Putin the legalist wanted to honor the letter of the constitution preventing three consecutive presidential terms, but then engineered the tandem—with him returning to the prime ministership—as a way to retain power. He embraced libertarian prescriptions like instituting a flat tax yet presided over a partial re-nationalization of the Russian economy. Yet, when the opportunity arose in 2008 during the economic crisis for the state to completely reverse the privatization of the 1990s, Putin demurred and stressed the importance of a private business sector for Russia's future prosperity. These different identities also help to reconcile Putin's emphasis on effectiveness (and his desire to set up a system that can function like a Swiss watch) with his rewarding of loyalty and friendship, often manifested when members of his team who do not perform as expected in one function are transferred rather than fired (as well as apparent toleration for corruption even at the highest levels).
Putin is willing to fuse together contradictory political impulses. "Managed pluralism"—the desire to obtain some of the benefits of competition between political and economic groups with a degree of control and direction from the top—sums up the Putin synthesis. It reflects Putin's belief that Russia's future lies along a continental European path of political and economic development but mandates a strong guiding role for the state.
In theory, Russia's business elites and middle class should freely choose and ratify the Putin path for development, but the 2011 and 2012 protests showed the extent to which this theory is now diverging from reality. Neither Putin apologists nor Putin detractors will be happy with their narrative: the former because it does not uncritically accept the picture that Putin's "political technologists" have sketched for consumption, especially for the domestic Russian audience; while the latter will be unsatisfied because the authors deliberately chose not to pursue stories about "his reported accumulation of vast personal wealth and the scale of corruption within the inner circle of the Russian government" or to spend "time parsing the course" of Putin's rise to power and what steps he may have taken to achieve his position. In other words, this is not meant to be a piece of investigative journalism that purports to locate some hidden Putin vault where his secrets are stored.
But what it attempts to do is understand how and why Putin has taken the decisions that he has in his thirteen years as Russian president and prime minister. By suggesting that Putin is comfortable with multiple political identities, Hill and Gaddy take what might appear to be a series of disconnected and even contradictory approaches and find a unifying synthesis.
Yet this synthesis largely occurs within the person of Putin himself. And thus the supreme vulnerability of the system which he has created: it requires Putin to personally be involved to ensure its proper function. "Dostoika"—the "completion" of the project he started in 1999 of restoring Russia as a great power—can only occur under Putin's watch. The various Kremlin factions (security service veterans, liberal economists, and so on) in many ways represent competing Putin identities, with each group able to pit one version of Putin against another. But like "Chavisma" in Venezuela (Hugo Chavez, who also took office in 1999, is Putin's contemporary in power), Putinism—especially the reconciliation of the opposing tendencies within Putin's political identities and among the Kremlin clans—requires Putin himself to act as the balancer and decider. Remove him from the picture, and there is no guarantee that a new arbiter emerges who can synthesize the contradictory strains.
A related problem is the so-called "revolt of the stakeholders": whether or not the key groups in Russia who accepted Putin's "bargain" in 2000 (a free hand to chart the general course of the country in return for providing stability and prosperity) are still convinced that Putin and his system are even necessary for Russia's future. In 2008, Putin handed over the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev on such a high note of public acclamation for having resurrected Russia from the collapsed basket-case of the 1990s to one of the twenty-first century’s reemerging powers. Like Charles de Gaulle, however, his second act in the presidency has been less successful. There is no longer the same confidence among the business and middle class voters that previously were stalwart supporters that Putin is charting a path to a successful future. And while Putin's multiple identities, in his first run as president, provided him with creative and unexpected solutions, they may be a liability in 2013 when the question is no longer saving Russia from chaos but constructing durable institutions for the future.
Will Putin's ability to forge workable compromises between competing factions and interests continue? So much of Russia's revival has been linked to the successful deployment of the country's energy resources. But as Russia's market share for energy slips, with prices and markets possibly threatened in coming years by the shale oil and natural gas revolution, will his "half a loaf" strategy for satisfying different (and sometimes contradictory) constituencies be feasible? As Putin loses leverage, what happens to Russia?
Which of the competing identities within Putin is closest to his heart of hearts? If he has to choose between them, which will it be? As Russia and the larger world move through increasingly stormy waters in the years to come, trying to discern which Putin is at the helm of the Russian ship of state will be important for his interlocutors both in domestic and global affairs. Hill and Gaddy cannot provide us with an answer—but their work deserves merit for being able to frame the question.