For an All-Powerful Dictator, Putin Is Surprisingly Vulnerable

Russian President Vladimir Putin is a lot of things to a lot of people. To some he is a modern-day Stalin. To others, the return of the czars. To U.S. President Joe Biden, he is a “killer.” To former U.S. President Barack Obama, he’s “the bored kid at the back of the classroom” — a metaphor my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Leonid Bershidsky runs with: “His defiance, like that of the schoolkid with an attitude, appears to derive strength from the assumption that confronting him is more trouble than it’s worth.”

All these comparisons have one thing in common: power. They describe a man with an iron rule at home and daring to defy his Western rivals abroad. But what if that isn’t really true? All despots have weaknesses; just ask Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Romania’s Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. Oh, wait, you can’t — they were all killed. As the political scientist Milan Svolik puts it: “For most dictators, simply dying in bed is a significant accomplishment.”

For insight on the odds of Putin’s attaining a slumbering demise, I reached out to Timothy Frye, author of a new book, “Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia.” Frye is a professor of political science at Columbia University and a research director at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our exchange:

Tobin Harshaw: Before we get to Alexey Navalny’s imprisonment, troops massing on the Ukraine border, and Putin’s other latest adventures, let’s talk more generally about his presidency/dictatorship and the limits on it. In the book, you talk about three basic constraints on his power that make him a “weak” strongman. Can you, in a nutshell, explain those factors?

Timothy Frye: Putin is unrivaled in Russian politics. He isn’t checked by a political party or the military, as are some autocrats; but this doesn’t make him omnipotent as many argue. To govern a country of more than 140 million stretched over 11 time zones, he relies on a chain of bureaucrats, businesspeople and spies, all of whom have their own personal interests and resources. Putin must motivate and monitor them, sometimes by threats, sometimes by rewards, and sometimes by persuasion. Just ordering them around doesn’t get very far. And Putin is dependent on them for information — a perennial problem in autocracies. 

Second, like all autocrats, he faces the dual threat of a coup by political elites or a revolt by the masses. These dual threats often generate difficult trade-offs between rewarding his inner circle or the general public, and these two goals are often odds. For example, Putin needs to manipulate the economy to reward his cronies, but not so much that it slows economic growth and sparks popular protest.

Third, Putin can play the trump card of repression to stay in power, but this is a costly and blunt tool. Repression can’t solve the problems that generate elite and mass opposition in the first place. It doesn’t promote economic growth or raise living standards. It can also backfire. So Putin’s challenge is to repress political opponents, but not so much that it sparks a backlash.

While the Kremlin portrays Putin as all-powerful, he faces all the constraints that are common to autocracies.

TH: You note this irony: “The bleak condition of relations between Russia and the West has strengthened the groups in Russia most invested in the political status quo.” Is there anything the West can do, using those three Putin weaknesses, to change that dynamic?

TF: Putin’s more assertive foreign policy strengthens the security services, state bureaucrats and firms in import-competing sectors. But it is not very popular with the public. Russians backed the annexation of Crimea with great enthusiasm, but also oppose in large numbers direct Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine, keeping Russian troops in Syria, or annexing Belarus.

And many Russians would like to see better relations with the U.S. The trick for the U.S. is to reassure its allies in Europe who fear Russian encroachment, while continuing to reassure the Russian public that the U.S. is not a threat. A good first step would be to make it easier for Russians to travel in Europe and the U.S. by re-opening recently closed U.S. consulates in Ekaterinburg and Vladivostok.

TH: The weaknesses haven’t provided much of an opening for his critics and political rivals; Navalny, who ended his hunger strike in prison on Friday, being the latest example. Is that simply the result of strong-arm tactics, or is there political savvy involved as well?

TF: Putin has been successful in sidelining his rivals, but the formula has changed over time. In his first decade in office, the size of the economy doubled, and in his second he delivered the annexation of Crimea.

For the last four or five years, though, he has turned to harsher forms of repression as other tools have failed. Living standards have been stagnant at best for almost a decade. Russians increasingly get their news from social media rather than state media. They are tired of foreign policy confrontation and bad governance by the state. The Kremlin has been trying to come up with a new strategy to legitimize its rule, but without much success. 

The problem for the opposition is that personalist autocracies like Putin’s Russia often remain in place because the cost of losing office is so high. If leaders in military autocracies can retreat to the barracks, and leaders of one-party autocracies can retire to the party, there is no soft-landing pad for personalist autocrats. They, and their inner circle, often cling to power out of fear of what comes next.

TH: The question of the moment: What can the U.S. and free world do for Navalny at this point? And how can it support the Russian opposition in general? Are there lessons from the Cold War and support of dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov?

TF: The best support that the U.S. can give to the Russian opposition is to improve the performance of democracy in the U.S. In the short run, the U.S. can keep Navalny’s status in the public eye, levy sanctions on specific individuals, and pressure the Kremlin privately; but in the long run, making democracy attractive again would be a great help to those who would like to make Russia a better version of itself.

In “Weak Strongman,” I discuss how in the late 1980s, I traveled to six Soviet cities for 15 months as part of a U.S. Information Agency cultural exchange and talked with thousands of Soviets every day about life in the U.S. It was the best job I’ll ever have. By far our greatest advantage was the widespread view in the Soviet Union that the U.S. government, for all its many problems, provided far more freedom and prosperity than its communist rivals.

TH: The Russians sent 100,000 troops to the Ukraine border, but are now apparently backing down. Since the annexation of Crimea, things haven’t gone particularly well for the Russian side — it’s a money drain, the rebels in Donbas haven’t proved very competent at fighting or governing, the Ukrainians haven’t buckled down, and the U.S. has increased the weapons flow to the Ukrainian military. What was the point?

TF: The Ministry of Defense has announced that it will end these exercises and withdraw troops to the barracks by May 1. At the end of the day, it is hard to see what Putin has gained from this move.

TH: On the flip side, his popularity had been sliding before the 2014 Ukraine invasion, peaked in the immediate aftermath, and has fallen strikingly since. Are his actions in Ukraine and elsewhere abroad more about domestic politics than geopolitics?

TF: Domestic politics is the smaller part of the story.  Putin can now claim to his public that he has defended Russia against what he sees as nefarious interests in Ukraine. But most Russians are wary of military involvement in eastern Ukraine and have heard this song from the Kremlin before.

My sense is that the buildup is rooted in relations with Ukraine. Negotiations with Kyiv about resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine have stalled, and both sides have dug in their heels. It appears that this ploy has not increased Moscow’s bargaining power. Indeed, the U.S. Congress approved the delivery of more defensive weapons for Ukraine just this week.

TH: One of the most interesting parts of your book, I think, is the careful polling research and work you’ve done with the Russia-based Levada Center. The Russian economy is a longtime mess, and as the world weans itself from fossil fuels, things will only get worse. (Despite, as you note, Putin’s repeated boasts that he would turn Russia into a top-five global economy.) The Covid-19 response was seriously flawed. And polling shows great dissatisfaction with many aspects of the government.

TF: Relative to other autocracies, Russia is, surprisingly, a very good place to do academic research. The Levada Center does a remarkable job under difficult conditions and we all owe them a great thanks.       

Indeed, the Kremlin itself is a huge consumer of public opinion data, and Putin appears to understand that it is much easier to govern as a popular autocrat than as an unpopular autocrat. In recent years, though, support for Putin has softened. On the one hand, his approval ratings remain close to 60 percent, but trust in Putin has fallen: In 2017, 60 percent of Russians named Putin as a politician that they trusted; only 30 percent did so in 2020. And the public regularly reports that Putin rules in the interests of the security services and the oligarchs rather than on behalf of ordinary Russians.  

Of course, low popularity does not mean the Putin will leave office. Personalist autocrats can often stay in power for years by relying on repression and avoiding economic collapse even as they remain broadly unpopular. Declining popularity does though make it much harder to govern. It also exacerbates the problems that generate dissatisfaction in the first place.

TH: There is also his cult of personality — Russia’s longest-serving ruler since Stalin, judo master, bare-chested hunter, etc. Does the Russian public really lap that stuff up, or do people see through the megalomania?

TF: The Kremlin’s control over the media is a very important asset. It has marginalized the political opposition and distorted views about the outside world, but Russians are also savvy consumers of the media. The Kremlin’s attempts to shift blame for poor economic performance and bad governance on sanctions have largely fallen flat.

Here, too, Putin faces a trade-off. He needs to manipulate the media, but not so much that people stop watching. And this has become more difficult. If in 2009, 79 percent of Russians said that they trusted broadcasts on state television, this figure was 49 percent in 2018. And depictions of Putin as superhuman become increasingly less credible as he ages. 

TH: Is he going to be dictator for life? 

TF: “Weak Strongman” emphasizes the value of looking at Russia in comparative perspective. Many argue that Putin’s KGB background and temperament have kept him in power for so long, but his time in office is about par for the course for autocrats in the former Soviet Union. For example, Nursultan Nazarbaev ruled Kazakhstan for 29 years, and Alexander Lukashenko has been in power in Belarus for 27 years. When faced with term limits, Putin followed the lead of other autocrats in the region, and extended his term in office. This points to him staying in power, perhaps for life.

But Russia is an unusual autocracy. It is better educated and wealthier than one would expect given its level of autocracy. We don’t have a good sense of how these deep structural factors promote political liberalization; but it does suggest that Putin’s increasingly autocratic ways are bucking deep tides in Russian society, particularly among young people.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tobin Harshaw is an editor and writer on national security and military affairs for Bloomberg Opinion. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper’s letters editor.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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