14.11.23 Review

Weak strong regime: Putin's regime has largely been able to mitigate the crisis associated with the miscalculations of the first year of the war in Ukraine

By the autumn of 2023, the Putin regime had largely navigated the acute challenges and instability factors triggered by the failure of the blitzkrieg in Ukraine and the unpreparedness of the military, economy, society, and elites for a full-scale war. Thus far, the regime has managed to address military command and planning issues, adapted the economy to sanctions and military needs, bolstered troop numbers, stabilised the elites, and normalised the war within public perception. Its resilience, as before, is not rooted in strengthening the state or its organisational capacity but in sustaining clientelist networks for rent distribution. Therefore, elite loyalty remains a critical source of sustainability for the Kremlin. The Prigozhin rebellion seemed to push Russian statehood to the brink of crisis, yet the decisive handling of Prigozhin in its aftermath only affirmed the effectiveness of informal principles and voluntarism. This system generates recurring failures and crises, which the regime adeptly manages. Its modus operandi is best described as 'stable instability', but how long it can maintain this mode while mobilising resources to tackle successive crises remains uncertain.

By autumn 2023, Vladimir Putin had managed to stabilise his regime, which had been under considerable strain for the previous 18 months due to the failure of the military blitzkrieg in Ukraine and the unpreparedness of the governance system and economy for a protracted war. The chaos and improvisation in military planning and command, the impact of sanctions, front-line setbacks, shortages of troops and weaponry, internal elite conflicts, protests, and subsequent crackdowns, alongside the Prigozhin revolt and the right-wing ‘fronde', have all collectively cultivated an atmosphere of instability, and led analysts to seriously consider potentially bleak scenarios for the future of Putin's regime and Russia as a whole.

However, a different narrative has emerged. Analysts are now able to perceive signs of authoritarian stability amid the ongoing war. Here, four pivotal factors stand out. First, the normalisation of military command and the successful organisation of defence in the occupied territories in the face of a Ukrainian offensive. Second, the mitigation of the crisis effects of sanctions and expansion of military production, alongside weapon procurement from Iran and North Korea. Third, a competitive recruitment format which has attracted troop reinforcements thanks to a blend of commercial and ideological factors, coupled with administrative pressure, which have made it possible to stall new waves of mobilisation, at least until the upcoming presidential elections. Finally, the successful adaptation of society to the realities of war, coupled with repressive mobilisation, as well as the loyalty to the regime and the stability of the Russian elite.

Joris van Bladel, a political analyst at the Brussels-based Egmont Institute, underscores the stability of the Russian elite. Based on the public ratings of the Russian elite compiled by the Kremlin-affiliated expert centre, he points out that since the beginning of the war, Putin's entourage, the top brass of the government and the security bloc have almost completely retained their personal composition, closeness to Vladimir Putin and influence on decision-making. This has been minimally affected by successes and failures at the front, the achievements and shortcomings of propaganda and the ups and downs of the economy.

Similarly, political scientist Nikolai Petrov, in an article published in Re: Russia titled 'Children, Chaebols and Adjutants’, highlighted the modest shifts within the Russian bureaucratic and power elites against a backdrop of seismic social shifts triggered by the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. While there are active movements within middle management, the upper echelons close to Putin, the ‘patrons’, are characterised by stagnation. Amid these shifts, two notable career pathways emerge: the 'aides' (to Putin) and the 'children' (of the Putin elite). The former is evolving into a sort of 'praetorian guard’ for Putin, permeating the bureaucratic and power apparatus of the regime, while the latter is increasingly occupying significant positions within the structure of Putin's inner circle, under the patronage of his longtime allies. However, these gradual elite transformations seem to reinforce the mechanisms of regime continuity within the conditions of Putin's decline.

The September 2023 regional elections further confirmed the regime's adeptness in managing electoral processes under wartime conditions, political analyst Margarita Zavadskaya notes. Elections continue to play their customary role in established autocracies as a signal to citizens and elites that the regime can achieve the desired and predictable outcomes without resorting to extraordinary measures such as the cancellation of elections or the excessive escalation of repression and violence. Moreover, even amid the extraordinary conditions of war, sanctions and mass emigration, the regime has made no attempt to restructure the party spectrum.

As researchers of the Putin regime noted even before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, its resilience is not rooted in the institutional strengthening of the state or its organisational potential but in the maintenance of clientelist networks for rent distribution. Thus, while conventionally viewed as 'weak’, the regime has been able to maintain stability even in the face of serious challenges, such as the failure of the Ukrainian blitzkrieg plan or extensive Western sanctions. The 'Prigozhin story' illustrates this paradox well. From a traditional point of view, in the days of the Prigozhin rebellion, the adventurist policy of splitting the principles of military unity of command and creating independent private armies seemed to have brought the state to the brink of disaster. However, from the perspective of the clientelist-mafia system, the subsequent demonstrative and ruthless extrajudicial punishment of Prigozhin only served to reaffirm and strengthen the validity of the principles of informality and voluntarism, showcasing the regime's ability to handle situations even when seemingly out of control.

Van Bladel also writes that Russia appears 'to be more resilient than one might hope, yet it is also more vulnerable than we commonly perceive, which leads us to characterise it as “quasi-resilient”.’ This paradox, however, is well known to experts. For example, the renowned American researcher of Russian economics and politics Timothy Frye, titled his book on Russia 'Weak Strongman'. In his opinion, the Putin regime is constantly and routinely forced to create numerous local balances: more or less falsifying elections, intensifying or diminishing repression of independent political activity, increasing or decreasing investments in public servant payouts, and so forth. This makes the regime prone to repeated local failures, but at the same time makes it remarkably flexible.

Over the past two years, Putin's authoritarianism has demonstrated the ability to make critical blunders but also the ability to mobilise to rectify and overcome these errors. However, the sustainability of the mechanism which allows for this 'stable instability' remains uncertain. It is also worth mentioning that the regime's critical lifeline has been Russia’s extraordinary export revenues in 2022, which exceeded standard annual export earnings over the past 10 years by $165 billion. Despite the successes in mitigating the issues of the past year, the regime has undoubtedly entered a different state than it was in prior to its invasion of Ukraine — one which demands a significantly higher level of sustained mobilisation than ever before.