.
R

elentless consumers of certain types of news might view Russia as single-handedly responsible for the election of President Donald Trump, with President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, manipulating America from behind the scenes. To those who only devour pop culture pulp, Russia is a country of spies, furry hats, and vodka, and the villains in any Hollywood blockbuster. To view both equally lends the idea that every Russian must be ten feet tall and hiding behind every tree and under every bed, waiting to bring about the end of the United States, or, alternatively, some poor babushka huddled against the cold.

“Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia” | Timothy Frye | Princeton University Press | April 2021.

The reality  is vastly more complex, nuanced, and interesting; and moving beyond the façade is critical to crafting smart policy. “Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia”, by Timothy Frye, is the most recent in a series of outstanding books that seek to dismantle preconceived notions about what is one of the most fascinating countries (and issues) today. With deft prose, deep and insightful analysis, and considerable supporting evidence, Frye not only counters, but dismantles, the overly simplistic and lazy narratives of Russia under Putin.

By looking at contemporary Russia through a very academic lens, and evaluating it in light of other, similar autocracies, Frye vividly illustrates the fact that Russia is not the outlier that many believe it to be. It is neither governed purely by Putin’s passions and whims, nor is it a victim of its historical place, its culture, or some other intangible quirk of the Russian spirit.

It is these two worldviews that, arguably, shape and warp so much of the public discourse on Russia’s politics and behavior, and ultimately distort America’s policy towards Moscow. In the case of the former, it ignores the rich complexity of Russian politics and assumes that any other occupant of the presidency would somehow behave dramatically differently. There seems to be a myth that only the world were to wait out Putin, his successor will somehow have a completely different worldview and set of beliefs.

While President Dmitry Medvedev did have a different style than Putin, his substance was largely the same. Indeed, Russia’s foreign policy and assertiveness are not all that different from some of the actions taken under President Boris Yeltsin. In the case of the latter, assuming that Russia is purely a slave to its history, culture, or soul is a gross oversimplification and eliminates the possibility of change in favor of pure constancy.

It is true, of course, that leaders are shaped by their backgrounds and experiences and that culture and history shape a country’s behavior, but to blithely assert that one or the other (or a blending of the two) define a country’s outlook and policy is to ignore the complexities of its internal workings and machinations. No one doubts that US President Biden’s time in the Senate will shape his approach to legislation. Nor will anyone doubt that America’s founding myths of independence, pioneer spirit, and reinvention shape how the country views the world. But to assume that it is either-or that shapes America’s policy is naïve and ignores the roles of institutions, political parties, laws, interest groups, etc. If we wouldn’t rule these out when looking at American political behavior, why would we ignore it when analyzing Russian politics?

Perhaps the greatest and certainly most tangible result of the debate over the size and scale of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, is the extent to which it has so dramatically changed America’s view of Russia. In many ways, America did Moscow’s work for it turning into an ouroboros seeing Russians everywhere, making Putin into this Bond-esque villain, sitting astride a global network of agents, operatives, and influencers. Any sort of rational debate or discussion about Russia, its interests, or its behaviors went swiftly out the window, as did any attempts to understand Russia as it is and not as some vaudeville caricature.

Yet, Frye’s book dispels those notions in their entirety. What emerges is not a monolithic Russian government operating under the master puppeteer of Putin, but an autocrat—a unique one, to be sure—who is hamstrung by the same problems as autocrats the world over. Politics in Moscow are not all that different than politics in Washington—it’s all about the balancing of interests, albeit with considerably fewer checks and balances in the Kremlin than Congress.

Frye’s book is illuminating on two distinct yet interrelated fronts. On the surface, it is clearly about the limits of Putin’s power and the political structure he occupies—a personalist autocracy. But it is also exceedingly illuminating about the state of contemporary Russian political and civic society.

The Putin that emerges from Frye’s book is very much a “weak strongman.” He is constrained by the same limitations as other autocrats and when looking at his behavior through these lenses, comes across as neither all-powerful nor weak, just playing a strong hand. Putin’s regime and indeed survival is predicated on a precarious balancing of interests at all levels, and understanding this balancing act will lead, ideally, to better policy making, but in the first instance a better understanding of Russian political behavior, both foreign and domestic.

As an autocrat, Putin wants to ensure his political survival yet he exists in a system—much like other autocrats—that necessitates a finely calibrated balance of personal interests, elite interests, and those of the public, almost certainly in that order. Putin, as Frye describes, is not all that different from other autocrats in this way. While his regime is much more personal (as opposed to a party-led or military-led autocracy), it still relies on and is hamstrung by that need for balance.

Here, while there are elections in Russia and certainly varying degrees of ballot stuffing, legal constraints on opposition figures, and behaviors that would be out of place in the West, Putin needs the elections to appear at least somewhat legitimate. Too much of the aforementioned behaviors and the public will stop believing in their legitimacy, thereby undermining his rule. Too little manipulation—such as allowing real opposition figures (and not the token sparring partners) or full electoral transparency—and the elections may not yield a favorable result.

On the economy, insufficient corruption and cronyism will lead to the elite and oligarchs losing faith in Putin and potentially withholding their support. Yet, too much corruption will beleaguer the economy and stymie development. Equally, the capricious and inconsistent application of the rule of law makes Russia a less attractive country for foreign investment, further limiting potential growth. Conversely, investing too much in the economy and applying the rule of law evenly (necessary both for economic growth and a thriving business community) limits opportunities for elite corruption and personal gain, while tying the hands of the government.  

While the West only sees Russian media through the lens of RT or Sputnik, barely concealed propaganda outlets, there exists a surprisingly robust domestic media and press environment. This is not to say that it is approaching free media akin to the United States or the United Kingdom, but it is likely considerably more open than most would expect. Putin needs a relatively open (but controllable) media or at least a media that is not wholly distrusted by the public through which he can communicate his successes and competence. So, while the Kremlin will seek to control or repress unfavorable or critical outlets, it does not shut them down wholesale as doing so would erode the necessary trust of the public.  

Putin needs the security services to ensure his regime’s survival, but too strong of institutions or certainly unified institutions could well imperil his survival if they become displeased. Here, it is abundantly clear why the Siloviki and the security services are organized and pitted against one another, to ensure that there can be no one unified opposition, and to act as checks on one another. Of course, this brings inefficiencies and redundancies, but it also brings about internal stability. There is also more craft and nuance to repression in Russia today than just the OMON riot police wading into the crowds. True, it is the most visible (at least to the West), but there are other less visible and violent tools.

In one of the more interesting anecdotes offered by Frye, rather than crack down aggressively on anti-Putin graffiti, a graffiti competition was organized by the Kremlin where the winner received prime placement to display their art. Naturally, pro-regime, or pro-Russian themes won out with those counterculture artists shunted out of sight and out of the public’s view. A rather clever way to achieve a repressive outcome without being physically repressive—think more Singapore and less Siberia.  

It is this constant autocratic tension that defines so much of Putin’s behaviors and is vastly more explanatory than merely the solipsistic nature of his KGB background or the quirks of the Russian soul.

In addition to providing a fascinating frame of reference through which to view Putin’s behavior, the book is incredibly illuminating about Russian political and civil society writ large. As Frye explores the personalist autocracy at the heart of Putin’s behaviors, he dispels many of the misguided beliefs and assumptions about Russian politics that plague American assessments of Russia and, more alarmingly, characterize policymaking discussions about relations with Moscow.

The Russian people are not a population that is resigned to its fate, supporting Putin blindly while suffering a brutalist existence characterized by alcoholism, corruption, and little-to-no say in their political lives. Here, Frye deftly weaves together public opinion polling and surveys to get a more nuanced picture of Russian political beliefs and activities, dispelling many of the West’s beliefs that the Russians are a population beaten into submission or merely victims of slickly produced propaganda.

Of course, covert action is not an end in and of itself and, as the United States has found through much trial and error, it is only effective when it is tied to some broader policy objective. Mounting an operation just to mount an operation is more reflective of a lack of policy solutions rather than the desired end state and will almost certainly fail.

With this in mind, looking at Russia’s covert activities in the United States and Europe, it would seem that Moscow’s efforts have very much been part of a concerted campaign to sow discord and division (or seize upon already existing schisms), undermine the trans-Atlantic, NATO, and European alliances, and—for domestic audiences—present a frightening view of an unstable outside world against which Putin is the only thing standing in the way. Even in the case of the failed poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, the message was still sent to those would-be defectors and former spies—no one is beyond the Kremlin’s reach, even if they are. This is to say nothing of the fact that, by Frye’s framing, there is undoubtedly an element of internal one-ups-man-ship within the security services—"if the SVR is doing something, why aren’t we in the GRU?”

In any case, whether or not this is an effective strategy is open to debate but clearly, Moscow believes there is some value or utility in mounting such covert actions and, in all likelihood, will continue to do so in the future, especially given the low cost of these activities and relative lack of international response—recent sanctions notwithstanding.

Frye stops short of offering policy solutions or suggesting another “reset” (or overcharge) for U.S.-Russia relations, and this is a welcome end. Rather than attempt to solve the entirety of the Russia policy challenge, Frye successfully presents an effective framework through which to view Putin’s behaviors and Russia’s political activities, both foreign and domestic. Frye’s goal is not to explain what one should understand about Russia but how one should understand Russia.

Russia is shaped by its history as all countries are. Putin is, of course, shaped by his background and experiences, as well. But to reduce the complexities of Russian behavior to one or the other (or both) is to fail to understand the dynamics of Russia as it is today, and not through some artificially tinted and distorted lens. Only by seeing Russia as it is and understanding its behavior in its proper context will Washington be able to draft smart and sensible policy toward Moscow—something needed now more than ever.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia

Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia. Photo by Daniel Born via Unsplash.

May 1, 2021

“Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia”, by Timothy Frye, is the most recent in a series of outstanding books that seek to dismantle preconceived notions about what is one of the most fascinating countries (and issues) today.

R

elentless consumers of certain types of news might view Russia as single-handedly responsible for the election of President Donald Trump, with President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, manipulating America from behind the scenes. To those who only devour pop culture pulp, Russia is a country of spies, furry hats, and vodka, and the villains in any Hollywood blockbuster. To view both equally lends the idea that every Russian must be ten feet tall and hiding behind every tree and under every bed, waiting to bring about the end of the United States, or, alternatively, some poor babushka huddled against the cold.

“Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia” | Timothy Frye | Princeton University Press | April 2021.

The reality  is vastly more complex, nuanced, and interesting; and moving beyond the façade is critical to crafting smart policy. “Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia”, by Timothy Frye, is the most recent in a series of outstanding books that seek to dismantle preconceived notions about what is one of the most fascinating countries (and issues) today. With deft prose, deep and insightful analysis, and considerable supporting evidence, Frye not only counters, but dismantles, the overly simplistic and lazy narratives of Russia under Putin.

By looking at contemporary Russia through a very academic lens, and evaluating it in light of other, similar autocracies, Frye vividly illustrates the fact that Russia is not the outlier that many believe it to be. It is neither governed purely by Putin’s passions and whims, nor is it a victim of its historical place, its culture, or some other intangible quirk of the Russian spirit.

It is these two worldviews that, arguably, shape and warp so much of the public discourse on Russia’s politics and behavior, and ultimately distort America’s policy towards Moscow. In the case of the former, it ignores the rich complexity of Russian politics and assumes that any other occupant of the presidency would somehow behave dramatically differently. There seems to be a myth that only the world were to wait out Putin, his successor will somehow have a completely different worldview and set of beliefs.

While President Dmitry Medvedev did have a different style than Putin, his substance was largely the same. Indeed, Russia’s foreign policy and assertiveness are not all that different from some of the actions taken under President Boris Yeltsin. In the case of the latter, assuming that Russia is purely a slave to its history, culture, or soul is a gross oversimplification and eliminates the possibility of change in favor of pure constancy.

It is true, of course, that leaders are shaped by their backgrounds and experiences and that culture and history shape a country’s behavior, but to blithely assert that one or the other (or a blending of the two) define a country’s outlook and policy is to ignore the complexities of its internal workings and machinations. No one doubts that US President Biden’s time in the Senate will shape his approach to legislation. Nor will anyone doubt that America’s founding myths of independence, pioneer spirit, and reinvention shape how the country views the world. But to assume that it is either-or that shapes America’s policy is naïve and ignores the roles of institutions, political parties, laws, interest groups, etc. If we wouldn’t rule these out when looking at American political behavior, why would we ignore it when analyzing Russian politics?

Perhaps the greatest and certainly most tangible result of the debate over the size and scale of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, is the extent to which it has so dramatically changed America’s view of Russia. In many ways, America did Moscow’s work for it turning into an ouroboros seeing Russians everywhere, making Putin into this Bond-esque villain, sitting astride a global network of agents, operatives, and influencers. Any sort of rational debate or discussion about Russia, its interests, or its behaviors went swiftly out the window, as did any attempts to understand Russia as it is and not as some vaudeville caricature.

Yet, Frye’s book dispels those notions in their entirety. What emerges is not a monolithic Russian government operating under the master puppeteer of Putin, but an autocrat—a unique one, to be sure—who is hamstrung by the same problems as autocrats the world over. Politics in Moscow are not all that different than politics in Washington—it’s all about the balancing of interests, albeit with considerably fewer checks and balances in the Kremlin than Congress.

Frye’s book is illuminating on two distinct yet interrelated fronts. On the surface, it is clearly about the limits of Putin’s power and the political structure he occupies—a personalist autocracy. But it is also exceedingly illuminating about the state of contemporary Russian political and civic society.

The Putin that emerges from Frye’s book is very much a “weak strongman.” He is constrained by the same limitations as other autocrats and when looking at his behavior through these lenses, comes across as neither all-powerful nor weak, just playing a strong hand. Putin’s regime and indeed survival is predicated on a precarious balancing of interests at all levels, and understanding this balancing act will lead, ideally, to better policy making, but in the first instance a better understanding of Russian political behavior, both foreign and domestic.

As an autocrat, Putin wants to ensure his political survival yet he exists in a system—much like other autocrats—that necessitates a finely calibrated balance of personal interests, elite interests, and those of the public, almost certainly in that order. Putin, as Frye describes, is not all that different from other autocrats in this way. While his regime is much more personal (as opposed to a party-led or military-led autocracy), it still relies on and is hamstrung by that need for balance.

Here, while there are elections in Russia and certainly varying degrees of ballot stuffing, legal constraints on opposition figures, and behaviors that would be out of place in the West, Putin needs the elections to appear at least somewhat legitimate. Too much of the aforementioned behaviors and the public will stop believing in their legitimacy, thereby undermining his rule. Too little manipulation—such as allowing real opposition figures (and not the token sparring partners) or full electoral transparency—and the elections may not yield a favorable result.

On the economy, insufficient corruption and cronyism will lead to the elite and oligarchs losing faith in Putin and potentially withholding their support. Yet, too much corruption will beleaguer the economy and stymie development. Equally, the capricious and inconsistent application of the rule of law makes Russia a less attractive country for foreign investment, further limiting potential growth. Conversely, investing too much in the economy and applying the rule of law evenly (necessary both for economic growth and a thriving business community) limits opportunities for elite corruption and personal gain, while tying the hands of the government.  

While the West only sees Russian media through the lens of RT or Sputnik, barely concealed propaganda outlets, there exists a surprisingly robust domestic media and press environment. This is not to say that it is approaching free media akin to the United States or the United Kingdom, but it is likely considerably more open than most would expect. Putin needs a relatively open (but controllable) media or at least a media that is not wholly distrusted by the public through which he can communicate his successes and competence. So, while the Kremlin will seek to control or repress unfavorable or critical outlets, it does not shut them down wholesale as doing so would erode the necessary trust of the public.  

Putin needs the security services to ensure his regime’s survival, but too strong of institutions or certainly unified institutions could well imperil his survival if they become displeased. Here, it is abundantly clear why the Siloviki and the security services are organized and pitted against one another, to ensure that there can be no one unified opposition, and to act as checks on one another. Of course, this brings inefficiencies and redundancies, but it also brings about internal stability. There is also more craft and nuance to repression in Russia today than just the OMON riot police wading into the crowds. True, it is the most visible (at least to the West), but there are other less visible and violent tools.

In one of the more interesting anecdotes offered by Frye, rather than crack down aggressively on anti-Putin graffiti, a graffiti competition was organized by the Kremlin where the winner received prime placement to display their art. Naturally, pro-regime, or pro-Russian themes won out with those counterculture artists shunted out of sight and out of the public’s view. A rather clever way to achieve a repressive outcome without being physically repressive—think more Singapore and less Siberia.  

It is this constant autocratic tension that defines so much of Putin’s behaviors and is vastly more explanatory than merely the solipsistic nature of his KGB background or the quirks of the Russian soul.

In addition to providing a fascinating frame of reference through which to view Putin’s behavior, the book is incredibly illuminating about Russian political and civil society writ large. As Frye explores the personalist autocracy at the heart of Putin’s behaviors, he dispels many of the misguided beliefs and assumptions about Russian politics that plague American assessments of Russia and, more alarmingly, characterize policymaking discussions about relations with Moscow.

The Russian people are not a population that is resigned to its fate, supporting Putin blindly while suffering a brutalist existence characterized by alcoholism, corruption, and little-to-no say in their political lives. Here, Frye deftly weaves together public opinion polling and surveys to get a more nuanced picture of Russian political beliefs and activities, dispelling many of the West’s beliefs that the Russians are a population beaten into submission or merely victims of slickly produced propaganda.

Of course, covert action is not an end in and of itself and, as the United States has found through much trial and error, it is only effective when it is tied to some broader policy objective. Mounting an operation just to mount an operation is more reflective of a lack of policy solutions rather than the desired end state and will almost certainly fail.

With this in mind, looking at Russia’s covert activities in the United States and Europe, it would seem that Moscow’s efforts have very much been part of a concerted campaign to sow discord and division (or seize upon already existing schisms), undermine the trans-Atlantic, NATO, and European alliances, and—for domestic audiences—present a frightening view of an unstable outside world against which Putin is the only thing standing in the way. Even in the case of the failed poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, the message was still sent to those would-be defectors and former spies—no one is beyond the Kremlin’s reach, even if they are. This is to say nothing of the fact that, by Frye’s framing, there is undoubtedly an element of internal one-ups-man-ship within the security services—"if the SVR is doing something, why aren’t we in the GRU?”

In any case, whether or not this is an effective strategy is open to debate but clearly, Moscow believes there is some value or utility in mounting such covert actions and, in all likelihood, will continue to do so in the future, especially given the low cost of these activities and relative lack of international response—recent sanctions notwithstanding.

Frye stops short of offering policy solutions or suggesting another “reset” (or overcharge) for U.S.-Russia relations, and this is a welcome end. Rather than attempt to solve the entirety of the Russia policy challenge, Frye successfully presents an effective framework through which to view Putin’s behaviors and Russia’s political activities, both foreign and domestic. Frye’s goal is not to explain what one should understand about Russia but how one should understand Russia.

Russia is shaped by its history as all countries are. Putin is, of course, shaped by his background and experiences, as well. But to reduce the complexities of Russian behavior to one or the other (or both) is to fail to understand the dynamics of Russia as it is today, and not through some artificially tinted and distorted lens. Only by seeing Russia as it is and understanding its behavior in its proper context will Washington be able to draft smart and sensible policy toward Moscow—something needed now more than ever.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.