For 21 years, Vladimir Putin has reigned supreme over Russian politics. A skillful manipulator of public opinion, he wields the blunt force of repression against opponents at home and the sharp power of cyber-operations and espionage campaigns against enemies abroad. Increasingly, Western analysts and officials portray him as all-powerful, a ruthless former KGB man who imposes his will on Russia from behind dark sunglasses. This narrative, which the Kremlin goes out of its way to reinforce, is tempting to believe. Putin has jailed the closest thing he has to a political rival—the opposition leader Alexei Navalny—and crushed a wave of protests by Navalny’s supporters. Putin’s intelligence agencies brazenly hacked the U.S. government, and his troops are gradually eroding U.S. influence everywhere from Libya to Syria to Ukraine.
But if Putin is unrivaled at home, he is not omnipotent. Like all autocrats, he faces the dual threats of a coup from elites around him and a popular revolt from below. And because of the compromises he has had to make to consolidate his personal control over the state, Putin’s tools for balancing the competing goals of rewarding elites who might otherwise conspire against him and appeasing the public are becoming less and less effective. He has weakened institutions such as courts, bureaucracies, elections, parties, and legislatures so that they cannot constrain him, meaning that he cannot rely on them to generate economic growth, resolve social conflicts, or even facilitate his peaceful exit from office. This leaves Putin dependent on the fleeting commodity of personal popularity and the hazardous methods of repression and propaganda.
Those who acknowledge these vulnerabilities frequently note that Putin is “playing a weak hand well.” But Putin has dealt his own hand, and it is weak primarily because of the tradeoffs inherent to regimes like the one he has built. Eventually, he will have to decide whether to continue the same balancing act, skillfully playing his weak hand even as it gradually diminishes his power, or try to strengthen his hand by introducing economic reforms that will threaten his core constituencies in the security services, the bureaucracy, and the private sector.
Putin was buoyed by an oil-fueled economic boom that sharply raised living standards in his first decade in office and a wave of nationalist sentiment following the annexation of Crimea in his second. As the sheen on these achievements has begun to wear off, however, Putin in his third decade in office has increasingly come to rely on repression to neutralize opponents both big and small. This trend will likely intensify as Russia’s problems mount, accelerating a cycle of political violence and economic malaise that could stymie Putin’s great-power ambitions and test his political skill.
The Perils of Putinology
The narrative of Putin as all-powerful is sustained in part by analysts who believe that to understand autocracy, one must understand the autocrat. Putinologists scour the Russian leader’s background, his career path, and even his reading choices for clues to his policies. Their analysis makes for a compelling story of Putin’s Russia, but it does not explain all that much. After all, Putin was just as much an ex-KGB man in the early years of this century, when he favored liberal economic policies and better relations with the West, as he is today, with his strident anti-Western stance. More important, Russian politics follow patterns common to a subset of authoritarian regimes that political scientists call “personalist autocracies.” Studying this type of system, rather than studying the man himself, is the best way to understand Putin’s Russia.
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