13 min read

Putin's Return? To What?

Putin's Return? To What?

On February 24, 2022, Russia’s forces launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. That same day, many Russia watchers found themselves with egg on their faces. Most dedicated specialists believed that it was highly unlikely Putin would do something that risky. Until the last moment, many believed that despite his bellicose rhetoric, the war would be an expansion of the frozen conflict in the Donbas region rather than the kind of full-scale blitzkrieg that we saw. A leaked, premature victory announcement that promised civilizational restoration certainly hints at a new, more ideological Kremlin. Yet, I don't think that Russia watchers, including me, were naïve. Instead, we had spent more than a decade observing Putin and his behavior. We understood him as something like Brezhnev. Cautious and conservative to the point of leading to stagnation. An attack, out of the blue, without a rhetorical build-up was not in his character. Putin, despite his reputation, was not a gambler. He liked a sure thing.

With the war not going according to plan, many predicted that this new, aggressive gambler would call for mobilization and outright declare war in his Victory Day speech. However, the speech itself was rather muted. While using the usual rhetoric of calling Ukraine Russian land and of Nazi threats, we got nothing new.  Thus, what we might be seeing is the return of the old Putin for whom mass politics and popular mobilization is a double-edged sword best not deployed unless absolutely necessary. Maybe the Putin of February 24this the exception and, as reality sets in, the old Brezhnev-like figure is coming back.

Mobilization in Russian Political History

Like most people, Russian elites are products of their time and for most of them, that was the Soviet 1970s – generally, the time of Brezhnev’s rule. While for many of us, this period is associated with stagnation and economic failure, for many, if not most Russian “baby boomers” the period has relatively positive connotations. The Soviet Union was at the peak of its strength and, despite a broad economic slowdown with negative long-term consequences, life was generally stable and consumption goods were broadly available. Even if this relative abundance was purchased with Soviet oil exports rather than increasing innovation or broader structural change, life was better than what had come before. And for many, it was better than what would come later in the 1980s and 1990s. It is no wonder then that some historians even argue that the term “stagnation” was invented ex-post-facto by Gorbachev and his supporters and that it clouds the study of the period as a unique moment in Russian and Soviet history.

More than economic stability, Brezhnev’s rule brought certain personal stability. Despite his image as a dull and slow man, Brezhnev was a talented and cunning politician who heavily revised the USSR’s social contract. Earlier generations of Soviet leaders, particularly those who came to power under Stalin, were what historian David Priestland called revolutionary romantics. Like Stalin himself, these figures were less interested in the rationalist parts of the socialist legacy and more devoted to mass mobilization and collective sacrifice as the means of building a better society. Stalinist Stakhanovism and “storming” styles of work are the best known of these tendencies. But even under the less bloody and repressive rule of Khrushchev, mobilization never went away. Indeed, Oleg Kharkhordin argues that it actually became more pervasive and grassroots.

Brezhnev changed all that. He understood that Soviet society had changed. Instead of an underdeveloped economy with a large peasant population, the USSR was now an industrialized economy with a largely urban population. The citizens of the USSR had sacrificed much and were now ready to rest and enjoy some of the comforts that industrialization had brought. Under Brezhnev, mobilization increasingly slowed down. Natalya Chernyshova has shown us that official literature encouraged a kind of private consumerism. Indeed, the core ideological formulation of the period – developed socialism – promised that while the material and technical basis for Communism had not yet been built, socialist society had developed enough to enjoy some of Communism’s promised comforts already. Of course, utopia would come but that was for tomorrow. One could live today. However, in exchange for this freedom to breathe a bit, Soviet citizens would largely stay away from politics as a whole. The politics of Brezhnevism can be summed up as a kind of ritualism and increasing depoliticization.

Brezhnev’s break from mobilization was good politics on many levels. Not only was he able to give society breath but it helped him secure and keep power. When he and his allies overthrew Khrushchev in 1964, Soviet politics was treacherous. On the “left,” many reformers put their hopes in the new government to accelerate Khrushchev’s liberalization. It is easy to forget that by the end of his rule, Khrushchev was viewed as increasingly reactionary by the cultural elite and the new, younger leadership was welcomed as a potential change of pace. In the first five years of Brezhnev’s tenure, economic reforms led by Premier Alexei Kosygin were moving toward a potential radical restructuring of the Soviet economy. However, Brezhnev had opponents from the right. Hardliners like KGB Chairman, Vladimir Semichastny, did not understand the need for reform and wanted to return to using terror as an instrument of state power.

Brezhnev navigated these fault lines with grace. First, he was a master of cadre politics and used strategic promotions to prestigious, well-compensated yet powerless positions to remove his enemies. More broadly, however, he created a deal. While he did not go far right, he did not expand the thaw and punished public dissent. However, he did not cancel liberal reform either. Liberal-leaning technocrats who wanted to work within the system could tinker with new ideas and even try to implement limited experiments in new forms of governance and economic management. Brezhnev’s tactical politics reflected his broader strategy – giving as many people as possible something of what they want without letting one side or another rock the boat. Steady and predictable was the order of the day. Too much mobilization and public emotion and the ship could turn in unpredictable ways.

Putin’s Brezhnevite Politics

Vladimir Putin has often styled himself as the heir to Yuri Andropov. The tough KGB Chairman briefly led the USSR after Brezhnev. Andropov was a complicated figure who on one hand repressed dissidents and on the other cultivated many of the Communist Party’s leading reformist thinkers and leaders including one Mikhail Gorbachev. Andropov came into power with a campaign of cleaning up corruption but also began the process that would ultimately conclude in  Gorbachev’s reforms. Putin is no Andropov. Until recently, he was much closer in style to Brezhnev.

The first part of Putin’s reign in Russia shares much of the same dynamics as Brezhnev’s. Putin came to power in the context of an exhausted population who had suffered economic and social decline in the 1990s in the name of a struggle for a better life: now capitalism rather than communism. Flush with revenues from natural resources and an economy that was healing after a decade of pain, Putin promised a consumer society. The “sushi years” of the early-to-mid-2000s saw the same kind of rapidly rising consumerism as the peak of the Soviet 1970s. While many would scoff at this since the globally integrated market economy of the Russian 2000s dwarfed the very limited consumerism of the 1970s, the deal was very similar. Russians could experience an improved quality of life and generally be left alone if they remained apolitical. While oligarchs and cronies robbed the state blind, the economy did well enough that the average Russian could ignore it. This was not the austere Andropov trying to rebuild the power of the Soviet state. This was Brezhnev with his corrupt circle and relatively cool-handed approach to social politics.

One could even see a lot of political promise in this early Putin. While the KGB strongman image was always there, Putin could also say many of the correct liberal things. Even as media became increasingly state-controlled and civil liberties curtailed, educated liberal-leaning Russians could excuse it as the price to pay for ending the 1990s. Putin, though not perfect, might be a transitional figure. Much like many of this intelligentsia initially was relatively open to Brezhnev after the chaos of Khrushchev, Russia’s liberals thought things could be worse. They could have had all manner of hardliners like Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, or the dower and menacing Evgeny Primakov. In 2008, Putin even-handed power over to a liberal-leaning successor, seemingly setting a course toward gradual democratization.

Putin’s political maneuverings were also quite Brezhnevite. Putin’s talent as a politician was to balance power between factions. Reportedly, he begins his morning reading clippings from political tabloids to catch up on the rumor mill that is Russian politics. He brought in hardline Siloviks back to the pinnacle of power, but always also kept liberal technocrats in his inter-circle. The early Putin was someone who never gave any factions too much control but rather enough of the pieces to be happy. Stability and enrichment were the names of the game. Moreover, Putinism emphasized informal over formal mechanisms of power. Mark Galeotti coined the term “adhocracy” to describe the way formal government and non-governmental institutions drove politics and policy in Russia. State corporations, intelligence agencies, and even privately-owned companies with political ties were used as informal tools of state power both on orders from the center and on their own initiatives. Factions and their front institutions vied for power and riches with Putin as referee.

A New Putin?

Some things began to change sometime in the mid-2000s. While nominally the number two person in the country, Putin was largely in charge of foreign policy. However, domestically, Medvedev’s government seemed to usher in further liberalization. Two events triggered a change. First, was Medvedev’s seemingly soft line toward the United States. Second, was the Bolotnaya protests against election fraud by Moscow’s liberal middle class. It seemed that the ship was tilting too far in one direction and Putin had to take the reigns again. The steering wheel was turning to the right. However, if we take Brezhnevite politics as our point of analysis, Putin’s hard turn on return to the presidency in 2012 was to be expected as a reaction to the seemingly overly liberal Medvedev years.

This might shock some readers. By then, under Putin’s imitative Russia had fought a war with Georgia.  In  2014 Russia annexed Crimea and started a proxy war in Ukraine’s Southeast. A year later, Russia intervened in the Syria conflict. However, if we step back a bit, we see more continuity than rupture. Both actions were opportunistic responses to a perceived encroachment on traditional Russian interests. Putin did not expect to meet much resistance and the Western reaction was muted. If it was not for the shooting down of MH-17 it is likely that Western sanctions would be even more muted than they became.

The most uncharacteristic action of Putin’s third term was the annexation of Crimea. Indeed, like the fully-fledged invasion of Ukraine, the decision to annex Crimea rather than create a proxy, puppet state on the model of Ossetia or Abkhazia surprised many Kremlin watchers. There are a few lessons to be learned from that moment. First, the initial intervention was costless, and it is likely that many Crimeans genuinely did wish to join Russia. Second, and more importantly, the decision was most likely taken in the spur of the moment by Putin and a very small group of advisors with whom he was friendly. In these conditions, Putin’s usual instinct of playing a cautious hand between interest groups broke. Just as importantly, when the same maneuver was tried in Eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian resistance and a less supportive populace led to far less ambitious Russian actions. Instead of striking while the iron was hot, as Russian nationalists like Igor Girkin, the former nominal commander and chief of the Donetsk People’s Republic had wished, Russia settled in for a frozen conflict.

Putin’s Return to Form? Lessons from Brezhnev’s Time

With this deep history in mind, it is easy to understand why even the most well-informed Russia watchers believed that Russia’s military buildup was either a diplomatic ploy or a prelude to a more limited campaign. A massive, multi-front invasion was not what you would expect from Putin or the Russian political system. Now, with hindsight and rumors, it is possible to see why this occurred. It is likely that the invasion was conceived and planned by a very small circle of close advisors. This secrecy both tripped up many observers who did not see some of the more typical military preparations and, for the same reason Russian troops themselves. The commanders of Russian units apparently only learned that they were going to invade Ukraine shortly before operations began.

This secrecy and tightly held planning may help explain how Putin came to the decision to invade. Putin has been withdrawn from the day-to-day governance of Russia, leaving most domestic affairs to a cadre of technocrats. His focus on grand strategy and legacy building drastically narrowed his immediate circle. That circle likely shrunk even more when Putin began isolating during the pandemic. Like with the Crimea decision, the full-fledged invasion of Ukraine was the result of an information bubble where Putin had only one faction he could listen to – the Siloviks.

What can we do to predict Putin’s behavior? I still believe that the answer is to ask “what would Brezhnev do?” The invasion of Ukraine has probably shocked Putin back into political action. Russia is in a long bloody war of attrition. Instead of being weak and indecisive, Europe, the United States, and even many Asian high-tech quickly placed debilitating sanctions on Russia – sanctions that Russia’s technocrats could neither predict nor prepare for due to the secrecy surrounding the invasion. For Putin, who has seemingly withdrawn from domestic politics in the past three years, domestic politics has become part in parcel of Russia’s military effort.

This means paying attention to the political economy of Russian elites again. And Putin is paying attention. Very credible rumors indicate that technocrats, who might be personally opposed to the war are being kept in their positions through personal and political threats. Most prominently Russia’s celebrated and brilliant Central Bank head, Elvira Nabuillina – who apparently had an unusually close relationship with Putin for a technocrat – offered her resignation which was not accepted. Russia’s economy now needs all hands on deck to try to survive sanctions and prosecute the war. Therefore, Putin needs to at least talk to the technocrats and let them try their best to not reform the economy but at least let it run as well as they can.

On the other hand, the war has also emboldened the Siloviks to call for their more ambitious agenda. Nikolai Patrushev, the Secretary of the National Security Council and arch nationalist, and Silovik gave an interview to the official government Rosseiskaya Gazetta where he advocated the renationalization of many elements of the economy and forced autarchy to prepare for a generational struggle with the West. Essentially, in Patrushev’s view, Russia needed to turn into an isolated, fully mobilized garrison state to achieve victory not only in Ukraine but in a civilizational conflict. Patrushev is a powerful figure but as Mark Galeotti again points out he is extreme even for many Siloviks. However, he represents a real constituency. In Nikolai Soloviev’s political talk show and propaganda hour, a Russian military analyst argued the market system was “not up to the task” and called for the return of central planning – a “military socialism.” Russian military-patriotic Telegram channels have been having the same conversations, especially with calls for full mobilization. One channel associated with the Wagner group Private Military Company insisted that Russia would need from 600-to 800,000 soldiers to defeat Ukraine.

The Silovik call for mobilization isn’t usually couched in anti-Putin terms, but it is a danger. Liberal and left-wing opposition to Putin and the war has been crushed by a state that is more repressive than at any point in the post-1956 USSR. However, Putin's critics from the right have been left unharmed. The aforementioned Girkin has openly called the Russian invasion a boondoggle and blamed Putin personally for not invading in 2014 when the Ukrainian military was practically not existent and conducting a “special military operation” rather than a full-scale war with society-wide mobilization. Russian special forces veteran and popular YouTube military commentator Razvedos also critiqued Putin in a video asking, "dear Vladimir Vladimirovich, please decide, are we fighting a war or are we masturbating?" In fact, if one goes down the rabbit hole of Russian nationalist social media one finds a belief that Russia was holding back its military might because of trepidation and hopes for a negotiated solution.

Mobilization would endear Putin to this constituency. But could it be controlled? Mobilization also means politicization and the Brezhnev playbook avoided outright politicization at all costs. Even if mobilization would be popular, could it be controlled? Could it lead to demands that could not be promised that would threaten stability? Putin’s victory day speech hints, that is still too much of a risk.

Indeed, Victory Day itself is a Brezhnev-era product. It was turned into a major holiday by Brezhnev with the idea that the memory of the Great Patriotic War was so universal across the USSR that it could be a rallying point for public sentiment outside of politics. The liberals would get their humanist sentimentality and pacifist message – one place Brezhnev and Putin differ as the former seemed genuinely scarred by his wartime service and hoped to avoid it at all costs. Tellingly, many staple Soviet War movies which are usually marathoned in the days leading up to Victory Day were missing from state TV. Rumors have it that producers worried their message was too melancholy and anti-war. Conservatives, however, would get their hardline military message and ability to use the day to reward units and present new awards.

The victory day speech’s rather subdued tone and the lack of any indication of mass mobilization confirm that the balance is holding. There are indications that Putin is trying to steer the ship again. Instead of placing Siloviks into positions once held by technocrats, he has mobilized the technocrats. The emergency shock of a difficult, maybe lost war might be forcing Putin back to his more cautious self.

What is to be Done?

Kremlinology is always a fool’s errand – especially during times of war and instability. Moreover, it is not easy to understand Putin’s thinking, or whether he is actually more or less isolated. What we should do is have an analytical framework for the incentives of Russian politics as the crisis rolls forward.

There are a few things to watch as things roll forward:

· Informal mobilization of personnel and equipment can work to improve the situation and whether private entities can be used to pressure men and materiel into the war effort.

· The September elections and the Kremlin’s strategy toward them.

· Tactics toward rationing and dealing with the lack of spare parts.

My hunch is that the Kremlin will not actually cancel elections, nor will they do formal mobilization. We will be seeing more informal methods taken by parastatal institutions to ration goods and services and put pressure on individuals and firms to support the war effort. The political ideal will be to make the war a part of the background noise, routine enough that as the situation deteriorates, it will do so slowly and predictably.

The problem for Putin and his cronies is that the enemy always gets a vote. Russia never had real enemies before its leadership decided to stumble into a bloody and criminal war. Now, Ukraine and its supporters can try to maintain enough pressure that no matter how much he wants to, Putin can’t return to his old well-studied, Brezhnevite patterns. Brezhnev is not well remembered but compared to his student, he was a political genius.