Cohesion and disintegration in Putin’s Russia: Part one – sources of legitimacy 

Brian M Downing

To most people in the West, Vladimir Putin is a brutal dictator. He’s concentrated power in his person and amassed a huge fortune from expropriated national wealth. He’s invaded and annexed the Crimea and is attempting the same in the eastern Ukraine. He’s systematically bombed civilian targets in Syria, including hospitals, and condoned Assad’s use of chemical weapons. 

Putin has also ordered the killings of political opponents, journalists, and mid-level defectors. In addition to being a brutal dictator, he might also be a deranged one.

In Russia, western institutions have no great attraction. They were tried in the 90s and brought only weakness and vulnerability. Russians looked to their past. Independent survey research indicates Putin has an 80% approval rating, making his recent election by 75% of the votes plausible. The showing stems from state control of much of the media but also from Putin’s resonance with venerable themes in Russia’s political culture.

Defender of the homeland

Russia and the Soviet Union have suffered devastating invasions – the Mongols in the 13th century, the Poles in the 17th, France in the 19th, and most recently the Third Reich in the 20th. Estimates vary widely but Soviet deaths in World War Two are probably well over 20 million. The Great Patriotic War, as it’s called, melded the experiences of living family members with traditional lore of foreign threats, forming a powerful cultural reservoir that could be tapped by leaders, honestly or not.

The collapse of the USSR in 1991 led to the loss of buffer states in Eastern Europe (nominal allies in the Warsaw Pact), the breakdown of the nation’s military, and political disarray. Russia was again vulnerable to foreign powers. Indeed, a narrative quickly emerged that blamed Russia’s sorrowful condition on foreign intrigue aimed at weakening the nation and depriving it of a rightful place in the world. (Eastern Europe’s hostility after decades of Soviet occupation barely registers inside Russia.)

Putin became the nation’s leader in 2000 and set to work reestablishing national power. He rebuilt the military, or at least conspicuous parts of it, and used it as an image of restored national greatness. More than symbolic, elite Russian units invaded the Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Further, he’s used his military to harass American and other NATO forces along the Russian periphery and strengthened his position in the Middle East. Russia is once again respected and feared. The Russian people enjoy the power prestige their nation had after defeating the Third Reich. 

Restorer of prosperity
Along with communism’s fall came the collapse of the centrally-planned economy. Russian GDP had been in decline beforehand, but the slope sharpened and the economy fell 37% between 1991 and 1998, before beginning to recover late in Yeltsin’s rule. 

Growth continued under Putin and his lieutenant Dmitri Medvedev, reaching 1991 levels in 2006 and more than doubling from nadir by 2015. There are several causes: political and financial order, foreign investment, and most importantly rising oil prices. Putin reasserted control of key industries, especially oil and mining sectors, which had been sold off to private investors in rigged auctions. (See Marshall Goldman, Petrostate: Putin, Power, and the New Russia. Oxford, 2010.) 

By expropriating the expropriators, Putin was able to present himself as the good tsar, protecting the people from conniving aristocrats aligned with foreign powers. He has shown more of a common touch, albeit in staged events, than any communist or Romanov predecessor.

Senses of well-being are up, as is life expectancy which had been in startling decline in previous decades. Putin burnishes his image with displays of virility on horseback and motorcycle and with ceremonial shows of respect to the Orthodox Church which confer an aura of national continuity and sacred mission. (The Church has historically supported powerful rulers and feared the West.)

Putin presents himself as the incarnation of a great Russian vozhd – the powerful and often harsh leader of the Russian nation who protects it from internal and foreign dangers. He sees himself as a rightful successor to Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Josef Stalin.

Along the path of military and economic recovery, Putin has formed vulnerabilities. He’s choked off private enterprise, weakened what little rule of law there was, and made himself and his new aristocracy very wealthy. This has not yet tarnished his image but it took many years for the Romanovs to lose their throne.

Next: Part two – sources of weakness 

Copyright 2018 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.