How the Putin Regime Really Works

Issue Date July 2021
Volume 32
Issue 3
Page Numbers 178-83
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Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order. By Kathryn E. Stoner. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. 344 pp.

Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia. By Timothy Frye. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021. 288 pp.

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.

About the Author

Celeste A. Wallander is president and CEO of the U.S. Russia Foundation.

View all work by Celeste A. Wallander

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 modern autocracies maintain a façade of democratic institutions, which often do little more than sustain a level of legitimacy necessary to rule without the terror characteristic of Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s China. This puts autocrats, including Putin, in a bind: Fail to repress opponents, and you may find yourself on the run (think Slobodan Miloševiæ at The Hague). Enhancing the tools of repression may eliminate the opposition, but it creates the means that others may use to dispatch you (think Lavrenti Beria after Stalin’s death). And insofar as the legitimacy of an autocracy rests on a house of cards, repression inspires opposition.

Within this framework, Frye explains how political, economic, and social dynamics operate in the shadow of Russia’s weak strongman. While the people cannot hold Putin accountable, as citizens in a democracy do, their expectations still constrain and shape the regime’s machinations. Despite the repressive powers of the state, protests do happen. When the popularly elected governor of Khabarovsk was arrested in a clear move to replace him with a Kremlin loyalist in 2020, Russia’s Far East saw a wave of demonstrations. Protests broke out in more than eighty towns and cities when the government sought to raise the pension age in 2018, so the Kremlin softened the reforms. According to the Levada Center, Russians are close to evenly divided on whether the country is on the right track (with 49 percent agreeing and 41 percent disagreeing) in the run-up to the 2021 legislative elections. This represents a substantial change from 2018, when those numbers were 60 and 25 percent, respectively. As uncertainty grows about whether society remains either quiescent or under control, the Kremlin has escalated repressive measures.

Like Frye, Stoner pushes back against popular Western images of Russia, and especially of its aggressive international behavior. Her conclusion is not that the Russian empire is back, but that the regime has developed and exploited a broad range of instruments to influence global affairs. It is not merely Russian power that has led to hostile behavior: These new forms of power combine with a Putinist purpose that prioritizes regime survival to yield an assertive international presence.

Assessing the limitations of the conventional measures of state power, or “men, military, and money” (p. 27), Stoner returns to Robert A. Dahl’s conception: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do” (p. 15, italics in original). Power is about relationships, not merely resources. Traditional power measurements paint a mixed picture of post–Cold War Russia. Rebuilding the decrepit Soviet army, the Kremlin has increased its defense capabilities and developed new weapons systems, leading to impressive military operations. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014–15 was far [End Page 180] better equipped and executed than its error-prone (yet brutally effective) invasion of Georgia in 2008. A decade of investment in communications, training, and long-range strike forces provided the Kremlin with the tools to intervene decisively in Syria in 2015. In addition to funding military modernization, Russia’s economic growth gives it leverage in diplomatic relations.

Stoner’s framework is most creative and valuable when it comes to exploring the asymmetrical and disruptive dimensions of the Kremlin’s expanded global influence. With weak countries on its borders, Russia boasts a geopolitical position through which it extends corrupt political and economic relations to exercise power and boost its influence. The clearest case is Belarus, where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s survival depends on favorable energy and trade terms to fund the elite and provide resources for the police state. Russia guards its foreign ties jealously: In 2014, when an EU association agreement appeared likely to bring Ukraine—a country that the Kremlin has long considered part of its “sphere of influence”—closer to the West, the regime first tried enticing President Viktor Yanukovych with payments and pressuring him to use force against mounting public dissent before sending in Russian troops.

As Russia’s relationship with the West has cooled, Putin has increasingly viewed the prospect of democracy in post-Soviet states as a threat to his rule. The regime’s power is rooted in autocratic political systems where transparency and accountability cannot restrain corrupt practices. Russia has exercised nontraditional influence or “sharp power” in Western Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia through strategies including payments to political parties, such as France’s National Rally, banknotes for the rogue Libyan National Army, and Facebook disinformation campaigns bolstering Mozambique’s regime. Putin showered Kyrgyzstan’s new government with investments and debt forgiveness after its president made a dutiful supplicant visit to Russia.

As Stoner demonstrates, much of Russia’s global reach and disruptive capability lie in this new dimension of national power. In fact, Moscow’s conventional military reach is not global, but largely regional. Russia finds it easy to deploy military forces in weak countries on its borders, such as Armenia and Tajikistan. It sustains an effective but limited military intervention in Syria by focusing on air power—and notably relying on mercenaries, not regular Russian troops, to provide a ground presence. But Russia’s dangerous and disruptive reach through [End Page 181] the cyber domain is not merely in the disinformation space; it also has military implications that could harm powerful countries far beyond the Eurasian region.

Yet Stoner believes, confirming Frye’s caution, that while the glass of Russian power is more full than it once was, patronal autocracy has left it cracked. If Russia’s domestic climate is such that its best tech entrepreneurs and innovators escape to Europe, India, or the United States to pursue their businesses, then the country is losing not only future wealth, but the technological edge that has supported its unconventional and asymmetric cyber and information power resources.

In contrast with the realist theory that prevails in academia and government, Stoner avers that purpose as much as power is behind Russia’s newfound assertiveness in global affairs. In her view, since Putin and his cronies define domestic and foreign policy, Russia’s stance abroad is best understood in terms of regime survival. This perspective dovetails with Frye’s idea of Putin as a weak strongman. Thus the Kremlin’s purpose abroad is maintaining its authoritarian rule, advancing the wealth and power of regime elites, and sustaining a façade of legitimacy at home and abroad.

Adopting this framework, Stoner demonstrates that Russian international behavior after 1991 varied not only with power shifts, but also with purpose. When the regime focused on the integration and modernization of the Russian economy and military, it viewed cooperation with the United States as an asset. During the period of increased collaboration from 2009 to 2011 known as the “reset,” the two countries inked a major arms-control agreement, secured Russian accession to the World Trade Organization, and facilitated international counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan.

These advancements, along with the return of Putin to the presidency in 2012 (he had served as prime minister from 2008 until then), shifted the regime’s priorities and led to Russia’s “resurrection” on the global stage. The Arab Spring and NATO-led 2011 Libya intervention spurred the regime to respond to perceived U.S. offensives against autocracies by intervening in Syria in 2015. The Kremlin has also cultivated relationships with like-minded populist and illiberal leaders in Europe and the United States. These actions weaken the “liberal” international system of law and institutions that buttresses U.S. power and advances democracy globally.

Taken together, Frye’s and Stoner’s works are a welcome contribution to scholarship and policy. Russia is explicable, they both assert, and not, as Winston Churchill quipped, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” An understanding of both Russia’s strengths and its weaknesses should enable democracies to develop policies to manage its disruptive and destructive actions, while leaving room for cooperation where interests align. Armed with knowledge of the idiosyncrasies [End Page 182] of Putin—the weak strongman—and the personalist autocracy that he heads, free governments can counter Russia’s asymmetric influence operations.

Neither author goes deep into policy implications, but early indications of the Biden administration’s approach to dealing with Putin’s Russia make sense in light of their conclusions. The administration appears to be taking Russia seriously as a near-term strategic competitor with significant traditional and asymmetric capabilities, while making use of U.S. advantages in sanctions, trade restrictions in advanced sectors, alliances, and next-generation military capabilities. The Biden administration would do well to leverage the regime’s insecurity at home to encourage greater Kremlin predictability abroad—and extending nuclear-arms agreements is a good start. But the hardest (and most important) work will be eliminating easy targets for Russian disruption by attending to democracy, economic dynamism, and social progress in the United States and abroad. [End Page 183]


Copyright © 2021 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press

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