international analysis and commentary

The roots and the future of Putin’s political system


Russian President Vladimir Putin’s next six years in office – and whether or not he leaves the political scene in 2024 at the end of the next term – will rely on things that are out of his control: the price of oil, which largely determines the performance of the Russian economy, and the traditional structure of Russian politics, dubbed in recent years the “power vertical”. Putin’s central achievement as leader of Russia has been to build a personalist system of power consistent with centuries-old practice: his own position indispensable, cadres to handle actual policymaking and implementation, informal control and coordination of the elite, and the population held in check by patriotism and the feeling that things could always get worse.

While the price of oil is a complex but fairly well understood phenomenon at this point – since 2013 Saudi Arabia has allowed the market to set the price and try to drive unconventional producers in the United States out of business – the disconnect between formal political institutions and informal politics in Russia is the very basis by which power is obtained, practiced, and lost. This disconnect is what makes Russian leaders seem invincible to outside observers, but keeps them from making bold moves when dealing with their own political elites. It defines the domestic outlook for Russia.

The Iron Tsar vs. the Adjudicator-in-Chief

The ways that outsiders usually consider Russian politics is through two fairly familiar images. The first one is the aggressive bear, ready to attack its neighbors and menace the West generally. When Westerners think of Putin in this context, they see the Iron Tsar who can do anything by pointing a finger and making the subordinates scurry to commit violence against critics, interfere in a foreign election, or help individual citizens with their problems. This view, Russia as a bear and the leader as the mafia “don”, conceives of a country ready to do anything to get what it wants and a leader willing to do whatever it takes when there is a threat to himself or to his state.

This view of Russia is familiar, particularly to critics of Russia’s foreign policy. Yet there’s an alternative view on how power is practiced in Russia that emphasizes informality in governance amongst the leader, his top political and economic elites, and the bureaucracy. This is one that Russians themselves favor, not because it is any more positive, but because it places the emphasis on the political skill of the leader to conquer his rivals and explains how the cut-and-thrust of politics they know is happening behind the scenes and not in the places they should – like the legislature and the judiciary. In this conception, the leader isn’t dictating outcomes, or relying excessively on formal institutions, but is effectively an Adjudicator-in-Chief – a person whose power comes from informality, a sense that without this person all hell would break loose and it would be a civil war or an intra-elite fight of all against all. The Adjudicator-in-Chief is powerful and successful not when he has to intervene in squabbles, but when subordinates anticipate his decisions and suitably constrain their own decisions.

A key theorist of Russian political informality was Edward Keenan, who authored Muscovite Political Folkways, first published in 1986. Keenan argued that Soviet political culture was a mash-up of peasant, court, and bureaucratic cultures from the days of Muscovy that had survived the Bolshevik Revolution and been effectively restored by the time of Joseph Stalin. This argument implied that the structure of Russian politics could survive even the dramatic change of regime types, from monarchy to socialism. If Professor Keenan were alive today, he would very comfortably recognize Putin’s Russia as having the same political structure as Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, itself a recognizable but less coercive version of Stalin’s country.

Keenan made four major points to describe the structure of political power. First, the debates at the very top are unclear. Elites are responsible for maintaining a unified corporate identity, and the severest sanctions go to those who disclose inside information or strive too strenuously for a specific outcome. Second, it is paramount that the leader and members of his top elite maintain a closed system and stability of cadres. Third, power at the top is anarchic, but the bureaucracy is highly hierarchical. In other words, the subordinates don’t know the policy debates – only the results.

Finally, power in Russia is practiced by a single leader, but power is contested amongst a series of battling hierarchies. The leader is first among equals, he can resolve disputes and set the agenda, but can’t go too far ahead of main constituencies – otherwise he’s no longer adjudicating fairly. Altogether, the most successful Russian leaders are the ones who can “keep the rubbish in the hut” and adjudicate disputes between elites fairly.

Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting with representatives of Russian business circles and associations


This combination of factors helps explain the two sides of Russia that don’t seem to match up: the security state represented by the aggressive bear where the leader is decisive, and the domestic state, where the president is hemmed in the possibility that he can be brought down anytime by a coalition of opponents who don’t think he’s treating them fairly.

The uncertain future

That is the trade-off that Vladimir Putin will have to solve in his fourth mandate and which will shape all domestic policies, regardless of the actual policy domain. He can engage in new wars or expand the existing ones to increase patriotism and the “rally around the flag” effect, but that runs the very obvious risks of wider war and increased casualties. Domestically he has fewer resources to engage in populism, so any increase of government spending has to go to core members of his political coalition and leave somebody out, independent of any inflationary risks. And most important of all, and this has already started, he has a new question over whether he will leave office in 2024 or turn to alternative scenarios for staying in office. These include violating the Constitution openly, changing the Constitution to remove the term limits imposed upon incumbents, changing the formal basis of government from a presidential to a parliamentary federation to become an indefinitely serving prime minister, or creating a new state with himself as the head of a governing council.

Without enough money to make everybody happy on the back of declining oil prices, the sanctions regime, and the business risk resulting from Russia’s geopolitical course, Putin has found himself in a very difficult but familiar position when it comes to balancing the question of guns versus butter. If he spends too much energy and money on the demands of the security state and an aggressive stance abroad, the economy will suffer, regular people will become dissatisfied, and the elites outside of the military and security services will begin to wonder how long the situation is sustainable. Spend too much energy and money on the economy, and the same security elites will resent being ignored and will begin to wonder whether the leader is sufficiently interested in preventing geopolitical reverse.

For every day after the election, Putin will need to make sure that the political and economic elites, all the people who are individually far weaker than him but collectively able to bring his tenure to an end, are satisfied that he will continue to be the person who will adjudicate their problems and keep the present looking like the past. But he also needs to be person who inspires the people at large that he is also the only person who can solve society’s problems and make the future look even better than the present. It’s a difficult balance because the elite and the people are pulling the president in two different directions.

Putin has pulled it off before, but in more favorable circumstances. After the first two terms from 2000 through 2008, the Russian Constitution limited incumbents to only two consecutive terms. At the height of his popularity following several years of economic growth fueled by high oil prices, Putin had to violate the Constitution or leave office. He selected the latter, but didn’t go far; he switched jobs with his prime minister. The formal rules were followed, but the informal rules were followed as well by signaling that Putin was still the effective boss through what he and Dimitrij Medvedev called “the tandemocracy.” When Medvedev’s term was coming to a close, it became clear that only one person chooses the president in Russia and that the elections are an exercise without an effect. Massive street protests took the sheen off Putin’s victory and after returning to power he recognized the muted public enthusiasm.

The new-old president engaged in a classic populist measure: numerous generous promises to core groups in his political coalition. However, these significant social spending demands (such as raising public sector wages by 50%) were placed upon the regions without corresponding federal funding – an especially egregious case of unfunded mandates. These were difficult to fulfill in any context and became harder after the serious economic downturn starting in 2013 due to a crash in oil prices and external sanctions. The result has been a burgeoning debt crisis across Russia’s regions that threaten a true financial implosion of the country. A repetition appears unlikely.

Any one of Putin’s policies are sustainable through a combination of common people accepting lower consumption, the security forces using coercion to inhibit collective action against the state, the majority of the society believing that without Putin the elite will return to the intra-class warfare of the 1990s, no systemic or non-systemic opposition holding the president accountable, or the elite fearing the post-Putin future. Yet the combination is that without a new influx of oil money to appear like manna from heaven, the future in Russia looks grim.