Is the unfurling drama in Ukraine hiding a potentially bigger crisis in Russia? The question is not fanciful. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has entered uncharted waters as potentially deadly storms gather on the horizon.
Putin’s stewardship of Russian affairs can be studied in three phases. In the first, he tried, and partly succeeded, in preventing the systemic collapse that had started under Boris Yeltsin’s erratic leadership. The state bureaucracy was revived and the armed forces and security services re-tooled and re-tasked. Post-Soviet Russia was given the minimum of administrative and law-enforcement powers needed to remain afloat.
In the second phase, Putin curbed the system of capitalism ruled by a law of the jungle that had produced a nouveau-riche elite often operating as a state within the state. He jailed some oligarchs and forced a few others into exile. However, his core strategy was to link the oligarchs to the Kremlin, thus putting himself in the driving seat of that crony capitalism. On the positive side, he succeeded in imposing some limits to the plunder of resources for illicit profit.
In the third phase, Putin concentrated as much power as he could in his hands. He believed Russia needed an autocrat and that he should assume that task. Having cast himself in the role of savior-autocrat, Putin needed to promote a cult of personality unknown to Russians since Joseph Stalin. To be sure, Putin is no Stalin and could never be, if only because the world has changed. However, his personality cult, projected in a thousand different ways, has downgraded the existing institutions of the state and the development of new institutions needed to modernize Russia.
When lucky, the autocrat could do more and faster, if not better, than a leader in a system based on the interaction of institutions. Putin could simply tear off the accord that the then-secretary of the Security Council, Gen. Alexander Lebed, concluded with the Chechens and switch to a strategy of total war without consulting anyone. In a more mundane mode, he could order the arrest of multi-billionaire oligarchs on real or imagined charges unencumbered by the intricacies of a legal system. In 2008, he could order the invasion of Georgia and the annexation of 25 percent of its territory without even a debate in the Cabinet.
In the same vein, Putin has produced and assumed charge of the crisis in Ukraine without revealing his hand even to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev or Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
It is harder to read Russia today than during the Tsarist or Soviet empires. The Tsar’s title was “Autocrat of All Russias.” However, in practice, he could project power within a system of formal and informal institutions representing diverse interests. Related to other European dynasties, the Tsar had to take into account the prevalent mood of the monarchic elite. He also had to listen to a vast, rich and locally powerful aristocracy that provided the backbone of support for monarchy. Starting from the late 18th century, the Tsar also had to take into account a relatively well-educated, experienced and powerful administrative and bureaucratic elite. Under the Tsars, even a non-entity such as Chichikov, the hero of Nikolai Gogol’s comic novel Dead Souls, was somebody simply because he had secured a side chair at the bureaucratic table. After Peter the Great, the absolutism of Russian Tsars was rather relative.
For its part, the Soviet Union, its totalitarian ideology notwithstanding, was not a monolith. Nikita Khrushchev was right to denounce Stalin’s “personality cult” and its horrible crimes at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956. However, the period of Stalinist one-man rule from 1932 to the dictator’s death in 1953 was an exception. Under Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924, the Communist Party played a real role in shaping policy in the context of collective leadership. It took Stalin a decade to sideline collective leadership and impose autocratic rule.
After Stalin, the rapid downfall of Georgy Malenkov, the autocrat’s hand-picked heir, signaled a return to collective leadership. Over the years, Khrushchev and then Leonid Brezhnev acted as “the boss.” But neither could play the lone ranger as Putin does today. They had to take into account the views of the Politburo, where different factions representing different interests and sensibilities sought a role in decision-making. There was also the broader Central Committee which, far from being a rubber-stamp crew, provided an arena for intra-party power struggles. The views of the party at large, as well as those of “fraternal” Communist parties, especially big ones such as those of France, Italy and China, were also taken into account.
Needless to say, the security apparatus led by the KGB and the military elite also brought their wheat to the decision-making mill. Even some non-Communist personalities, especially from the West, were listened to, along with many fellow travelers and useful idiots who helped propagate sympathy for the Soviet regime.
Covering Soviet politics closely for years, one realized that the USSR acted as a conservative, status quo-oriented power rather than a disruptive bull in a china shop motivated by opportunism. With the exception of its invasion of Afghanistan, later acknowledged by former Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko as a “bad mistake,” the USSR did not take military action outside the sphere of influence that the US had accorded it in the Yalta and Potsdam deals. In that spirit, under pressure from the administration of Harry S. Truman in Washington in 1946, Moscow abandoned its ambition to annex Iran’s northwestern provinces. For the same reason, Moscow also dropped plans to extend Soviet influence to Greece.
During the Soviet era, Moscow was almost always predictable. At least, it never pulled a surprise rabbit out of the hat. There were hawks and doves in the Kremlin, and their interaction shaped Soviet policies.
Russia is unpredictable under Putin, its decision-making process covered by a thick fog. Putin could do anything as long as he does not hit something hard on his way. But he could also apply the brakes or even reverse course, making it impossible for friend and foe to be sure of what he might do next. Today, that is the problem.