10.10.22 Expertise

The Reverse Evolution of a Spin Dictatorship

Putin Goes to War

Daniel Treisman
Professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles
Daniel Treisman

In their book "Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century", published six months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Daniel Treisman and Sergei Guriev develop the concept of "spin dictatorship," which they claim has replaced the classical 20th century dictatorship based on fear and repression.

Putin's regime of the 2000s and early 2010s has been both a trigger and a key example for this theory. But the regime's sharp turn toward greater repressions in mid 2010–2020s culminating with the war in Ukraine raised the question of the prerequisites for that change.

In an article written specifically for Re: Russia, Daniel Treisman argues that this reverse evolution was caused not by the conservatism and imperial ambitions of the Russian population, as is commonly believed, but rather by the ongoing process of social modernisation, which Putin's spin dictatorship could no longer control.

Vladimir Putin’s political regime has been evolving since 2000. He inherited a flawed democracy, with a tycoon-dominated media, messy elections, and a demoralized and polarized public. His first 12 years in power — including the four years of Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency — were spent gradually transforming this into a spin dictatorship.

Spin dictatorships, unlike the more familiar violently repressive ones, work by manipulation rather than terror. Examples are Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew and Hungary under Viktor Orbán. In such systems, the regime does not kill or imprison thousands of its political opponents. Instead, it controls the mass media, while permitting critics to publish in small-audience outlets. It holds elections, but covertly manages them to ensure victory. The political opposition is harassed and marginalized — but not banned. The leader projects an image of competence and public service, and seeks to secure high approval, while avoiding violent rhetoric or visible repression that could undercut the image. Internationally, spin dictators exploit corruption in the West and in international institutions to coopt allies and accumulate leverage.

Putin’s team did this extremely well. From late 1999, his ratings stayed above 60 percent for more than 20 years. He became so genuinely popular that he did not need to rig elections, although the ones he held were far from clean. State TV presented a version of the world that was entertaining and appealing to most viewers, flattering their national pride. Putin cultivated friends among Western elites, while his diplomats and spies built extensive networks abroad. Russia got to stage the 2006 G8 summit and the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Yet, over time, Putin lost faith in the professionals who had helped construct this sophisticated autocracy. Economic liberals who understood how markets worked — from Andrei Illarionov to Aleksei Kudrin — helped manage Russia’s recovery and oil-fueled boom in the 2000s. Putin, while accepting their calls for fiscal caution, apparently got tired of listening to their lectures about the need to respect property rights and rein in silovik raiders. They lost credibility when, after Khodorkosvky’s arrest and the nationalization of his company, markets soared. Over the following three years, Russian stocks tripled in value and foreign direct investment inflows quadrupled.

The political operatives who managed parliament and elections — men like Gleb Pavlovsky and Vladislav Surkov — also lost Putin’s trust when they appeared too loyal to Medvedev and when they failed to predict and preempt the mass protests of 2011-12. As Putin started tightening screws from 2012, they were pushed to the sidelines, replaced by even more cynical technicians such as Sergei Kirienko. After more protests broke out in 2017, Putin turned increasingly to the security services and police. In the last four years before the Ukraine invasion, the Kremlin was already dismantling Russia’s spin dictatorship in favor of fear.

Why did Putin lose faith in the sophisticated methods that had worked so well for so long? In part, controlling society was simply becoming more difficult. Coming back to the Kremlin in 2012, Putin had sought to freeze modernization. But society refused to stay frozen. In 2012, 76 percent of school leavers went on to college. By 2019, the rate had risen to 86 percent. Even as controls over the Internet tightened, more and more Russians were going online. In the ten years to 2022, the share doing so daily grew from 40 to 74 percent. By late 2021, 75 percent were using YouTube.

That made it harder to monopolize the news space. By 2021, only 42 percent of respondents said their main source of information about domestic events was television. Forty-five percent said it was the Internet—whether via social networks, blogs, messenger channels, or news sites. Record numbers were tuning into anti-government sites and blogs such as Aleksei Navalny’s YouTube channel, which had 6.4 million viewers in early 2022.

Meanwhile, Levada Center polls suggested that liberal values were spreading. Asked which rights and freedoms they considered most important, more and more Russians pointed to freedom of speech (61 percent in 2021, up from 34 percent in 2017), the right to receive information (39 percent, up from 25), and freedom to hold peaceful demonstrations (26 percent, up from 13). Even hostility towards the West — which had spiked with the conflict over Crimea in 2014 — was subsiding. Before the Ukraine invasion, positive feelings towards the US and Europe had been trending up for seven years, outpacing negative attitudes by late 2021.

Controlling a modern society through manipulation is hard. Still, the leaders of Singapore have managed. One response might have been to become even more sophisticated. Yet, Putin chose the opposite approach. Political control became cruder and more openly repressive. 

This fit with the already noted evolution of personnel within the Kremlin. As economic professionals and political operatives were marginalised, Putin was increasingly surrounded by the third key faction within his regime — siloviki. While this resulted from Putin’s choices, it also may have locked him in psychologically. He heard daily from supporters of a tougher line against political opposition, and much more rarely from those who had doubts — or, at least, felt brave enough to air them. The security service leaders, not surprisingly, considered the only effective methods to be those in which the siloviki specialised. Soft measures might work against misguided local agitators — but not against the determined subversion of foreign agents. And Putin’s close aides Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov reportedly convinced their boss that demonstrations in Moscow in 2019 had actually been organised from abroad. Policing protests became more forceful.

Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was probably not driven by domestic considerations. Had he merely hoped to boost his ratings, he could have accomplished this at far less risk by just annexing the DNR and LNR in the boundaries then controlled by pro-Russian forces. The Russian public was ready to rally behind “victories,” but support for an actual war seemed thin in 2021. Although the war has since served as justification for more domestic repression, it was not essential for this. Repression had been trending up for at least four years before the invasion.

More likely, Putin’s tougher approach at home created an environment in which plans for military adventures abroad could emerge more freely. Such ideas were inadequately vetted, allowing Putin’s grandiose historical projects to develop without too much contact with reality.

Aggression abroad is not typical of spin dictators. In fact, such autocrats start wars or military conflicts less often than fear dictators. Malaysia’s leaders have not invaded Singapore, and Hungary’s Orbán, although often complaining about historical injustices, has not sent troops to reclaim once Hungarian territories. But Putin has nuclear weapons, as he likes to remind others. His appetite for risky military gambles has grown as — from Georgia to Crimea and Syria — successive uses of force have seemed to pay off.

The period of intense confrontation with the West in late 2021 and the weeks following Russia’s actual invasion in 2022 saw Russia’s domestic regime evolve rapidly from an increasingly fear-based hybrid towards the classic model of rule through repression. The last vestiges of an independent media — Ekho Moskvy, TV Rain, New Times, and Novaya Gazeta — were forced to close. Western social networks like Facebook and Instagram were blocked. A new law threatened those who merely called the “special military operation” a war with 15 years in jail. More than 13,000 protesters were detained in the first two weeks after February 24. Any opposition activists still in Russia faced a choice between rapidly fleeing (e.g., Dmitri Gudkov, Lyubov Sobol) or ending up in jail (e.g., Vladimir Kara-Murza, Andrei Pivovarov).

Is what we see in Russia now, more than seven months after the invasion, a classic fear dictatorship? In some ways, the parallels seem obvious. As noted, all independent media has been squelched and the Kremlin no longer pretends to tolerate genuine political opposition. Although at times Putin sticks to a euphemistic rhetoric of “normality,” dubbing the war a “special military operation” and reassuring the public that “all is going according to plan,” at others he spits out threats in much the way he advised Russians to spit out “scum and traitors… like a fly that accidentally fell into [their] mouth.” Public talk shows on state TV, hardly an oasis of civility before the invasion, now seem like a competition among participants to shock viewers with the cruelty of their proposals. Police have started targeting not just political activists but a much broader circle of people, aiming to spread fear to all who are tempted to protest.

And yet, in other ways Russia since the war seems very much the continuation of Russia in the four years preceding it. Between 2015 and December 2021, the number of political prisoners in Russia jumped from 36 to 83, according to the Memorial Human Rights Center. Many more were imprisoned for their religious beliefs — from Jehovah’s Witnesses to members of banned Muslim groups. As of September 2022, the number had risen from 83 to 87. Thousands are quickly detained after any major protest, but most are released with warnings or fines. This remains quite different from the situation in many 20th century fear dictatorships, in which thousands — or even millions — of political prisoners languished for years in labor camps.

A series of suspicious deaths have been reported within high business circles, possibly suggesting battles — under the cover of war — among security service factions and organised crime over control of rents. Among opposition politicians, the poisonings of Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza occurred before the latest international developments. We might not have a complete picture, but based on current reports there does not yet seem to have been a surge in state-ordered political murders. With regard to both political prisoners and state killings, there is worrying room for the regime to deteriorate further towards the levels of violence found in many 20th century dictatorships.

Fear had already risen before the Ukrainian war. Between 2017 and late 2021, the share of Russian respondents who feared “a return to mass repression” increased from 21 to 47 percent. And by 2021, 84 percent of Russians said they would not express opinions about the forthcoming parliamentary election in a public place. Surveys show a bizarre fall in fear of repression after the Ukraine invasion. From 47 percent in December 2021, the proportion fearing a “return to mass repression” dropped to just 8 percent in March 2022. It’s not clear whether that reflects a wartime unwillingness to speak frankly or a genuine renewal of trust in the authorities.

One thing the war has changed is the balance within the pro-Kremlin elite. Putin now faces indirect criticism from hardliners for not being brutal enough in his prosecution of the war. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin are public faces of this faction of hawks. Both lashed out at top generals for ordering a retreat from the city of Lyman in late September. Some suggest that pressure from such voices — along with the simple reality that the Ukrainians were winning on the ground — may have helped Putin overcome his reluctance to institute a partial draft.

Yet, it is not clear that any elite group can put pressure on Putin except by shaping the information flows he receives and exploiting his psychological sensitivities. Organising a coup would be extremely hard given the multiple, competing security services that Putin has created. And there is no constitutional break point until the 2024 presidential election. The nationalist hawks are probably better seen as setting the agenda, rendering certain options salient, overcoming taboos, and so on. For instance, the more people discuss using tactical nuclear weapons as a sensible option, the less unthinkable it becomes.

Since the outbreak of the war, Russia has experienced two waves of emigration. The first, immediately after the start of the war, led to the exodus of some 100 to 200 thousand people — there are no fully reliable statistics. The second wave, which followed the announcement of “partial mobilisation,” included at least 250 thousand people, almost as many as the Russian government intended to draft into the army. At the same time, surveys show that those who left have above average education and are among the country’s most active consumers, with incomes several times higher than the national average. 

Thus, the war spurred and intensified the trend of recent years—regression towards a classic fear dictatorship. This has had two effects on society. It has strengthened the most conservative and militaristic groups, consolidating a “demodernisation elite,” while simultaneously prompting the flight of those who constituted the vanguard of Russia’s modernisation. In the 2010s, the regime adhered to a dual strategy with regard to the latter group; it pressured its most politically active members and tried to co-opt the others. Now, the war has become a tool to squeeze them out of the country.

Putin’s policies have created parallels between Russia and Venezuela under Hugo Chávez and then Nicolas Maduro. In both countries, a successful spin dictatorship had trouble dealing with political challenges generated by continued modernisation — in particular, protests organised by a highly educated, cosmopolitan part of the population. In both cases, the incumbent responded by authorising greater repression and empowering the security services. Oil revenues kept the state afloat and paid the wages of police and the military. Both have suffered from Western sanctions that cut off access to advanced technology, which either have accelerated de-modernisation of the economy (Venezuela) or threaten to do so (Russia). And massive emigration rid both countries of their most educated and entrepreneurial young people. Maduro’s Venezuela shows that such regimes can survive for years despite catastrophic economic degeneration. However, Maduro and Chávez before him avoided a war. Putin — apparently in thrall to a twisted version of history, egged on by his hardline cronies, and reassured by his country’s nuclear arsenal — has plunged Russia into one.