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Putin’s House of Cards

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Understanding Russia is a task that has tried many great Western minds in recent decades. The United States learned to its detriment that its perspective on the Soviet Union and Russia in the 1980s and 1990s was deeply flawed. American leadership had become fixated on individual personalities at the expense of trying to understand where those personalities fit into a broader system that was very complex. If Western policymakers are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, they cannot remain solely focused on the attitudes of individuals within the Russian regime. In order to better formulate policies toward the current Russian regime while preparing for its inevitable transformation, they need to understand the regime’s mechanics. 

In the space of a few months, Russia shifted from a “soft” authoritarian regime that maintains a façade of democracy and a small space for civil society to a fully totalitarian mentality. This transition has been crude and has highlighted the weakness of Russia’s current authoritarian system – specifically, its inability to maintain economic stability, political cohesion, and ethnic harmony. Other totalitarian regimes face similar challenges but Russia’s unique history and geography makes these issues much more acute. The Russian regime is centered on President Vladimir Putin and his associates, but it is not a one-man operation. Rather, it is a complex pyramid of loyalties and patronage. The Russian term for this is blat, a word that roughly translates to “influence” or “power” but is commonly used to describe the overlapping informal networks that facilitate Russian government and business.  

Prior to the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the Russian regime seems to have sought to prepare itself for the demise of Putin, its head and supreme arbiter. The prescription seemed to be to find a way to balance the various interest groups that make up the regime in an interlocking system of checks and balances by creating institutions such as the State Council that would serve as a forum for regional bosses to lobby the regime. Other institutions such as the presidency would serve the interests of the security establishment, and the business and economic communities would use the Parliament and the Economic Ministries as a forum to secure their interests. The aim seemed to be to institutionalize the informal power structure that supports the Russian regime. Plans were based on the assumption that Russia would continue to face economic stagnation, but they did not account for the substantial shock of being subjected to a new round of punishing sanctions or prosecuting an extremely costly war in a neighboring state.  

Flawed Modernization and a Failure to Prepare 

The invasion of Ukraine was massive in its ambitions and well beyond the scale of what Russia could realistically achieve. Moreover, the Russian military was ill-prepared for the offensive. It rapidly ran short of critical equipment and proved unable to sustain its operations. Its shortcomings have undermined much of the regime’s claims that it rebuilt and strengthened the Russian military in the same way it fortified the state. Rather, the reconstruction of the military was shown to be a façade under which lingered systemic problems of poor training, corruption, and general incompetence. The same can be said for the Russian state. 

The diplomatic and economic consequences of the war have been still worse for the regime. A litany of Western sanctions has frozen Russian assets, severely curtailed imports and exports, and pushed most Western companies to leave the country, and two of the nation’s largest companies lost 95% of their value. One Russian stock analyst toasted the stock market’s death on state TV, saying he would need to go back to work as a mall Santa.  

The continued demands of the war and the severe economic shock of sudden international isolation – with GDP expected to contract significantly – have created two points of pressure the regime will be hard pressed to adapt to. The Kremlin has moved quickly on the war, making it a crime to discredit the Russian military or spread what the regime calls misinformation about its “special military operation.” Such acts are punished with a maximum of 15 years in prison. Creating a cohesive narrative has been more challenging, but the Russian state propaganda machine moved quickly to highlight the Z campaign. This patriotic call has sought to create support for Russia’s war by co-opting the Z and V symbols used by Russian troops to identify their vehicles and distinguish them from Ukrainian ones. The campaign is meant to provide new unifying symbols for the regime and to help craft a narrative that frames the special military operation as an existential struggle for Russia’s survival.  

 The regime’s response to economic isolation has been less substantive. Efforts to force Russia’s international customers to pay for gas and oil in rubles have met with mixed results. Meanwhile, nations continue to push to lower their reliance on Russian energy imports, and Russia’s economy is slowly breaking down as supply chains are disrupted and inputs and investment dry up. Efforts to embrace autarky by finding Russian or Chinese substitutes for Western imports – in particular of consumer goods – are mere propaganda. Foreign trade accounts for 44% of Russia’s gross domestic product, and 90% of Russian businesses depend heavily on imports. Though Chinese firms may fill some gaps, they cannot offset Russia’s loss of Western products, and a lack of hard currency will exacerbate the difficulties. Experience from 2014 shows that though China is willing to maintain good relations with Russia, it is unwilling to subsidize Moscow’s foreign policy adventures. The state will face incredibly difficult economic headwinds and face a double whammy of high inflation and double-digit contraction of GDP. Although forecasts vary, Russia’s economy likely will continue to contract for the foreseeable future. While Russia has a higher threshold for economic pain than other states, economic atrophy will constrict its supplies of cash and increase demand for subsidies. This will profoundly impact the ability of the political class to ensure the functioning of a system based on rent collection and redistribution.  

What Keeps the Regime Together 

Thus, economic breakdown threatens the very backbone of the regime, which is articulated on the distribution of subsidies and patronage. Before the war, the Russian state rested on an informal power structure. The central government would collect rents from economic assets and tax revenue. It would then redistribute that income in the form of federal spending programs. This redistribution, like everything else in Russian politics, had a formal and an informal component. The formal component was the money regional governments would receive in exchange for their loyalty. The informal component was the lucrative personal contracts, favors and trades that officials at all levels would receive in the form of blat.  

This system of corruption also enabled the regime to discipline wayward officials. Corruption cases could be opened at will, and the prosecutor would never have to look far to find malfeasance. Accusations of corruption and tax fraud also served to repress the Russian opposition. Allegations were often so convoluted that they could seem plausible, and the fear of prosecutorial harassment served as to deter potential adversaries. 

This system of patronage and punishment represents the carrot and the stick the regime has used to ensure compliance. The national political parties served as ready-made lobbies to facilitate the distribution of these subsidies, and allowed the Kremlin to claim a pretext of wide-scale popular support. As was illustrated in the most recent parliamentary elections, this structure incentivizes the cultivation of local political machines, which in addition to their loyalty to the Kremlin deliver votes in regional and national elections through a variety of methods, from pressure tactics to outright fraud.  

Money is the lifeblood of this system – money that was already gradually shrinking in its availability as the economy stagnated and the regime pushed more resources into its military. With the economy now shrinking fast, the money supply will dry up, leaving the regime with far fewer carrots. It will have to turn to the stick instead, but that can only take them so far. 

The regime has embraced repression to try to keep protests against the war in check, but there are limits to what this can accomplish. Widespread Chekist-style repression targeting elites and near-elites would risk deeply alienating the very people the regime relies upon to survive. Additionally, while protests are still small and isolated, it seems some Russian protesters have decided that if they can be arrested for holding up a sheet of paper, they may as well carry out more drastic actions instead. This is illustrated by a series of arson attacks against military recruiting stations.  

Protests and limited attacks on the state remain very unlikely to crack the regime. But they do contribute to a perception that the regime, built on the restoration of order, has lost control. Putin has long eschewed blind ideology, instead prioritizing a reverence for the state and the preservation of order. This has now changed. Putin has embraced a framework of chauvinistic nationalist ideals, promoting Russia’s unique place in a world struggling to preserve its traditions and values.  

This can at times be a potent message, but it is far from the dogma of the Czars’ divinity or the “immutable” logic of Marxism and Leninism that previously served as guideposts for the regime’s enforcers – and even then, the system of blat was central to keeping both organizations running smoothly.  

Simply put, graft-ridden security organizations need to be fed, and they are most loyal to whoever fills their trough. Right now, security forces do their jobs and arrest protesters, but they do not always carry out the task with ruthlessness. Numerous videos show police taking protesters in by simply asking them to come along. We will likely continue to see some brutality, especially if demonstrations grow. But as salaries shrink, what will motivate security forces to defend the regime? And what will happen if a plausible alternative emerges? We have seen this dynamic before during the collapse of the USSR when the security and military institutions rapidly deserted the sinking ship of the Soviet state. 

Could Ethnic Conflict Tear Russia Apart? 

Exacerbating all of this is Russia’s federated identity. 80% of the population is considered ethnically Russian, but the remainder is divided among ethnic groups whose populations are concentrated in nominally autonomous regions such as Chechnya, Tatarstan, and Buryatia. These regions’ local elites are part of Russia’s ruling structure, but their appeal to constituents is based in part on their ability to stand up to Moscow and extract subsidies. These groups represent ready-made alternative power centers, and although not politically powerful enough to substantially change national policy, they should not be overlooked, especially as some, like Tatarstan, are particularly economically vital, controlling key assets such as oil and gas.  

Added pressure comes from the high number of casualties being sustained by ethnic minorities serving in Russia’s regular armed forces. Independent research has verified the identities of 1,083 military deaths confirmed by Russia. None of the dead were from Moscow, a city of 13 million, while 92 were from Dagestan, 52 came from Buryatia. The remainder is spread across Russia’s far-flung regions. 

Despite a crackdown on media coverage of military funerals, images from these events continue to appear. In Buryatia, a region of only 500,000 people, images of Buddhist monks presiding over the funerals of young soldiers killed in Ukraine for an unclear reason create a powerful image and illustrate how the Russian regime can simultaneously claim to represent all Russians and embrace deeply ethnically Russian-centric ideals.   

Chechnya is a case unto itself, and developments in the region highlight the weakness of the regime in Moscow. Leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s brutal rule over Chechnya depends on the massive subsidies Kadyrov receives from Moscow every year. This is why Kadyrov deployed volunteer units under his personal control to support the invasion in Ukraine. The poor performance of these militia formations shows how ineffective such forces are as a force multiplier and increases the Russian military’s need to keep feeding conscripts from across Russia’s vast regions into the maelstrom.   

The Crossroads Ahead 

Putin’s regime has a limited ability to endure. It may well hang on for years, but a ruling dispensation that was already predicated on a delicate balance of interests looks unable to survive the inevitable death of its supreme arbiter. Putin’s inner circle is deliberately set up so there is no clear successor. Furthermore, many of his closest associates are similar in age to Putin, and when he dies, they will either already be dead themselves or will be too old to effectively take leadership. This sets the stage for a new generation of leadership to take over, but it also creates the conditions for a power struggle. At best that struggle will be kept private, but it is likelier to spill out into the open. Finally, the regime lacks both the ideological and institutional underpinnings of its predecessors. When change comes, there are a few different forms it may take. 

The next generation of Russian leadership may be just as thuggish as Putin – perhaps more so. The next leader might embrace the hollow ideology the Kremlin has recently promoted, transforming Russia into a larger version of Chechnya or Venezuela. This ultra-nationalistic Russia would become increasingly subordinate to China. It would be a place where the rule of law is ignored and the state resorts to gangsterism to maintain even minimum functionality. Those who are unable to leave will be trapped in poverty and dependence. How long such a state can endure is unclear, but Russia could continue to declare itself a great power even as it rots from the inside, eaten alive by parasitic, nationalistic leadership. 

A more optimistic scenario could see a reprise of the 1980s, with a new generation of leadership looking to enact reforms and normalize relations with the West. There are some signs that this could occur. The post-Soviet generation has participated in successive waves of protest since 2012. They did so not because they believe in any particular ideology but because they want to live in a functional state. Indeed, the state’s lack of functionality has led to the kinds of severe local issues that give rise to quasi-legitimate opposition parties. The strong performance of the Communist Party of Russia and the New People party in the last election showed that there is popular discontent with Moscow, but it also taught politicians they can build a base of support by focusing on local issues.  

This pattern has played out before. In the 1980s and 1990s, Boris Yeltsin was able to take control of Russia by serving as a bridge between the urban liberal intelligentsia and local party bosses. Ultimately, Yeltsin betrayed both elements as he solidified his own power. But there is a hope that failure in Ukraine could discredit Russian militarism, creating space for a more mature crop of regional politicians and opposition figures to reorient Russia from the dictatorial turn it has taken since 1993.  

The regions would be key, as they were in the 1990s, and would need to be willing to push for more autonomy. Meanwhile, Russia’s liberals and perhaps even its patriotic nationalists might push to get rid of presidential primacy, a prerogative written into Russia’s 1993 constitution that makes the president an incredibly powerful figure and which Putin has used to consolidate his hold on power. Ditching this arrangement would clear a path for Russia to move toward a more parliamentary system.  

Such a stark reform might seem far-fetched now, but ample precedent exists in Russian history of major political reforms following times of trouble. A major stumbling block, though, could be the growing split in Russia’s political opposition. Old-school liberals are increasingly at odds with advocates for ethnic rights and activists who call for sweeping social reforms. Such divides in the past have been a critical flaw in the ability of the Russian opposition to prevent conservative snapback after a period of liberalization. 

Will Russians Go Their Own Ways? 

The fracture of Russia’s multiethnic state into numerous smaller nations has been floated in the Western press as a genuine possibility. Though not impossible, this is not very likely. Most of Russia’s autonomous regions lack the ability to act as a sovereign independent state. For one, they are all quite heavily integrated into Russia and with each other, both economically and politically. The two regions most able to breakaway on strictly ethnic grounds are Chechnya and Tatarstan. Chechnya tried to secede in the 1990s. As a result of the violent wars and internal strife that followed the attempt, its current ruling clique is fully integrated into the Russian regime. Tatarstan is rich in resources, but it is also geographically isolated. If it were to break away within its current borders, it would be an enclave within Russia.  

The political potential of the regions should not be dismissed, though. Their rulers can draw on unique identities and separate bases of power if they wish to use them. And regionalist feeling runs strong even in far-flung regions where ethnic Russians are dominant. So while a break-up along ethnic lines is unlikely, a broader regional confederation forming new states is not impossible. It remains a distant possibility, however, so long as most local potentates believe they will be better protected even in the weakest Russian state.  

Avoiding Past Failures  

None of these scenarios is all-encompassing. Indeed, Russia’s future after Putin will likely see elements of all of the above scenarios come into play. For now, the Putin regime will probably remain in power for some years yet; it has dug itself in deep enough to be difficult to uproot. So long as it remains wedded to failed policies, however, it is more likely that sudden and perhaps substantive change will follow Putin’s death.  

Russia has a long and often turbulent history that often confronts the outside observer with a mirage of unshakable durability, even as the system that keeps it running is breaking down. As Russian anthropologist Alexei Yurchak aptly noted in the title of his book about the Soviet system, “Everything was forever, until it was no more.” Change has come before to Russia, and in the last century that change was driven by conflict and by the lethargy of an increasingly out-of-touch state. Russia already has a growing expatriate community that advocates reform and democratization and is now calling for an end to the ruinous war in Ukraine – a war the Putin regime cannot afford to lose if it wants to save face domestically but is struggling to win on the battlefield. The coming years will likely be the crucible in which a post-Putin Russia will take shape. A variety of domestic and internal factors will determine whether the shape it takes is one of a reformed state that looks West, or an insular totalitarian regime that is isolated on the world stage.  

What is increasingly certain, though, is that the turgid stability the Putin regime had been cultivating is no longer possible. 

It is therefore in the U.S. interest to take a dual-track approach toward Russia in the coming years and decades. It must immediately invest in its Russian and Eurasian studies programs to train a new generation of diplomats, scholars, and leaders able to cultivate a more nuanced understanding of Russia. It must stand ready to extend the hand of friendship to a post-Putin Russia and work to help facilitate Moscow’s return to the community of nations. At the same time, there can be no softening of Washington’s support for Ukraine or its condemnation of Russia’s militarism. Russia’s elite must come to understand that the world will not ignore such rampant militarism and aggression. In the 1990s, a failure of policy helped facilitate the rise of Putin, who became everything the U.S. and the West feared from a post-Soviet Russia. That must not be allowed to happen again.  

Jeff Hawn is an independent geopolitical risk consultant and a tactical analysis expert. Previously, Hawn worked for four years as an OSINT analyst with the private intelligence firm, Stratfor where he specialized in domestic extremism and civil unrest. He is also a Ph.D. candidate at the London School of Economics in international history centered on the Russian constitutional crisis of 1993 and the emergence of the post-Cold War world order. He tweets at @jeff_hawn. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not an official policy or position of the New Lines Institute. 

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