- How the Putin Regime Really Works
Is President Vladimir Putin an all-powerful dictator, to be feared above all other threats to democracy? Or is the Russian regime to be dismissed as a pale shadow of its Soviet and Czarist past, living off hydrocarbons and a Cold War–era nuclear stockpile?
Neither, these two books argue. Though Timothy Frye focuses on the regime's grip on society and Kathryn E. Stoner on its capabilities abroad, the authors arrive at a common conclusion: Russia's actions, purpose, power, and weakness are rooted in the personalistic autocracy that has consolidated since Putin's election in 2000. Putinism is the source of Russian resurgence and also its greatest vulnerability.
This conclusion stands out from the simplistic explanations of the Kremlin's behavior prevalent in Western public discourse. Neither Putin's psychology and background nor an exceptional Russian history and culture, Frye explains, account for the authoritarian regime's persistence. Standard measures of power and a static set of national interests, Stoner demonstrates, paint a misleading picture of the regime's weakness on the international stage and inadequately explain the country's post-Soviet foreign policy.
Both authors turn to political science to frame their arguments. Frye [End Page 178] asserts that far from being exceptional, Putin's regime mirrors the dynamics of autocracies extensively studied in comparative politics. Authoritarian regimes are typically led by a political party, the national military, or a powerful individual. In the first two types, institutions rule, as is the case in China under the Communist Party and Burma under the military. But in a personalist autocracy, such as Putin's Russia, political power is exercised through individual relationships, and thus state institutions are feeble.
Hence we can see why Putin is both "weak" and a "strongman": According to Frye, weak institutions make "it easier for autocrats to take power … but [make] it harder for them to govern once in office" (p. 40). Politics is on manual control: Russia functions when Putin is managing and arbitrating conflicts among elites. These elites, in turn, run the country's most important businesses and control the government economic, financial, social, and security organs that enable Putin to remain in charge: It is a relationship of codependence. And while Putin wields enormous power, weak institutions limit his ability to solve every problem or achieve every goal. So power breeds vulnerability: Because everything depends on a single person, the stakes of Putin's failure (or departure) are extremely high for the elites who have wealth and influence by dint of his effectiveness alone.
This presents a dilemma for the leader of a personalist autocracy: Pleasing (or pacifying) inner-circle cronies with the state's resources leaves less for the public. Every elite giveaway stifles economic performance, undermining the regime's grip on society at home and power abroad. From 2003 to 2008, Russia's oil-fueled economy averaged 7 percent annual growth, leaving plenty for Putin to satisfy the rapacious elite while delivering a rising standard of living to the public. But the 2008 global economic crisis and international-sanctions regime imposed since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, combined with the weight of corruption, uncertainty, and predatory business behavior, have slowed the economy, exposing the fragile balance that Putin must maintain to keep control. The regime cannot figure out how to escape this balancing act without risking the political change it fears.
Increasingly, Putin turns to repression. The Kremlin criminalized free speech, prohibited criticism as a threat to national security, and in August 2020 poisoned Russia's most effective political-opposition figure, Alexei Navalny. A court sent him to prison for violating parole while he was in a toxin-induced coma. The government declared his grassroots [End Page 179] anticorruption movement an extremist organization, decreed that it must be disbanded, and detained the movement's defense lawyers.
Yet as Frye emphasizes, cracking down presents another dilemma. Many...