The Perils of “Putinism”

The Perils of “Putinism”

Simplistic analytical models that cast Putin as an all-powerful autocrat obscure how the Russian political system actually works. 

The system is designed to prevent outside manipulation, and this is a key pillar of Putin’s understanding of sovereignty. Medvedev was never the principal decider when he was president. In July 2009, after Putin met with Obama to lecture him for ninety minutes on failures of U.S. policy towards Russia, Putin left that meeting to meet with the Night Wolves motorcycle club, who were about to embark upon a trip to Crimea. This was a not-so-subtle way of snubbing Obama and any designs he had to help Medvedev build his authority at Putin’s expense. And now that “liberal modernizer” sounds like an out-and-out fascist

Five years later, in 2014, in response to the annexation of Crimea and conflict in the Donbas, the Obama administration made another poor calculation, believing it could peel off the oligarchs from supporting Putin in response to the economic losses they would incur due to sanctions. The Biden administration has made the same mistake. Isolating Russia from Western investment and financial institutions has made it much easier for the leadership to control revenue flows and consolidate power. The effect of sanctions on a country’s domestic politics is not at all unique to Russia. It has worked the same way in Iran, Cuba, and elsewhere.

Our purpose with this series of articles has been to demonstrate in greater depth the complexity of the Russian system, as well as a few of the key interest groups. In Soviet days, this was the essence of Kremlinology, especially beginning in the 1960s when many scholars paid great attention to the various interest groups in the Soviet political economy. While some scholars and analysts working in the Putinism paradigm are more sensitive to this complexity, the framework itself is prone to getting oversimplified in the person of Vladimir Putin himself and, in its more extreme form, the “dictatorship vs. democracy” juxtaposition. There is no such thing as pure dictatorships or pure democracies. There is a spectrum from more authoritarian systems to more democratic. Complex social and political phenomena are never black and white.

Any dynamic political economy constantly produces new sectors and elites. This process is accelerating in contemporary Russia. First, putting the economy on a war footing naturally places more resources in the hands of the military-industrial complex, and the sector is growing rapidly. Putin has made it clear many times that he wants to see more veterans of the war in Ukraine emerge as future elites in Russia. His cousin Anna Putina-Tsivilyova, the head of the now nationwide veterans’ organization Defenders of the Fatherland, may well play a significant role in recruitment and seed funding for these new soldier elites. The prime minister’s office has dramatically increased its staffing in the past four years under Mikhail Mishustin, and the prime minister’s own authority has increased.

Perhaps most significant was Putin’s announcement at the April 25 meeting of the Russian Council of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists (RCPP) that the government would start reviewing some of the 1990s privatizations, which, in his view, did not adequately “take Federal interests into consideration.” Not surprisingly, the hall fell silent when Putin announced this. 

Regardless of when an actual political succession takes place, the system is adapting and changing as it continues to demonstrate considerable resilience in the face of Western opposition and sanctions. However, while there does not appear to be any great imminent risk of destabilization, the long-term sustainability of the system under so much pressure is a question mark. Never in its long history has Russia ever been as isolated from the West as it is today. That is deeply suboptimal for Russia’s future, nor is it in the interests of Europe or the United States—or even China and India as they draw benefits from this in the short term. However, as long as Russia is on a war footing and Vladimir Putin is the leader, this is not likely to change. Bringing more balance back to Russia’s geopolitical position will be the task for future leadership. 

Chris Monday is an Associate Professor of Economics at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea.

Andy Kuchins is a Senior Fellow at the Center for the National Interest and Adjunct Professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.