Is Putin a Weak Strongman?

22 years ago, tonight, Vladimir Putin ambled in history and became President of Russia after Boris Yeltsin retired. Since then, many have spent countless years scrutinizing his every moves. In a sense, the new master of the game largely contributed to Kremlinology’s survival as a discipline. And the prospect of him seeking another term in two years means that Putinology still has bright days ahead. His exercise of power remains one of the most fascinating questions to any student of Russian politics. An exercise certainly enriched by the capacity to be detached from an emotional determination of attributing negative motives to every one of his gestures,

I just finished reading a most excellent book about the Russian President, Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia by renowned Columbia University Professor Timothy Frye. In a documented, clear, and eloquent style, the main conclusion of the author is that Vladimir Putin’s main political quality is his ability to navigate the stormy seas of Russian politics.

In that regard, “[…] the two groups most threatening to the régime [are the] elites and the mass public.” The master of the Kremlin’s operation mode must therefore constantly look after and satisfy the interests of these two constituencies and the author refers on several occasions to the notion of “trade-off”. Said otherwise, “[…] he must balance these two competing threats.”

One could then be tempted to opine that, confronted with any potential risk to his power, the personalist autocrat can always rely on the security services– a.k.a.”the big guns” or the Siloviki – notably for repression purposes. But the author reminds us that “any security agency that is powerful enough to put down a popular revolt is also powerful enough to overthrow a leader.” The example given by Timothy Frye about the way the Stasi tossed aside East Germany’s Erich Honecker in 1989 is quite evocative in that regard. Closer to Moscow, the academic writes that the murder of opponent Boris Nemtsov in 2015 was not an order given by the President, but a message addressed by the security services asking the boss to take a tougher line against the opposition. Luckily for the head of state, “the competition between agencies helps to prevent the emergence of a single rival to Putin.” Divide et vince.

The whole rationale of the book is to show that the conception of an omnipotent, unrivalled, and almost godlike figure ruling Russia with a strong fist is detached from reality. Vladimir Putin is far from having his hands free. Like any statesman – autocrat or democrat – he needs to manage the limits of his power. In a sense, I guess that’s what Timothy Frye means when he refers to a “weak strongman” in the title of the book. He could also have written “Not as strong as you think”, but that would not have been a very catchy title.

Surviving for 22 years at the top of a mortal combat political ecosystem like Russia is an exceptional and historic accomplishment. Since there are no “soft landing pad” for a leader evolving in such an environment, you can bet your nicest shirt that the Russian President will run again in 2024. He must therefore ensure his political longevity. To that end, the author stresses that public approval and the loyalty of the Siloviki are the two pillars of his good fortune. His policies and agenda of ensuring Russia’s place as a great power in the world should therefore be analyzed in that regard, rather than simplistically pretending that he’s just a nostalgic of the Cold War.

Timothy Frye – who doesn’t give me any reason to think that he’s an apologist of the Russian President – also pours cold water on the head of those who think Putin is the problem. First, the Russian President is the product of a historical framework larger than himself. Based on his long experience with Russia and using the works of several other political scientists, the author makes a solid case that “[…] Russian politics are not simply an extension of Putin’s worldview.” Second, Putin’s departure from the arena will disappoint those who think that he is the source of the rivalry with the West. There are wider general forces at play here and Putin’s person is not an exclusive manifestation of it. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. The next resident of the Kremlin might be even more radical than the one who will be wishing his people Happy New Year from the Red Square this evening.

While taking upon himself to present the wider currents in which the Putin presidency is navigating, the academic also contributes to a better understanding of the Russian president’s persona. Knowing that Vladimir Putin is close to the Jewish people and adopts a pro-Israel posture, I was interested to read that he “[…] donated a month of his presidential salary to kick-start the campaign to build a new synagogue in Moscow.”

At the end of Weak Strongman, Timothy Frye subtly evokes the poor quality of most scholarly writings. I’m certain that many books produced by academics do not attract the audiences they could or should, mainly because poring through them is tedious at best and you are left with the impression that the author didn’t write for a wider audience. This author certainly doesn’t suffer from that and I’m truly impatient to read other works from him. He brilliantly contributes to a nuanced understanding of one of the most consequential leaders gravitating among the world powers.

I’m extremely happy this amazing book is the object of my final review of the year. This is great political science work.

Happy New Year everyone! С Новым годом!

_____

Timothy Frye, Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2021, 288 pages.

I would like to express all my gratitude to Kate Hensley of Princeton University Press for going the whole nine yard in permitting me to obtain a review copy of this book, despite the difficulties encountered with delivery couriers during this pandemic phase of our lives.

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