Putin Is No Unicorn
“Weak Strongman” argues that to better understand Russia, we need to move past our fixation with its president.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy, is often portrayed in the West as a three-dimensional chess grandmaster playing the world with one hand tied behind his shirtless back. No other world leader has captured imaginations quite like him. Small tidal waves of ink have been spilled on Putin’s history, and that of Russia, for answers to the question: What does Putin want?
But what if Putin isn’t all that? What if he isn’t as special as he likes to make out? That’s the argument put forward by the Columbia University professor Timothy Frye in his new book, Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia, which reveals that Putin may have more in common with his authoritarian peers than we realize. Many of his actions are the result not of his worldview but rather the complicated trade-offs politicians everywhere must make. In authoritarian regimes, those trade-offs involve paying off elites while being careful not to tank the economy and risk popular discontent. Rig elections to ensure you win, but don’t be too obvious about it and undermine your veneer of legitimacy. Allow some dissent to prevent a pressure-cooker scenario but not so much that it challenges your power.
This ever-shifting calculus is most evident in Russia’s domestic politics, where, as the title of the book suggests, Putin is powerful but his rule is not absolute. As in a lot of authoritarian countries, the Kremlin is responsive to public opinion because ruling with a thin veneer of legitimacy is easier than having none at all.
Frye cites work by the Russian researchers Andrei Yakovlev and Anton Kazun that found seven instances between 2017 and 2019 when the authorities backed down in the face of public discontent. In 2019, for example, the Russian investigative reporter Ivan Golunov was detained on drug charges widely thought to be politically motivated. His arrest sparked an outcry from public figures and other journalists—including, even, those working for state TV. Golunov was released within days in an unprecedented climbdown. Whatever the real reason was for his initial arrest, the Kremlin clearly reached the conclusion that it was not worth sparking wider unrest.
The autocratic balancing act has become more fraught the longer Putin remains in office. In recent years, his approval ratings have begun to slump, and the authorities have increasingly sought to stamp out potential threats to the regime—like the apparent decision to poison the opposition leader Alexey Navalny last year.
Navalny’s poisoning is just one dramatic case amid a renewed crackdown on civil society in Russia; Frye’s book, as a road map to autocracy, could not be more timely. On the topic of civil society, his comparative approach gives a gloomy preview of where Russia might be heading. Frye cites work by the scholar Christian Davenport detailing how, in authoritarian states, repression begets more repression, a spiral that makes it increasingly difficult for the regime to address the underlying causes of public unrest. With so much of the Western discourse on Russia trained on the president himself, and not the system in which he operates, there is a prevailing assumption that once Putin leaves office, all will be well. But Frye points to a study by Hein Goemans at the University of Rochester that looked at the fates of nondemocratic governments over a span of six decades. In only 16 percent of cases were autocrats followed by democratic governments. “Barring a dramatic change in the political system, whoever rules Russia will face many of the same policy trade-offs that have occupied the Putin administration for the last twenty years,” Frye writes.
It’s not all bleak though. Frye notes that Russia is wealthier and has a better educated population than the average autocracy. This plus relatively high degrees of urbanization, a homogenous population, and a younger generation more open and Western-looking than their elders could serve as building blocks for a more democratic style of government.
One of Frye’s motivations to write the book was to showcase the rich body of social science research conducted by Russian and international scholars, not much of which has percolated into the public consciousness. “As I’ve seen the quality of discussion about Russia become increasingly politicized and polarized, I really felt that it was important to get this work out there to try and lower the temperature a bit,” Frye told Foreign Policy in a recent interview.
Throughout the book, Frye gently debunks the idea often repeated by commentators that Russians support Putin because of an innate proclivity to strong leaders. By digging into polling data, Frye reveals that for all his swagger, Putin is judged by the outcomes of his policy decisions and that Russians have a far more nuanced view of their president than is often made out. The annexation of Crimea in 2014, for instance, sent his approval ratings up to 80 percent, a gain decimated by the 2018 decision to raise the retirement age.
Packed with research and interwoven with anecdotes from his own trips over the years—such as being targeted in a clumsy KGB honey trap in Soviet Uzbekistan, an approach that he refused—Frye’s is a timely and enjoyable read that cuts through a conversation crowded with hot takes to provide an evidence-based debunk of clichés about Putin and Russia.
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack