Russia (from Democracy Paradox)

An Introduction to Russia

Over the next two weeks the Democracy Paradox will explore the politics of Russia. A lot of conversations focus on Russia’s foreign policy. But like most countries, Russia’s domestic politics influences its relations with the world. As Kathryn Stoner succinctly puts it, “The regime still fears the potential instability that comes from the Russian street more than it fears NATO.” 

Surprisingly, Russia places a significant premium on public opinion. Timothy Frye notes Vladimir Putin and his regime conduct extensive polling and have allowed independent polling institutions to exist as a fail safe to confirm their own data. Consequently, the Russian state finds public opinion constrains its options no less than a liberal democracy. Nonetheless, opinion surveys are no replacement for genuine elections. And Russia is no democracy. 

Russian politics involves a negotiation between the support of the public and the interests of its elites. Timothy Frye argues that as the arbiter of this negotiation, Vladimir Putin “is a strongman, but a weak one.” At the same time, this does mean Russia is a weak or inconsequential state. Perhaps Putin himself put it best when he said, “Russia was never so strong as it wants to be, and never so weak as it is thought to be.”

The Economy of Russia

The Soviet economy collapsed in the early nineties as its political system withered away. During this time Russia struggled to make the transition from a centrally planned economy into a market based economy. The problem was not simply the intensity of the reforms or the approach taken. Kathryn Stoner puts it quite bluntly when she writes, “It was the communist system itself.” Russia had no banking system and almost no private ownership. It faced declining agricultural output, poor industrial quality, and widespread corruption. The transition to a market economy was not easy and in ways remains incomplete. The challenges culminated in a financial crisis in 1998 where the central bank devalued the ruble and defaulted on the public debt. 

The Russian economy recovered over the next ten years. The devalued ruble made Russian products more competitive on the international market. At the same time a commodities boom benefited an economy dependent on oil and natural gas. Russian incomes saw a dramatic increase from just $6,000 in 1999 to $26,000 in 2014 by GDP per capita at purchasing power parity. During this period the Russian economy’s growth was among the fastest in the world, but the decline in commodity prices beginning in 2013 brought about a reversal. Still, the economy did not decline as much as expected and has returned to a “low-growth equilibrium.”

The Politics of Russia

Timothy Frye describes Russia as a personalist autocracy. He distinguishes it from other nondemocratic forms of government such as a single party state like China or a military government like Pinochet’s Chile. A personalist autocracy centralizes authority into a single autocrat. Putin acts as an intermediary between elite interests and the demands of the public. Some mistakenly believe autocracy shields an autocrat from popular opinion. However, Putin like many autocrats uses public support as a resource to protect his rule against rebellion. 

Putin’s approval ratings have hovered between 60% and 80%. Shortly after the invasion of Crimea his public approval went northward of 80% and remained there for quite some time despite the introduction of economic sanctions from the United States. But it’s important to distinguish between the approval of the Russian government from Putin himself. Putin’s strength comes from the wide disparity of his own approval from other elites in his government. It clears the field of any potential rivals that could challenge his hold on power. Moreover, Putin has strong incentives to remain in power. As Timothy Frye warns, “After losing power, leaders in military regimes can retreat to the barracks and heads of one-party dictatorships can retire to a post in the party, but personalist autocrats have no soft landing pad. They enjoy their wealth and influence only if they hold office. “

The Foreign Policy of Russia

“Russia, after twenty years under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, was anything but conventional in its approach to foreign policy,” writes Kathryn Stoner. Its approach has placed a premium on rewards, while it downplays potential risks. The annexation of Crimea brought Putin tangible benefits through widespread public support. But it also turned Russia into a pariah internationally. The United States along with other Western countries imposed significant economic sanctions afterwards. 

Nonetheless, Russia has continued to expand its sphere of influence in recent years. The Syrian Civil War opened a window into the Middle East when Bashar al Assad invited them as an ally to combat ISIS (and defend his regime against rebels). Beyond military involvement, Russia has established economic partnerships with a diverse range of countries including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel. It is now even included in OPEC+ where it has some influence on global oil prices. 

Moreover, Russia has actively used what Christopher Walker describes as sharp power to influence politics in other countries. The most well-known example was the interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Walker describes it as sharp, “because it seeks to ‘pierce, penetrate, or perforate’ the political and information environments of targeted countries.” It is different from hard power, because it merely suggests behavior rather than forcing it. But it is not soft power, because it relies on misinformation and deception. Russian media outlets like RT and Sputnik have a visible presence with English language broadcasts designed to appeal to an American audience. But sharp power is more than propaganda. Its presence on social media often obscures its true identity as it works to deceive and manipulate its audience. 

Final Thoughts

Over the past twenty years Russia has transformed from an afterthought into a significant threat to American interests. But why has Russia pursued a foreign policy antithetical to American interests? Was this inevitable? Kathryn Stoner believes Russia’s political system determines its approach to global politics. She writes, “Where elections matter little, the ability to remain in office must come from elsewhere. This is why regime type matters to the projection of Russian power abroad. A patronal autocracy makes very different choices as to what serves the 'national' interest than would a more open and accountable political system.” She believes a more democratic system would behave differently in international affairs. But Timothy Frye warns, “A Russia without Putin as president may disappoint those seeking a more open and friendly Russia.” Russia is more than Putin, but it’s unclear whether its next regime will become any more democratic than its current one. 

The Democracy Paradox will explore the politics of Russia over the next two weeks. Look for the interview with Kathryn Stoner on August 31st followed by a conversation with Timothy Frye on September 7th. 

Further Reading

Kathryn Stoner (2021) Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order

Timothy Frye (2021) Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia

M. Steven Fish (2017) "The Kremlin Emboldened: What is Putinism?Journal of Democracy

Timothy Frye (2021) "Russia's Weak Strongman: The Perilous Bargains That Keep Putin in Power," Foreign Affairs

Timothy Frye, Scott Gehlbach, Kyle L. Marquardt and Ora John Reuter (2016) "Is Putin's Popularity Real?Post-Soviet Affairs

Masha Gessen (2017) The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

Susan Glasser (2019) "Putin the Great: Russia's Imperial Impostor," Foreign Affairs

Péter Krekó (2021) "How Authoritarians Inflate Their Image," Journal of Democracy

Christopher Walker (2018) "What is Sharp Power?Journal of Democracy

Joshua Yafa (2020) Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin's Russia

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Timothy Frye Says Putin is a Weak Strongman

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