Putin, personalism, and the war in Ukraine

Christopher Carothers of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China discusses how Putin managed to personalize power for himself and what that means for Russia’s neighbors and the world.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen at the end of a long table
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government via teleconference in Moscow, March 10, 2022. (Image: Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

How did Russian President Vladimir Putin transform over the years from a fairly elected leader into what political scientists call a personalist dictator? 

A recent paper by Christopher Carothers, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Study of Contemporary China, offers some insight into that question. The paper, “When Can Dictators Go It Alone? Personalization and Oversight in Authoritarian Regimes,” which he co-wrote with Andrew Leber and Matthew Reichert of Harvard University, tackles how some autocrats manage to personalize power while others cannot. Carothers and his co-authors argue that when members of the old guard retain oversight over their incoming successor, that person is less likely to overturn power-sharing arrangements and consolidate individual power. 

Carothers’ overall research focuses on authoritarian politics and how corruption affects politics, with a regional specialization on China and East Asia. Recently, Carothers has been working on a comparison of corruption in Russia and corruption in China.

As the war in Ukraine passed 100 days, Penn Today spoke with Carothers to get a sense of how Putin managed to personalize power for himself over the years and what that means for Russia’s neighbors and the world.

How do places like Russia transform from operating under an autocratic regime to a personalist dictatorship? How did Putin come to have all this power?

Putin was initially elected in a reasonably fair election. But since then he has steadily consolidated personal power. My co-authors and I argue in this article that he did so in large part because of the power vacuum that existed beforehand. Often, when a new leader comes to power, their relationship with their predecessors—that old guard of regime elites and retired leaders—is very important. Things like who the previous president was matters because those people can sometimes exercise oversight or prevent a new leader from going too far. 

But what happened when Putin came to power is that Boris Yeltsin was very delegitimized in the eyes of the Russian people and there was a demand for a big change and strong leadership, and Putin capitalized on that. He capitalized on the general political weakness of the atmosphere and started to make corrupt deals with key elites, where he gave them control over part of the state or the state's resources, and they gave him more power. He built the system one step at a time using his KGB contacts, building on his close friendships with certain business people. He made them even richer; they made him even more powerful. He slowly ate away at the institutions that were governing Russia. Over his first term, there was still some confusion about what was going on, but by the end of his second term it was very clear to people that he was establishing himself as a personalist leader.

What are the implications for Russia, its neighbors, and the world that there is a personalist dictatorship leading that nation?

If we look at the Putin regime through the lens of personalism and corruption, then we can understand a lot of why his regime has become so aggressive and assertive internationally. Lots of research on personalist dictators argues that they are more erratic and they’re more aggressive, because there’s a very small circle of people making decisions. Sometimes it’s just the leader making the decision and there’s nobody to tell him no; he’s surrounded by too many yes men, or too many people who agree with his points of view, and so he doesn’t have all the information. Maybe more information would have made Putin more cautious about attacking Ukraine. We know that his assessments were too optimistic about how the war would go in his favor. The personalism aspect does seem to play into that. 

The fact that Putin engages in so much corruption and uses corruption so liberally also has a lot to do with this war in two ways. First, because he’s engaging in so much corruption, the economy has stagnated, and Russian people are not living good lives. That means he needs a different source of legitimacy that can make him look good, and nationalism is a great way to do that. His need for a small, victorious war abroad, his need to pump himself up, to boost his appeal, comes from his weak management of the country, which has a lot to do with corruption. That’s the second way in which corruption impacts this story: Corruption has undercut some of Russia’s strength. Many people are writing about why Russia’s military is underperforming in this war and has surprised people with its weakness have pointed to corruption. Putin doesn’t understand the degree to which his generals have been skimming money off the top and have been inflating the number of trained troops they have and what equipment they have in order to get more resources. Corruption, on the one hand, is justifying his greater assertiveness but on the other hand is also weakening the Russian state and the Russian military, and that’s going to prolong this conflict. 

Historically, how do these types of regimes end?

Research on personalist regimes generally finds that they are not as long lived as other regimes. There are some counter examples and some very long-lived personalist leaders; North Korean leaders have a lot of personal power, and they’ve been in power a long time. But in general, personalism is destabilizing, in part because it leads to poor governance, in part because too many people are excluded from power, and in part because information the leader gets is bad. On the one hand, it seems that Putin has things under control, and he has the media under control, and he’s telling the Russians that he’s winning, and the American ‘black hand’ is behind everything thats bad that's happening in Russia. That makes him seem strong, but, when I put things in comparative perspective with China, Putin’s regime is very fragile compared to China’s. Putin has seen major anti-corruption protests against his rule. Throughout the last five to 10 years, he has had clear political opponents. Even his supporters know that he’s not doing a good job governing the country in many ways. They may support him because he’s a strong leader, but they don’t support his corruption or his mismanagement of the economy.

Those things do hurt, and there are real opponents in Russia, which is not the case in China. We can’t point to a Chinese dissident living on the mainland who’s influential like that. Russia underwent an opening in the 1990s; society opened and changed in a way that can never fully be rolled back. Russian people became too accustomed to those freedoms, whereas China has not had that kind of regime and it’s been open. When Tiananmen Square happened, the Chinese government crushed it, which is not what happened in the 1980s in Russia. Now, even though Putin is rolling liberalization back and is exerting more control, Russians already have the experience of things like different news channels sharing different information, the idea that it’s OK to protest leaders, and the leaders should be elected. That’s a basic thing that Russians believe, and that’s not something that happens in China. There isn’t even a facade of a national election of Chinese leaders.

These regimes are different and from my perspective China’s regime has things much better controlled. Putin faces, both in the midterm and certainly the long term, real headwinds. I don’t expect him to die in office 20 or 30 years from now; that’s unrealistic. But that doesn’t mean that Russia will necessarily develop in a democratic direction. He could be replaced by another leader who is also authoritarian, but I don’t think that this kind of personalism and corruption and struggles with military ventures are positive signs for him.

What is the most important thing for people to understand about the personalization of power?

What I would like all Americans to take away from this is that strongmen are weak. The idea that there’s some tough guy who’s going to single-handedly make everything right and make our country powerful and he’s just going to steamroll over opponents and that’s OK because he has all the people behind him—that whole way of thinking is wrong.

Putin is the quintessential strongman, and some people in America admire Putin because they think he’s strong. But that’s just a facade. Putin’s personalism has led to economic mismanagement and made Russians poor. It’s led to the weakening of the state apparatus and the bureaucracy. Americans don’t like to think about bureaucracy, but bureaucracy matters. The military is a bureaucracy, and it needs to work properly for your country to be strong. If you want the country to be strong, you can’t just have one voice. You can’t just have one person ruling it. You need institutions, which are boring, but you need them. You need to hear different voices and that’s what really makes a country powerful and great. 

We shouldn’t be seduced by a charismatic individual who claims that he alone can solve everything, because it’s not going well for Russia, and it rarely ever goes well for any country.