In recent years, international politics have been dominated by strongman figures like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Political grievances have been at the heart of their appeal and policies. Putin and Xi bear historical grudges against the West and its domination of the world order. While Trump and Johnson sought support from people who have been left behind by globalisation, and feel disenfranchised by cosmopolitan elites.
Thus, some analysts argue that we have entered a new era, that of the strongman. Indeed, journalist Gideon Rachman argues that it was the arrival of Vladimir Putin to the leadership of Russia at the beginning of the new millennium that heralded this new era. The strongman phenomenon gradually gathered momentum. Putin was followed by Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan in 2003, China’s Xi Jinping in 2012, and India’s Narendra Modi in 2014.
Many thought that strongmen were alien to the West, but then there was Boris Johnson’s championing of Brexit, and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election in 2016. This was followed by the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud in 2017, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 and several others.
But how strong are these strongmen?
Is Vladimir Putin a weak strongman?
While strongmen leaders seem all powerful, this is not so in the case of Vladimir Putin and perhaps others, according to Columbia University’s Timothy Frye. He challenges some of the conventional wisdom about Putin’s Russia, and considers Putin a “weak strongman”.
Frye argues that there are two standard narratives concerning Putin’s Russia. First is that Russia is all about Putin and his seeming omnipotence and worldview. He is an ex-KGB man, who practises judo, had a rough upbringing in a poor family, and his grandfather worked as a cook for both Lenin and Stalin.
According to another narrative, Russia is not really about Putin. We need to think of Russian history, a thousand years of autocracy, and the deep influence of the Soviet experience. The post-Soviet person would have a unique mentality, be passive before authority, cunning, sceptical about politics and not really interested in participating, and is alright with having a strong hand ruling the country.
Frye argues that these approaches are problematic as they overlook the important role of society in buttressing and challenging Putin’s administration. Indeed, they overlook the vast changes in Russia’s highly educated society in recent decades, and the evidence suggesting Russians are just as interested in politics as Westerners.
Too many analyses of Russia are simplified, mythologised, and politicised. In fact, Russia’s politics and economy follow familiar patterns of other autocracies. The uniqueness of the Russian experience can be exaggerated. In other words, despite its historical and cultural specificities, Russia is fundamentally a normal country, and the Russian people want it to be so.
Putin’s constrained politics
The reality is, writes Frye, that Putin is not all powerful. Like all “personalist autocrats”, his policies must mitigate both the threat of a coup by elites and protests from the masses. This is a tricky balancing act, like many of his governance challenges in what is an “electoral autocracy”.
In this context, Frye argues that Putin faces a whole lot of constraints. For example, the Kremlin often manipulates elections, but this creates a tricky problem. If it manipulates them too much, then it signals weakness, but if it doesn’t manipulate them enough there is a possibility of losing the elections. Similarly, it manipulates state television, but it also needs to get people to keep watching, so it can’t manipulate it too much. It uses anti-Westernism to rally the base, but not so much that it actually causes a conflict. It needs to repress political opponents, but not so much that it sparks a backlash.
In short, Putin’s policies are really a tradeoff between the different pressures that he faces both from within his inner circle and from the mass public – in much the same way as other autocrats. The economy is the perfect example of these tradeoffs. In many sectors, the elite is able to use their privileged access to power in order to grow very wealthy. But the risk is that slow growth could also lead the populists to go to the streets and withdraw their support for the government.
The tools of repression are also wielded in a subtler way such as through “autocratic legalism” to give an impression of good governance. For example, opposition figure Alexei Navalny has been jailed ostensibly for violating parole, not for his political activities. And propaganda is now often done to demonstrate to domestic audiences that other countries’ problems are at least as bad as the problems within Russia – rather than to argue that Russia is an ideal world.
Putin’s journey as Russia’s leader has evolved over his two decades in power. He restored stability in the 2000s and got lucky when high oil prices enabled him to keep everyone happy and consolidate power. His bloodless annexation of Crimea in 2014 boosted his popularity. But Putin has since struggled to maintain his legitimacy in light of a decade of a weak economy, endemic corruption, a botched response to COVID-19, and “Putin fatigue”. Putin has thus had to rely more heavily on repression by the security services, who have influenced his thinking on Ukraine.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine
Frye regards Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an event of surprises, for experts like him and the Russian people. Putin was also surprised by Ukrainians’ resistance and also the unified Western reaction. Frye believes that the decision to invade Ukraine was taken by Putin alone in consultation with just a few people on his security council. The decision would have been taken in response to domestic politics in Russia, and not because of the West’s actions.
Frye writes that while Putin may genuinely believe that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people, this is not a view held by most Russians and certainly not by Ukrainians. Indeed, there was very little domestic support for Russia’s intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014. In short, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was based on a giant misreading of the situation by Putin.
In sum, Russia’s invasion is perhaps best seen as an act of a weak strongman. Over the past decade, Putin has not been able to deliver economic growth and good governance. His popularity has been declining, and he needed something to shore up his popularity with both the elites and the masses.
Will Putin survive?
There has been much speculation about whether Putin can survive his botched invasion of Ukraine. As Frye has argued more recently, keeping both Russia’s elites and its masses happy has become a much more difficult task. The Russian people are happy for their country to be a respected great power, but not at the cost of thousands of lives lost or a lower standard of living. Thus, there must be many plotting to dispose of Putin. But Putin has a very tight control of the security state, and any plotters must be worried about the consequences of a failed coup attempt.
And although Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has gone badly, the war is far from finished, and it is still possible that he will be able to declare a victory of sorts, and survive for another day. Indeed, Putin has recently signed legislation that gives him the right to run for two more consecutive terms, meaning he could remain in power until 2036, by which time he would be 84 years old!
John West is author of the recent book, “Asian Century … on a Knife-edge,” and executive director of the Asian Century Institute. He is also adjunct professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University and contributing editor at FDI-Intelligence, a Financial Times magazine. These positions follow a long career in international economics and relations, with major stints at the Australian Treasury where he was director of balance of payments, OECD (head of public affairs and director OECD Forum) and Asian Development Bank Institute (senior consultant for capacity building and training).