The year 2020 is already one of the most consequential in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two decades in power. Constitutional changes, which will give Putin a path to stay in office for another sixteen years, shook Russian politics from January until March. The Kremlin was still scurrying to organize a plebiscite for the amendments in April when the coronavirus pandemic and a drop in oil prices pitched Russia into a crisis. The regime now faces a grave test.
It is impossible to predict how Russia will fare, but the past months have peeled back the curtain on how it is ruled. Many in the West continue to see Putin as the symbol of twenty-first-century authoritarianism, with his grip on a strong, centralized administration. In fact, the demands of staying in power continue to chip away at Putin’s state. His immense authority dissipates as it extends through feeble state institutions or the self-indulgent regime that protects his rule.
Putin’s Surprise Gambit
Few events over the past twenty years have demonstrated Putin’s control over the political system as much as the latest constitutional change. It was a shocking exercise in political deception, even to the many regime insiders left in the dark. Putin’s initially proposed amendments offered different observers what they wanted to see—whether a rebalancing of powers, preparations to give up the presidency and manage Russia in partnership with a likely successor, or even a renewed turn toward autocracy. But after a carefully choreographed appearance in the Duma in March, the illusions fell away. Putin endorsed an eleventh-hour amendment to reset the count on presidential terms, allowing him to run again. Everything that had transpired before was artifice.
It was a stunning political trick and another blow to a Russian institution. Putin treated the country’s basic law as a tool in his political machinations. He made dozens of changes to distract from plans to stay in power and then dozens more to boost popular support. Whoever follows in Putin’s footsteps will have absorbed the lesson that the constitution can be changed as long as one’s power allows. A younger Putin recognized the dangers of such a precedent: He told a journalist in 2005 that if leaders change the constitution for their own purposes, there will be nothing left of the state.
Putin’s State Versus His Regime
Putin’s latest constitutional changes show how the demands of staying in power subvert his desire to strengthen the Russian state. This central drama of his rule has left him in charge of two overlapping political structures—an institutional state and a shadowy regime.
On the one hand, Putin covets a strong, centralized state, which he believes with messianic conviction to be a prerequisite for Russia to be a great power. Fiscal health and self-sufficiency animated his reforms in the early 2000s and have been a recurrent theme of his presidency. A powerful military is another Putin-era success in state building: On his watch, the Russian military was rebuilt after having nearly collapsed in the 1990s. Russia’s intervention in Syria, waged by professional soldiers armed with modern weaponry, would have been unthinkable when Putin first came to power.
On the other hand, Putin cultivates a personal regime. Away from public scrutiny and institutions, he wields informal power over Russia’s business, political, and security elites by empowering them and distributing rents. Putin and these elites are locked in mutual dependence: the elites need Putin’s patronage for power and wealth, and he needs loyal stewards to manage the bounty. Putin expects elites to share their wealth, connections, and other assets when he needs them. Together, their hold on resources prevents alternative centers of power from emerging.
The regime keeps the state in its shadows. Elites want feckless institutions that can’t block informal channels to power. Operating outside the rule of law, they siphon off Russia’s wealth and undermine the investment climate, trapping the Russian economy in stagnation. Distrust is pervasive, as elites fight to shape Putin’s directives and evade them when they can. Putin, always wary that someone in the regime will challenge his power, maintains a balance that stokes elite infighting, which ranges from smear campaigns to criminal investigations.
The coexistence of state machinery and a self-interested regime creates juxtapositions of order and disarray. Russia’s security apparatus is one of the world’s most formidable, but it is split into factions and thieving clans that fight each other as much as they fight Putin’s enemies. Russia has economic professionals that garner praise from the Western financial press, but Putin bestows the state’s richest assets on loyalists like Rosneft’s CEO Igor Sechin, whose greed and mismanagement have cost Russia billions. The military is capable and professional, but it stands alongside shadowy mercenaries run by a profit-seeking Putin crony.
Russia’s Hobbled Coronavirus Response
Crisis often reveals the relative weakness of the state, and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic was no different. A regime that wastes its wealth and underinvests in human capital was left with an ill-prepared healthcare system. Dozens of Russian hospitals and clinics became hot spots of contagion as healthcare professionals worked without adequate personal protective equipment.
Western observers, accustomed to viewing Putin as the consummate authoritarian ruler, might have expected a strict quarantine or at least decisiveness from the Kremlin. Instead, Putin chose to defer to his subordinates rather than lead. When Russia’s coronavirus curve shot up in March, he merely declared paid holidays that regional officials, led by Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, turned into stay-at-home orders. Federal emergency measures remained on the shelf, while Putin handed the reins to government and regional officials long considered to be his pawns.
This was no sudden turn to federalism but rather a devolution of responsibility without power. Putin uses the state apparatus as a flak jacket, forcing it to absorb the political damage from unpopular decisions and unresolved problems. In 2018, he delegated the task of announcing unpopular pension reforms to then prime minister Dmitry Medvedev and stepped in only after a strong backlash from the public. Making the Russian economy function better without reforming it is another unenviable task that Putin loves to slough off onto the bureaucracy.
Putin’s refusal to take charge in the crisis yielded predictable results. Most of Russia’s regional governors are little more than his yes-men. They keep their jobs and access to rents not because they respond to local demands but because they deliver election results and manage to keep the public quiescent. However, without orders from the top, they have nothing to say yes to, leaving them to decide how to please the boss. Some local officials apparently went too far in shutting down regional and municipal borders, forcing the Kremlin to push back. Others acted too late or pushed to lift restrictions too soon. Meanwhile, Putin threatened regional leaders with jail time for failing to act. This is governing at the barrel of a gun.
Regime infighting has also intensified. Sobyanin was quick to recognize the coronavirus threat to the capital and demanded that people stay home. In response, users on Telegram—a social media app that elites rely on to share information and smear one another anonymously—launched a barrage of criticism against him. One channel, which a previous investigation linked to a top Kremlin official, claimed Sobyanin was trying to sabotage Putin. The mayor’s reward for demonstrating leadership and taking initiative was the ire of fellow elites.
Russia is far from the only country to struggle with the pandemic, and the regime may yet rise to the challenges of this crisis. But the pandemic has already undermined the Kremlin’s carefully cultivated image of Russia as a strong state. Meanwhile, the regime remains more formidable, keeping Putin in power but leaving his eventual successor a state ill-prepared to confront Russia’s problems.
The author is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an analyst at the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.