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Is Putin A Weak Strongman? The Difficult Balancing Act Of Russia’s Personalist Autocracy

March 15, 2024

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, a seemingly iron-fisted grip on power comes at a cost, says author and expert Timothy Frye

Key Takeaways

  • Common views on Russia tend to track along two narratives: Russia is the way it is because of Putin, and Russia is the way it is because of its unique history and culture.

  • These views aren’t necessarily wrong, but they don’t consider Russia’s form of government: a personalist autocracy.

  • Instead of treating Putin as an omnipotent puppet master pulling all the political strings, it’s better to view the Russian leader as a weak strongman: too strong to be thrown out of power but too weak to govern effectively.

Many media pundits and academic experts examine Russia through the lens of Vladimir Putin’s seemingly iron-fisted grip on power. That view isn’t necessarily incorrect, but it fails to account for the nuances and difficult balancing act faced by personalist autocrats like Putin, who is all but certain to win the upcoming Russian presidential election.

That’s the argument Timothy Frye puts forth in “Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia,” which challenges the conventional wisdom of Putin’s rule, highlighting the trade-offs that confront the Kremlin on issues ranging from election fraud and repression to propaganda and foreign policy.

“[Personalist autocrats] need to cheat on elections, but they can’t cheat too much—that would signal weakness. But if they cheat too little, they risk losing power,” Frye said at a recent lecture hosted by the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies at the Hopkins Bloomberg Center. “They use anti-Westernism to rile the base but not so much that they actually get involved in a conflict. They use corruption to reward cronies but not so much that the economy collapses. They manipulate the news but not so much that people turn off the television. They repress political opponents but not so much that they spark a backlash. They keep their security forces strong but not so strong that they turn against them.”

Frye, professor of post-Soviet foreign policy at Columbia University, said the weak strongman argument helps shine a light on recent events in Russia, including the war with Ukraine, a conflict the Kremlin expected to be a brief stint that is now grinding into its third year.

“Information problems in personalist autocracies can be really severe in part because there are great incentives for bureaucrats to tell the autocrat what they want to hear,” he said. “There’s a lot of blame going around in Russia about the war that really stems from the structural features of personalist autocracies.”

Putin’s appointment of loyalists as military leaders, a form of “coup-proofing,” over those who may have been more competent as well as large increases in defense spending can be viewed as part of the Russian leader’s balancing act of keeping his inner circle and the mass public happy, Frye said. However, that approach has come at the detriment of military effectiveness.

The problem with dealing with Russia is not dealing with Russia’s rise. It’s dealing with Russia’s decline.

Timothy Frye, professor of post-Soviet foreign policy at Columbia University

Still, Putin has avoided a mass mobilization against the war despite its general unpopularity and drawn-out timetable through calculated moves, such as keeping the economy from stalling, maintaining a high standard of living and buying support among soldiers and their families through decent military salaries and payments for those wounded or killed in action, Frye said.

Meanwhile, the death of long-time Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died last month in an Arctic penal colony where he was serving a 19-year sentence, also highlights the fine line Putin continues to walk in silencing his harshest critics without sparking a mass uprising.

“The puzzle with Navalny is not so much why he was put in jail, poisoned, and eventually killed. It’s why he was allowed to operate for 10 years, putting up these really damaging videos,” Frye said. “What this illustrates is when the economy was doing well, Putin was willing to tolerate a lot. … But why he was killed at this point is really hard to explain.”

While theories abound on the timing of Navalny’s death and mass resistance doesn’t seem imminent, Frye said he believes something will give—eventually.

“The problem with dealing with Russia is not dealing with Russia’s rise. It’s dealing with Russia’s decline,” he said. “The lack of technological innovation, the insecurity of property rights, the high levels of production, the opacity of the economy—all of these factors are hardly things that bode well for long-term economic growth. It’s a pretty bleak picture.”

The event was organized by Lisel Hintz, SAIS assistant professor of European and Eurasian studies.

Text originally published here