Over the past two years, Russia has created a tyrannical, arguably totalitarian maze, one without a standardized compass to guide it or effective instruments to execute coherent longer-term programs. The essential purposes of the constitutional and administrative changes initiated by President Vladimir Putin in January 2020 have been to empower him to rule until at least 2036, tighten the Kremlin’s control over Russia and its citizens, silence dissent, and force the country to pursue the regime’s aspiration to be a militarized “great power.”
The Kremlin’s general success in achieving these aims has come at a lasting cost. The regime’s increasing dependence on Russia’s internal security services has put those services above both the law and the civil state by permitting them to make their own domestic political decisions in suppressing the protests of January and February 2021 that followed Alexei Navalny’s return to Moscow and his immediate imprisonment. Their grip and status within the regime have acquired a momentum of their own. The existing corruption within the FSB, police, and prosecutor’s office, for example, is likely to grow as new opportunities appear. The treatment of their victims, harsh and arbitrary in recent years, has become harsher and more arbitrary still.
Russia’s legal and judicial systems have been further compromised in the interests of the country’s rulers. Those at or near the top are accountable not to the law but to those more highly placed. There is talk of restoring the death penalty.
The way in which systems of justice develop and recover is critical to Russia’s future stability. Fear of offending those in power helps keep the apathy and indifference to politics in check—for now. But threats cannot ensure loyalty or trust. Russians below middle age are particularly critical of the Russian regime. Though civil society has been disenfranchised and disarmed, discontent is widespread.
The repeated and, as necessary, increasing falsification of election results has further undermined the legitimacy of the administrative changes imposed on the country. The result is a tense emptiness.
Putin remains the essential axis of Russia’s system. The country’s constitutional arrangements, as revised in 2020, give him a fresh range of personal powers; parallel changes in the administrative system allow him to concentrate on major policy decisions, leaving the execution to the government headed by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin —who has little independent political role.
Since Covid-19 struck in 2020, Putin has worked from his “bunker” most of the time. Face-to-face meetings are difficult to arrange. Putin, unlike his Soviet predecessors, need not answer to or even consult with the Politburo, let alone a political party with a public program requiring respect. Such entities could at least have prompted Putin to devise a political, social, or economic program, however tenuous, that might have provided at least some guidance to the regime’s future aims.
Instead, the normal practice now is virtual consultation, which is better suited to instruction from Putin than to adequate discussion. More, if, as it appears, there are now fewer trusted persons with ready access to Putin, the dearth must affect his judgment.
The succession issue has been set aside, adding to the uncertainty of Russia’s future. A couple of years ago, Putin might have been able to position a successor to take over in 2024. Now, there are no signs of such a plan, let alone thoughts about when or how it might be achieved.
In every country, effective government policymaking depends in principle on creative argument within and among government structures. In Russia, however, the structural changes of the past couple of years have focused on Moscow’s control of federal organs, including the progressive placement of previously autonomous regional and municipal institutions into a centralized framework. This trend might seem to encourage efficient rule; but whether it actually does so depends on clear overall policies, unambiguously assigned responsibilities, accountability at all levels, and a clear understanding at the center of the needs and feelings of the whole country. None of these conditions applies in Russia. Thus, the more likely outcome, over the longer term, includes mistakes, inflexibility, corruption, and ignorance about how to address issues.
Moreover, public discourse is required if policies are to have the stable public support needed to work properly; but Russia’s rulers want no such thing. The USSR came back to new life when tongues were freed after 1985. Putin and those who think like him saw, and still see, the result as catastrophic. They are determined to prevent the same thing from occurring again. The result is deadening.
Nevertheless, the Putin regime is not at obvious risk of collapsing—now. What happens when Putin leaves, or when Russia faces unexpected challenges, could be a different matter. Slow decay is weakening.
What Putin had to say at his lengthy annual press conference of December 23, 2021, gave no hint of possible new approaches to improving Russia’s lagging economic, health, or educational performance. Russia has significant financial reserves, but more than 75 percent of its property belongs to the state. A large part of the budget is classified, the defense sector is closed to the public, competition is limited, the power of state monopolies has increased. The result is high inefficiency. On December 23, Putin spoke, of course, about past and future successes, providing duly adjusted Rosstat figures in support. He did the same in relating imaginative tales of Russia’s achievements in dealing with Covid-19. One wondered how far Putin believed his own words.
A long period of economic and societal stagnation would seem to lie before Russia, up to and beyond the next presidential “elections” in 2024. Income per head has fallen by some 10 percent in the past decade. Inflation is a widespread concern. The country is still massively dependent on its natural resources, despite years of warnings about the need to build new kinds of economic opportunities. Corruption remains rife. The gap between the wealthy and the bulk of the population is still flagrant. The record so far suggests that the Putin regime is likely to remain as apprehensive of policy changes that might improve these conditions as it has been since it backed off considering such ideas when he returned to the Kremlin in 2012.
Not so long ago, the West supposed that Russia had set out on a road to what it—and many Russians—saw as “normality.” But a fork in the road appeared toward the end of President Boris Yeltsin’s final term, with NATO’s 1999 military intervention in Kosovo. That fork became definitive as Putin’s presidency evolved. The U.S.-led war in Iraq was one marker; the evolution of Russia’s state-based society and economy, ruled from the top, was another. A third sign was Putin’s 2007 diatribe in Munich against NATO’s treatment of Russia, along with his often-quoted remark that the collapse of the USSR was a catastrophe.
This past December, a Russian court liquidated Memorial International, the organization founded by Andrei Sakharov that collected the records and whereabouts of individuals slaughtered by Lenin and Stalin. This event was far more shattering to those with Soviet ancestry than it was to most of the outside world. It was the obliteration of truth, of the right to mourn the past and the need to redeem it.
A few lines from the Second Epilogue of Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem, written in March of 1940, conveys something of the weight that haunts the memories of Russians today, however hard they might try to wipe Stalin’s legacy from their minds:
I’d wanted to call each one by name,
but the list’s gone and there’s nowhere to ask;
I’ve woven a broad shroud for them
out of thin words I heard from their lips.
I remember them always, everywhere;
even new sorrows won’t make me forget;
and if they gag my worn-out mouth
through which a hundred million people
scream, then may I be remembered too,
each anniversary of my death.
A country that cannot face its past remains its victim. A different, obligatory, censored, and reimagined version of Soviet and Russian history, with Stalin as its hero, has been promoted since Putin’s inauguration as president in 2000. Its essential elements reflect Soviet-era beliefs about the achievements and international status of the USSR from 1945 until 1985, the year now seen by Russia’s present-day rulers as having led to the USSR’s destruction under Western pressure. It reflects an instinct that remains important: to deny that Russia’s own actions are responsible for unwelcome consequences. Everything the regime dislikes is always someone else’s fault.
Russia’s belief in itself as a great power by right is inborn, defined for Putin and most other Russians by its military power and its reach beyond Russia’s borders. The 1991 disintegration of the USSR was not seen as a liberation that would allow Russia to shape itself anew. Restoring the authority in the world that Moscow once shared with Washington became an evident objective under Yeltsin and is by now an obsession for Putin.
These effects reflect the steady transformation of rule in Russia toward militarized authoritarianism. Moscow’s repeated, albeit imperfectly effective, efforts to establish its control over its neighborhood, the pace and weight of the build-up and use of its armed forces, and its apparent aim of destroying Europe’s generally accepted security framework have led to the head-to-head confrontation we see today.
The same process has led to Russia’s becoming increasingly isolated—and dependent on China. For instance, Putin now describes what he calls NATO’s expansion as the cause of tension over Ukraine and demands the alliance’s withdrawal to pre-1999 boundaries. Perhaps he does so, as he has done before, to persuade Russian citizens of the continuing need for Fortress Russia and obedience to the Kremlin, or to send foreigners a convincing message of Russia’s need to defend itself by disciplining others. Nevertheless, the facts remain: The alliance is not looking to spread its wings to secure Russia’s downfall, and Moscow’s actions and expressed intentions are NATO’s best recruiters.
Putin has fears to confront while brooding in his bunker. Regimes like his have faced “color revolutions” against their rulers—Ukraine twice, in 2004 and 2013–14. The Russians have tried to ascribe these events to foreign interventions, not their own citizens. The demonstrations across Russia in January and February of 2021 after Navalny’s return from medical treatment in Berlin were savagely put down, but their scale and fervor were warnings to Putin and his ruling circle. The Russians have supported Lukashenko in Belarus since his fabricated election victory of August 2020 in the face of high levels of popular resistance. This relationship has enabled the Russians to assert their political authority and military presence in Belarus, but their hold rests on brutal repression of the civilian population. Unexpected and violent unrest in Kazakhstan, recently spurred by popular resentment of a pattern of privilege, corruption, and long rule similar to that in Russia, must have been a warning to Putin, too. He no longer has the wide support he once had from Russia’s people. He has only their submission.
Russian rhetoric remains harsh. Control over Ukraine is essential to the realization of Putin’s ambition to secure his country’s role as a—or ideally the—great power in Europe. Moscow has been frustrated in this aim for Putin’s entire reign. Ukraine has moved toward a more modern and democratic way of life. Neither Russia’s seizure of Crimea nor its war over Donbas has given Moscow the lever it needs to control Kyiv. Indeed, Moscow has spurred Ukraine’s movement into a still closer relationship with Europe and the West.
Putin’s first option is a comprehensive invasion of Ukraine, sooner rather than later: Smaller military gains would not be enough to make Kyiv a vassal. Putin made his NATO-related demands last year, during what he apparently saw as a period of Western weakness. It might not occur again. NATO cohesion has been stronger than he may have expected—though, so far, not enough to deter him altogether.
Putin has, arguably, gone too far toward the brink to incline comfortably to the second option, which would be to withdraw the threat he has created, perhaps with some presentable gains like validating Russian-held areas in Donbas or adjusting NATO’s post-1997 military assets in Europe. After that, if the West remains complacent, Putin would be free to use his military blackmail again. But such Western concessions would not gain him the plaudits of nationalist-minded Russians, let alone restore Ukraine to Russia’s future control.
A quick and easy victory for Putin, particularly one that left Kyiv in Russian hands, would be one thing. Even then, Moscow would have to use the event to install a regime protected by the corruption and violence that protect Russia’s own arrangements. More likely would be a longer campaign with more victims, Russian as well as Ukrainian. Sustaining the fruits of such a conflict would be much harder to do—and might even threaten Kremlin dominance in Russia itself.
Putin has created a needless dilemma for his regime, with repercussions for Europe, its transatlantic allies, and Russia itself. He has yet to find the compass that will direct his way out of it.
Sir Andrew Wood is an associate fellow with the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House in London. He served as the British ambassador to Moscow from 1995 to 2000.
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