Putin’s Wartime Dictatorship Enters a New Year

December 28, 2023 Topic: Russia Region: Eastern Europe Tags: Vladimir PutinAuthoritarianismRussia-Ukraine War

Putin’s Wartime Dictatorship Enters a New Year

How has Putin’s authoritarian regime changed since the Ukraine War?

Where is Russia going as a political system? What has changed since the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War? What exactly is Russia’s political order, and how does it work? These are vital questions for analysts in the West, facing the prospect of continued territorial war in Eastern Europe in an environment of further geopolitical fracturing and fragmentation. Despite complexities and evolving conditions, there are ready answers at hand. Only by understanding what Russia is today and what it was before can we grasp where the country may be headed in the coming years. Situating Russia in both its political changes and continuities guides our thought toward what exactly makes the contemporary regime resilient, as well as where its more uncertain future may lie. 

We can start simply. The contemporary wartime Russian regime is a personalist dictatorship in a state of exception under the sole, autocratic rule of President Vladimir Putin. Yet, this political regime retains the formal trappings and internal political institutions of what scholars often term “electoral authoritarianism,” complete with the standard basket of unfree elections, a loyalist parliament, and a compliant but functioning judicial system. Various other elements of authoritarian political institutionalization developed over the last two decades also remain. Indeed, some have clearly thrived, including ever more powerful and unelected conciliar bodies that coordinate Russia’s upper-tier elites and influence national policy direction.

Furthermore, the Russian state has undertaken a de jure process of officially crystallizing and instantiating a long-developing ideology of illiberalism. Russian illiberalism can be understood as a legitimating ideational matrix of anti-Westernism, cultural conservatism, social traditionalism, and (state-) civilizationism. This emergent ideological framework, already in overdrive since the war, is now promoted at all levels of society, from the educational field to compliant civil society groups to the rhetorical tics of Russian intellectuals, politicians, bureaucrats, and the president himself

This combination, a dictatorship—in the true sense of the word—standing over a regime of supportive, loyalist, and hierarchically subordinate institutions, and justified by an encompassing ideological framework undergirding regime legitimacy and supported by a variety of institutions in state and society, is quite coherent. This is important to grasp, given the understandable tendency in Western writing to emphasize the incongruities and absurdities of this new constellation of power. Nevertheless, and contrary to analysts who emphasize the instability or façade-like nature of Russian authoritarian politics, an illiberal dictatorship sitting atop a loyalist set of subordinate state institutions is both perfectly comprehensible and internally plausible

While collapse could, of course, happen at any moment—and one must prudentially hedge bets when stuck in a high-casualty ground war with an aging apex leader—continuing to pretend that the Russian regime is uniquely unsustainable or that its ideology is somehow logic-defying is an unfortunate case of motivated reasoning. And one that does not help us better understand Russia, its internal political system, or that system’s relation to the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War and its potential future trajectories. 

To that end, it is relevant to review and survey how Russia has changed since the war and how it has retained older forms. In doing so, this exercise provides us with a useful sketch of where Russian politics sits under extraordinary wartime conditions and how we may expect it to look in the coming years. 

Wartime Russia’s Recent Past 

Pre-war Russia from 2012 to 2022 was fairly easy to categorize using standard regime concepts from the comparative authoritarianism subfield of political science. Throughout this period, Russia was surely an authoritarian regime. It had an executive dominated by a personalist and personalized approach to political authority and decision-making centered on President Putin and centralized in the executive’s Presidential Administration, which developed the majority of policy and political decisions. The regime still held to the formal, de jure trappings of the liberal-democratic constitution written in 1993, complete with federal and regional elections, a multiparty parliament, and a standard higher court system.

Thus, the Russia of the immediate past was what we would call a hegemonic electoral authoritarian regime with strong “personalist” features. Comparable states could be Kazakhstan or Belarus in post-Soviet Eurasia, Venezuela in Latin America, and Zimbabwe or Uganda in sub-Saharan Africa—although all these comparisons are not exact. It also made a vague but noticeable ideological swing during the period that scholars termed the “conservative turn.” More conceptually, the regime began to espouse a Russian variant of “illiberalism.” This mixed together a complex of geopolitical anti-Westernism, cultural conservatism, and social traditionalism. Yet this ideological backdrop was still nascent in the 2010s, competing with other flavors of technocracy and securitized state-patriotism, and had not been given full official imprimatur. Further, it did not have the new emphasis on state-civilizationism that has since been thoroughly integrated into the Kremlin’s official ideological orientation since 2022. 

Since the onset of the conflict, it is no longer truly appropriate to compare Russia to its peer electoral authoritarian regimes, which leaves us in an analytical dead zone. There is a uniqueness to contemporary wartime Russia that follows from the combination of Putin’s personality and personal management of politics, the Kremlin’s surging use of ideological legitimation, the system of power relations that has recrystallized around its sovereign dictator, and the older, formal institutional architecture that still very much remains. 

Wartime Russia as a Model National Dictatorship  

The uniqueness of the current Russian regime stems from the state of exception ushered in by the war. While Russia had become a consolidated authoritarian regime by the mid-2010s and had been increasingly personalized, it remained fairly institutionalized. However, the “Special Military Operation,” threw the regularity of authoritarian politics considerably off balance. The decision for war, made by Putin himself without telegraphing or bothering to ensure elite buy-in ahead of time (let alone preparing the population or even military personnel), transformed how elites understood their place in the system considerably. 

Whereas before a kind of conservative status-quo had emerged, not least after the 2020 constitutional amendments that kept the system’s major structures in place, the war jolted the political ecosystem sharply. Analysts in the West thought for a time that elite fissures would be inevitable, especially after Russia’s initial defeat in the Battle of Kyiv and the failure of its regime-change operation—Putin’s core objective. These did not come to pass. Indeed, Russia’s military actions, Western sanctions responses, and plans to mobilize younger cohorts for combat led to a major demographic outflow of the long-standing “liberal” protest electorate in its urban areas. 

Instead, upper-tier Russian elites overwhelmingly signaled continued loyalty to the regime, even if expressions of discontent and bewilderment were widely reported through informal insider channels. Meanwhile, the concrete monetary benefits provided to lower-class Russians—as well as ethnic minorities—have provided further means of at least short-term, substantive alignment with the regime, congruent with the existence of a stable “national-conservative” majority in Russian society increasingly shorn of its more liberal and oppositional elements. 

The resilience of the Russian regime and the acceptance of elites to the new order of the day have had major consequences for its public politics. After a brief total closure in the spring of 2022, a new political dynamic has emerged in its place. The place of the dictator has been tacitly assented to by all relevant domestic actors, and elites are now far too wrapped up in supporting the war and its aims to defect easily. There is nowhere to go for those who chose not to leave in the first year of the war. 

Meanwhile, rhetorical consent and integration into the regime’s illiberal ideological justifications are clear everywhere. These are now expressed widely, from policy discussions across a range of issue areas to political statements by politicians across the spectrum of coopted parties, even to academic papers. The reputable polling that exists suggests most Russians at least broadly buy into the war’s casus belli of “denazification,” opposition to the sitting Ukrainian government, and generic resistance to the threat of Western hegemony, even if growing majorities also wish for combat to halt

Furthermore, a form of loyalist public politics has reemerged, concentrated on the national-patriotic side of the Russian political spectrum that had previously been far more marginal. The cadre of “war correspondents” and so-called “angry patriots” writing critically about Russian military failures have become the primary arena for critical information about the regime’s insufficiencies, even as establishment media has remained timid and controlled. And Putin himself, who has met with such critics multiple times since the war began, has acknowledged this discordant note. Similarly, where public politics is also active—primarily in moral-cultural legislation—the key actors are the Russian Orthodox Church, regime-loyalist Islamic authorities in ethnic republics, and a plethora of religious and military-oriented illiberal civil society organizations in the welfare, healthcare, and social fields. Insofar as a form of authoritarian political pluralism exists, it now resides primarily on the illiberal, national-imperial side of politics. 

Meanwhile, the greatest rupture in the internal stability of the regime—the Prigozhin Rebellion of June 2023—was notable for what it wasn’t. The Rebellion was not a coup aimed at toppling the apex executive, but rather an armed negotiation by a political-military baron who desperately wished for the firing (and execution) of the bureaucratic-military leadership that he believed was undermining his own forces, and the war more broadly. The fact that this negotiation failed and was punished severely in due time points to the untouchable position of Putin as national dictator, as well as the irregular nature of the exceptional wartime regime itself.