in Russia today for a plausible mechanism to prolong Putin’s rule after 2024 points to problems at the heart of governing Russia today. It is hard for any authoritarian leader definitively to leave with an easy confidence in his future. Those closest to Putin are beholden to him for their wealth and power. They are also of advancing age and therefore have their own succession problems to think about. Russia’s real governing system is based on “understandings” upheld by shared corruption and predation. None of those at the top can know what would happen to them personally if Putin were to be replaced. Better to stick with him while you can, and then run to the next one, if there is one, when you have to.
Finding a way to live on with Putin beyond 2024 will, in the absence of changes in policy, only make the problems inherent in replacing him still more troubling—“dangerous” might be the better word. Whoever or whatever succeeds Putin will have to make its own mark on the Russia of the future, whatever that Russia might prove to be. That may not be at all easy if Putinism as we know it remains the system in power. The chances are that Putin will in the meantime stick to tight control over any form of relaxation, however guarded. The bias towards repression—internal or external, publicly organized and implemented or covert and deniable—ensures its weight in the Putinist dialectic.
Repression, and the hostility toward the West that accompanies it, also ensure the ultimate sterility of Putinism. Avoiding that repression could in principle incline an eventual successor or group of successors to consider whether more accommodating policies toward the West, and toward Russia’s European neighbors in particular, might be wise, and even whether the same would apply to the relationship between the rulers and the ruled in Russia. Any preparatory shifts in that sort of direction would at present, however, run across the interests and well-entrenched beliefs of Putin’s immediate circles within both the “vertical of power” and the big state enterprises. It is also an open question, in fact as well as in Putinist minds, how far any such shifts might be contained or controlled. Arranging a better relationship with the rest of Europe might be one thing; there would probably be costs to Russian pride and to the Kremlin’s ability to protect its stake in persuading Russians of its inherent right to represent them, but revisiting the realities of governance in Russia as they have merged under Putinism would be quite another. The personalized authoritarian system that now exists in Russia could not now be eased apart in manageable units without compromising its central objective – ensuring its hold on power.
If Russia is to break free of the minimal economic growth and societal impoverishment that is its present likely fate, a whole range of intertwined issues must be addressed. That might well be harder to achieve after 2024 than it already is. An illustrative and quite familiar list would include: the rule of clearly expressed and accepted law ensured by independent judicial structures; public accountability assured by free elections and free media; commercial competition, not monopolies and cartels; established and protected property rights; and so on. None of these could readily be approached gradually and without social as well as political conflict. Market competition would for example entail the collapse of considerable numbers of enterprises. Creative destruction is intellectually compelling, but tough on those caught up in it.
Anders Åslund’s judgement in the conclusion to his latest book, Russia’s Crony Capitalism, is apt: Putin’s system “is so petrified that it is more likely to collapse than reform.” He may or may not have meant petrified in the sense of scared stiff as well as frozen in stone, but both seem appropriate to me.
Russia on a Short Lease?
Russia’s problem is basic: It is chronically ill-governed. Russia is not, yet at any rate, a fully formed state with an effective constitution. There are those who argue that authoritarian rulers are just as effective, if not more, than those of liberal democracies on the grounds, as I understand it, that they can take quick action. They can also take mistaken ones fast. And there is a process at play in Russia, as there has been in countries similarly governed, whereby the structures that are intended to enforce top-down rule by a small self-appointed elite rot from within. It is no coincidence that the threat of “color revolutions,” wherever they may occur, is the one that haunts the Kremlin today.
There is no way to judge at present to what extent, if at all, current signs of dissatisfaction with Putinist rule will develop into a coherent opposition movement before or after 2024. One can be sure, however, that if such a tendency emerges the Kremlin will pin the blame on Western intrigue. But in truth not even the United States, Russia’s favorite bogeyman, has either the will or the capability to pursue regime change in Russia. And extending Russia’s frontiers would be no answer to Moscow’s home-grown difficulties.
It is proposed from time to time that Western countries, whether individually or together, should “reset” their relations with Russia. That ambition may be well meaning, but it is not clear why it might succeed in the absence of any changing disposition on the part of Putin’s Moscow. We have to manage the relationship as best we may in accordance with the way that Russia itself evolves, meaning both its rulers and its peoples. Putinism has imprisoned itself in its existing carapace. Perhaps the Russian people will find better fortune when Putin goes, and a peaceable evolution toward better government will emerge. Perhaps, on the other hand, Russia’s people will accept that they are the Kremlin’s servants, and not insist that Russia is theirs to control. But the rigidity of Putinism suggests that the “nightmare” of a color revolution may one day come to Russia itself.