To secure his power at home, Russia's President is testing its limits abroad. Sooner or later the west will have to stop himby Chrystia Freeland / December 11, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
What does Vladimir Putin want? Russia’s President’s annexation of Crimea in the spring, and continued aggression since then, have made this one of the world’s most urgent questions. We need to understand what he wants if we are to figure out how much of a threat he poses and how to contain him. So far, most efforts to answer this puzzle have taken their cue from the 19th century, seeking to explain Putin either as a player of Metternich-style realpolitik, or else as a Greater Russian nationalist. Both versions miss what is new about Putin and the political problems he is trying to solve.
In analyses of what Russia will do next, there is a lot of discussion of the strategic interests of the Russian state. But to frame the question in that way is fundamentally to misunderstand political power in Putin’s Russia. Putin is the ruler of an authoritarian regime, but he has no revolutionary party or ideology to secure his hold on power—for this KGB apparatchik, it really is the case that l’état, c’est moi.
Putin poses a novel challenge to the world order because his political objective is new, too. His goal, since he first entered the Kremlin in 2000, has been to work out how to be an authoritarian ruler in a middle-income country and in a post-Cold War world in which the technology revolution has wired the global middle class. This is a project he shares with the world’s other authoritarian and would-be authoritarian rulers, which is one reason countering Putin is so important.
Looking at Putin through the lens of personal power is unfamiliar partly because so many foreign policy analysts prefer the abstractions of geopolitical chess to the messy, complexities of domestic politics. Nor does the Kremlin encourage us to understand its actions abroad as an exercise in shoring up its authoritarian regime at home—Moscow’s preferred explanation for its aggression is a reanimated Russian nationalism, whose emotional punch helps to compensate for its internal contradictions. (For instance, we are told that Russia should control Ukraine because there is no difference between Russians and Ukrainians, and also that Russia should control Ukraine because Ukrainians are fascists with a genetic animosity towards Russians). But viewing Putin as a neo-authoritarian ruler whose principal goal is staying in power is the best way to understand his seemingly erratic course over the past 14 years, and the necessarily improvised nature of the path he is charting now.