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?


At the close of 2023, while Russia continues slow-moving military offensives along multiple axes along the frontlines, it also prepares itself for a plebiscitary election reconfirming Putin as a political sovereign. Politics remains unsettled, but its new direction is clear. So long as Putin is alive, and no upper-tier elite cadre attempts a proper coup d’état, the system seems set to maintain a course of further ideological development, with all state and political institutions oriented towards serving the dictatorial executive, competing with each other over signaling loyalty and finding new positional niches within the ambit of acceptable elite opinion, although without the totalizing form of true movement-regimes. One could do worse than compare modern Russia to instances of reactionary or anti-political national dictatorships in Europe during the Interwar Period, such as Portugal, Poland, or Hungary, for example. 

Wartime Russia’s Evolution Will Have Major Consequences 


Personalist dictatorships, in general, tend to survive fairly well—until the end of the leader’s natural life. At which point, they also have a tendency to fail at managing succession, ushering in considerable political uncertainty with the death of the executive. This sort of statement is probabilistic rather than determinative, but succession is and remains a vital and looming problem for Russia. 

The personalized nature of decision-making continues to deinstitutionalize the regime, with the exception of certain “royal court”-like council bodies subordinate to the president himself. These may hold the keys to the future, as few alternative institutions exist. The United Russia party is weaker than ever (and it was always more a vehicle for collecting elites than a cohesive political entity). At the same time, regional governors have been systematically chosen for loyalty and ensuring local quiescence rather than effectiveness, ambition, or creativity.

There are ways to re-institutionalize the Russian regime and turn it away from the personalist setup it has transformed into. But this is always hard to do, and there are many incentives to retain the basic structure for those who have benefited from the system. Should Putin pass unexpectedly or become incapable, one scenario worth thinking more about could be a tutelary situation in which the current cohort of upper-tier security-service elites (FSB, Rosgvardiya, other siloviki, etc) end up running the country in a de facto regency or interregnum period. Very plausibly under Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, who has recently been cited as Prigozhin’s executor, or others within his patronage network. This might ultimately transform Russia into a somewhat unusual military (or “security”) regime. This would not fit what we usually mean by institutionalization but might work as a transition point to a new personalist authoritarian regime down the road.

Finally, the gradual—and more recently quite sharp—ideological developments in Russia are unlikely to be undone quickly, if at all. Russian illiberalism is sufficiently internally coherent, has a variety of institutional supports both in state and society, has a natural opponent in the ideological changes that have taken place in the West to compare itself to, and is sympathetic to other ideological currents rising across the non-Western world. It is very plausible that it will be an element of continuity in a future post-Putin world.

Where Russia goes in the months and years to come is anyone’s guess, and significant political events are famously difficult to predict. Yet understanding the path that Russia’s wartime dictatorship has set itself on will be fundamental to policymakers, Russia watchers, and scholars alike for the foreseeable future. 

Dr. Julian G. Waller is a Research Analyst in the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA Corporation) and a Professorial Lecturer in Political Science at George Washington University. All opinions are his own and do not reflect his employers’ or affiliated organizations.

Image: Shutterstock.com.