Timothy Frye Says Putin is a Weak Strongman

Timothy Frye
Timothy Frye

Timothy Frye joins the podcast to discuss Russia’s personalist autocracy. Tim is a Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy at Columbia University and a research director at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. His new book is Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia.

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Putin in the past could claim to have won at least an honest plurality, if not an honest majority of votes given his approval. However, in the upcoming election this fall, in September, it looks like the Kremlin has so restricted political competition that it’s going to be a difficult sell to the Russian public to show that these elections are even as legitimate as the elections held in 2016 or in 2011.

Timothy Frye

Key Highlights Include

  • Is Putin’s popularity real?
  • Why Russia holds elections at all
  • Description of Russia as a personalist autocracy
  • How autocracy shapes Russia’s foreign policy
  • What are the prospects for democratization in Russia

Podcast Transcript

Over the past few years, Russia has annexed Crimea and interfered in the 2016 American Presidential Election. But at the same time Russia’s economy has faltered as oil prices plummeted. Barak Obama called Russia “a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness.” So, how should we think of Russia? Is it a great power or a weak one?

This is the second part of my exploration of Russian politics. Last week I spoke to Kathryn Stoner about Russia’s resurrection as a great power. This week’s conversation features Timothy Frye. Tim and Kathryn share many opinions on Russia, but Tim focuses on its weaknesses rather than its strengths. His recent book is called Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia.

Tim is a Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy at Columbia University and a research director at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Tim makes some novel observations about Russian politics. For instance, in his new book he writes, “For the last twenty years, Putin has been unrivaled at home, but achieving this primacy has come at the costs of a distorted economy, dysfunctional bureaucracy, and unsound policies… He is a strongman, but a weak one.” 

Our conversation will explore Russia from a different angle, but you’ll also find substantial common ground with last week’s conversation about how regime types lead to specific policy outcomes. So, this conversation expands upon last week, while offering a new perspective at the same time. But like always this is a complex topic with lots of room for different opinions and perspectives. So feel free to share your thoughts with me on Twitter or Instagram. You can also follow along with the conversation at democracyparadox.com where you’ll find a complete transcript. And don’t hesitate to email me at jkempf@democracyparadox.com. But for now this is my conversation with Timothy Frye…


Tim Frye, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Timothy Frye

Thanks for the invitation.


Well, Tim, I first came to recognize your name in a piece that you co-wrote a few years ago called, “Is Putin’s Popularity Real?” It was so important because it’s hard to understand. Putin’s approval ratings when they exceed 80%. Polls in the United States show Biden’s popularity’s recently dipped below 50% and many of us think that that’s high for recent years. Trump’s approval ratings were in the forties and even thirties. These are democratically elected leaders. Putin’s an autocrat. He’s not supposed to have high popularity. So, let me just ask you, is Putin’s popularity real?

Timothy Frye

Great question. When we did our study in late 2015, we found that Russians were not lying when they were asked about their approval rating of Vladimir Putin’s political activities. It’s a standard question that the independent and very well-respected Levada center had been asking for a long time. Of course, it’s an autocracy so, you have to be very skeptical of direct questions. So, we adapted a method that’s been used to study sensitive topics like race relations in the United States or corruption in India that allows us to hint to the respondent that we can’t really identify whether or not, they actually support Putin. So, what we do is we gave them a list of three political leaders and ask them, ‘Please don’t tell us which of these leaders you support. Just tell us how many.’

So, we got an answer of around one of those three. And then the other half of the survey that was randomly chosen we included those same three figures plus we added Putin’s name to the list and we said again, ‘Don’t tell us which of these leaders you support. Please just tell us how many.’ And there we found that the answer was on average, about 1.8. So, when you subtract 1 from 1.8, you get 0.8, which was very close to what survey companies in Russia were getting when they asked the direct question about Putin. So, by using this method to try to figure out whether or not Russians were lying, we were able to show that at that time it was pretty clear that Russians were not lying on this sensitive question.

Now in recent years, there have been more doubt about this. Putin’s popularity ratings have fallen to around 60% from the highs of the 80% when we were doing our survey. And there’s an interesting disjuncture that’s taken place, where if you asked in 2015 Russians to name one of five politicians that they trust around 70% said that they trusted Putin. What we’ve seen now and in the last three years, this has developed, is that there’s a gap. About 60% of Russians say that they support the political activities of Putin in a direct question.

But when you ask them to name one of five politicians that they trust only about a third of Russians are willing to do that. So, we’re seeing this real disjuncture between how Russians evaluate Putin depending on how the question is asked. So, it might be that given that in the last several years the Russian political environment has become much more restrictive we might be seeing an increase in what we call social desirability bias or the phenomena of survey respondents telling interviewers what they want to hear.


Now what fascinates me about your analysis of Putin’s popularity in the book has less to do about Putin’s actual approval rating. It’s actually got more to do with how focused Putin and his administration are on his public approval itself. It’s odd to me than an autocracy would care about whether the people support him because he’s not facing genuine elections. Why does Putin and his administration care about public approval ratings and polling as well?

Timothy Frye

It’s just much easier to be a popular autocrat than an unpopular one. Putin like all autocrats faces two main threats. He can be overthrown by his inner circle or he could be overthrown by a mass revolt and being popular helps blunt both of those threats. So, if Putin is popular and the mass public sees that others support him, they’re less likely to take to the streets and elites are less likely to band together to try to overthrow him because their effort is less likely to be successful if the leader is popular. And one place where you don’t want to be in an autocracy is on the losing end of a failed coup attempt.

So, the risks are very high and it’s a very important method that Putin has used in order to separate himself from all other leaders in Russia, because it’s not just that Putin has high approval ratings. It’s that there’s a large gap between Putin and any other political figures. So, that’s my explanation as a political scientist. If I put my psychologist hat on, though, we should remember that autocrats have huge egos. So, I’m sure they love it when they have these high approval ratings.


It definitely blurs the line though between the idea of democracy and autocracy when they’re both in pursuit of mass support, when they’re both looking for public approval, because when we think of a dictatorship, we think of them acting in opposition to the will of the people as opposed to a democracy, which has to listen to the people, because they’re undergoing regular elections. What does it say about autocracy when it focuses so much on public support?

Timothy Frye

This is a vision of democracy that autocrats like Putin like to sell. It’s difficult for them to sell the notion that they have institutional legitimacy, but if they can sell popularity, approval ratings, as a way to try to legitimize their rule that’s what they’ll do. And what we see in Russia is that Putin’s approval ratings are driven largely by the underlying performance of the economy and by foreign policy successes.

So, if we look at the two big increases in Putin’s popularity, one was linked to the decade long boom in the economy from 2000 until the financial crash of 2008-2009 where his ratings again soared into the seventies and eighties. And it’s not uncommon when a politician is in power and the economy doubles in part because of high oil prices, but in part because Putin managed it fairly well that was a very understandable reason why his approval ratings would go up. And then the annexation of Crimea, which was wildly popular. And for four years, it really buoyed Putin’s approval ratings. But at the same time, you know, approval ratings are not elections. You may approve of another leader more and your other leaders are not given the opportunity to give their side, their platform for how to develop Russia on an equal playing field.

So, I think one of the things that we’re seeing in Russia right now is that as Putin’s popularity has declined, as support for the ruling party has really plummeted, we’ve seen that Putin has had to rely more on political clamp downs, restrictions on free media, and opposition political activity in a way that he hasn’t done in the past. Whereas if he had been elected in a free election, he could point to his electoral victory to justify his position in power. But now that his approval ratings are slipping and there’s a good bit of Putin fatigue within Russia. He’s been in office for 21 years and people have very modest expectations about what he’s likely to deliver, so this has influenced how he governs Russia.


It’s important to note though that Russia does have elections. They’re just not free and fair. Kathryn Stoner has written, “After 20 years of Putin in power perhaps the only surprise about Russian elections is that they have taken place at all.” So, Tim, why does Russia continue to hold elections?

Timothy Frye

So, there was a big debate in the literature about whether autocrats like holding elections, because it gives them the opportunity to divide the opposition and to co-op some elements of the opposition by giving them seats in parliament or whether autocrats hold elections simply because it’d be too costly to cancel them. And I think both of those arguments apply to Russia. I do think It would be risky for the Kremlin simply to cancel elections and not hold them at all. If you look at public opinion data, Russians support the holding of elections, and they would prefer to see a multi-party candidate, they would prefer to see turnover in government from time to time. So, there is popular support for the actual holding of elections.

What the Kremlin has been very good at doing over time is finding ways to subvert elections in ways that allows them to keep some veneer of legitimacy while also maintaining a degree of control. I mean, Putin, like all autocrats, faces this tricky trade-off. On the one hand, they have the ability to manipulate elections to ensure that they get a sufficient number of votes in order to stay in power. At the same time, if they manipulate the election too much, they’ll signal weakness to their opponents and to potential rivals within their inner circle that may allow an opening for them to take political action.

This is kind of what we saw in Belarus last summer in 2000 where it was simply incredible that President Lukashenko claimed to have won 80% of the vote and this created a kind of common knowledge that the election had been stolen and I think helped push Belarussians to take action. And also, Putin in the past could claim to have won at least an honest plurality, if not an honest majority of votes given his approval. However, in the upcoming election this fall, in September, it looks like the Kremlin has so restricted political competition that it’s going to be a difficult sell to the Russian public to show that these elections are even as legitimate as the elections held in 2016 or in 2011.


I think that’s a good point that when we think of rigging an election, we think of stuffing the ballot box. But people in a country know that the election’s rigged before the election happens because they keep opposition candidates off the ballot. A great example would be Alexei Navalny. He’s never going to be the opposition candidate in a presidential election against Vladimir Putin. So, knowing that Russia finds different ways to be able to tilt the balance of power so that they manipulate the elections, knowing that these are not free and fair, but at the same time, recognizing Vladimir Putin’s got outrageously high approval ratings throughout most of his term in power. Why hasn’t Putin just allowed elections to be free and fair? Why doesn’t he, take advantage of the opportunity and just run a normal campaign?

Timothy Frye

One reason is there’s always the risk that Putin would lose. Putin has never held a political debate with an opponent during an election campaign. Elections are inherently uncertain and that’s what makes them interesting. We don’t know what would happen if Putin had to debate Navalny, for example. I would pay money to see that. I think that would be very entertaining. That’s one big reason, I think why, the Kremlin has been unwilling to allow the kinds of unfettered competition that you would really see in a democracy even though, Putin has been relatively popular.

On the other hand, United Russia, the pro-government party, has struggled at times to win even a majority of votes given a very unlevel playing field even with all the advantages they have. For example, in 2016 they got 48% of the vote that meant that a lot of Russians did not vote for the governing party and voted for some of the kind of faux opposition parties like the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the Nationalist Party, and then there’s a third also Kremlin friendly party which the Kremlin allows to exist in the parliament and people often use as a way to protest against the government.


Now you have an example in the book that demonstrates how the Kremlin can sometimes go too far in terms of repression during an election and how it can undermine their goals of holding elections in the first place. And it was the December 2011 election. Can you tell us just a little bit about that and what went wrong?

Timothy Frye

This is precisely the reason why elections make autocrats nervous. So, in 2007, the United Russia Party was zooming along. They had a two-thirds majority in parliament. The economy was booming. Four years later in 2011, the economy was still doing okay, but growth was slowing. But that year Putin, who had stepped down as president and was the prime minister, had recently announced that he was planning to return to the presidency which made a lot of Russians quite nervous. And when the election was held United Russia got 49% of the vote which translated into a majority, but there were claims of fraud and the political opposition was able to hold a rally one week after the elections that drew about 60,000 people into the center of Moscow.

And it caught everybody off guard. It caught opposition politicians off guard. It caught the Kremlin off guard. It caught the media off guard and it caught political observers like me off guard. So, this is precisely the kind of event that makes elections quite dangerous for autocrats and the protests continued for about six months before they lost steam. And the Kremlin eventually cracked down very hard on opposition figures to send home a message that there would be no trying to negate or overturn the parliamentary elections of 2011 or the presidential elections of 2012.


So, Tim, we’re talking about Russia as an autocracy. We’re describing it that way. And that’s, the way that most political commentators, the way most academics refer to Russia. We’re not going out on the ledge by saying that. But I’d like to know how has Russia changed from the Soviet era in terms of opportunities to hold protests like the one you just described? They now have elections. It seems like maybe there’s more space, but we still describe it as a very repressive environment. What’s the difference between Soviet Russia and Putin’s Russia today?

Timothy Frye

So, there are still large differences between Soviet era Russia and Putin’s Russia. Let me set aside the Gorbachev era, a really unique moment in Soviet history, and talk about the kind of Khrushchev, Brezhnev era of mature communism and there the opportunities for protests were basically zero. The most famous protest occurred when a handful of intellectuals took to the streets of Red Square in 1968 to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, in 1962 there had been also a protest in Novocherkassk which resulted in by many accounts several hundred deaths, but the number of meaningful protests that could take place in Russia you can count really on one hand or two hands.

Whereas, even today where in the last year restrictions on political activity and protests have really dramatically increased and really changed state society relations in Russia. You still have some individual protests. And it’s important to remember that for much of Putin’s period protests were something that a majority of Russians support. If you ask Russians, ‘Do you think that people should have the right to engage in peaceful collective action, the overwhelming majority support them?’ So, there is a lot of support for the right to hold protests in Russia. It’s just been drastically circumscribed within the last year.

Now, some people will try to make the argument that there’s something deep in Russian culture about Russian’s passivity towards the state. You know, this is a longstanding argument going back to the Czars and the Soviet period that Russians prefer a strong hand and they’re somehow comfortable with autocracy. But as I show in the book, there’s just very little evidence for that. For example, in the 1990s when political competition was much higher and elections were much more competitive. Turnout rates in the Russian presidential election in 1996 and in 2000 was around 70%. Whereas, in the presidential elections in the U S in those same years, it was about 50%. Now, the U.S. is not a great country for political participation, but I think it does show that when given the opportunity to take part in politics, Russians are very willing to take up the challenge.


So, would you say that Russia today, even under the repressive environment of Putin, is much freer than during the Soviet era or is a lot of that room for expression really just a mirage?

Timothy Frye

Well certainly Russians can leave. This is one huge difference between the contemporary period and the Soviet period. And the Putin administration, I think, is glad and see some of what they consider the problem makers leaving the country. Where in the Soviet Union political prisoners were very rarely given that opportunity and most suffered in prison. There is still some opposition media in Russia, even if they have to operate under the label of being a foreign agent, which was unheard of in the Soviet period. And, you know, Russia is just a much more open country compared to the Soviet Union.

So, when I would go to the Soviet Union in 1985 as a graduate student. It was just so unusual for any Russians to meet an American. And I worked in the Soviet Union on a U.S. State Department funded cultural exchange program where I met thousands of Soviet citizens a day. And for many of them they would say, ‘Oh my God. You’re the first American I’ve ever met. A real live American! I never thought I would see a real live American.’ So, in that way Russians have a much clearer benchmark against which to measure the performance of their government, because they do know much more about the outside world than did their Soviet counterparts.


So, I want to go over and ask you about Navalny. We’ve already talked a little bit about him and when we’re talking about opposition or opportunities to be able to speak out against the Russian state, it’s easy to gravitate towards him because he’s the most charismatic. He’s the most popular. He’s somebody that people in the West can recognize. And I was reading through an article in the Journal of Democracy by Pål Kolstø and he wrote, “Navalny, who has established himself as the undisputed leader of the antiregime opposition, hails from the liberal camp but has adopted some nationalist rhetoric—in particular, the need to defend the country from the perceived deluge of immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus.”

I want to ask you about Navalny as a leader. As somebody who, if given the opportunity to replace Vladimir Putin and demonstrate who he truly is beyond just an opposition leader, would Navalny truly believe in democracy or is he just the best opposition voice Russia has today?

Timothy Frye

Well, it’s always hard to know how opposition figures will behave when they’re in power. When we look at Orbán in Hungary, he was on the barricades against the communists and now, you know, having come to power he’s turned Hungary into what has really become a kind of personalist autocracy. So, it is difficult to know. What I will say about Navalny is that he was associated with some very ugly nationalist sentiment early in his career. But I also think that he has evolved in his views over time. He was a very raw politician when he first catapulted onto the stage in 2011 as part of the leadership of the anti-governmental protests that I mentioned earlier. And overtime he has developed a reasonable, liberal economic program.

He has certainly said the right things about the need to hold elections. And, of course, you know, his main calling card has been increased transparency and anti-corruption. And, whether or not he would hold to those values as President of Russia is hard to say. He’s a very charismatic figure, a very talented politician who was able to operate under incredibly difficult conditions in Russia as an opposition figure for a long time. Which gives you some idea of his resourcefulness. And what’s interesting about Navalny is that it’s not hard to explain why autocrats put political opponents in jail. What’s interesting about Navalny is that he was able to operate and conduct these, really sneering exposés of the ill-gotten gains of high governments officials.

He lived for 10 years, you know, often being jailed for short time periods, having to pay fines. His brother was thrown in jail for three and a half years as a way to try to curtail the activities of Navalny, but that he was able to operate for so long gives you some sense of how the Kremlin calculated the cost and benefits of having an opposition figure like Navalny operating politically. So, at some point in the last 18 months, someone in the Kremlin, perhaps with Putin’s okay, decided that it was more risky to have Navalny operating in the political environment rather than to have him behind bars at the risk of turning him in to a martyr.


So, Tim does the arrest and imprisonment of Navalny – does that represent a weakness of the current Russian state or a strength of where Russia is today?

Timothy Frye

The argument I make in the book is that Putin was able for a long period of time to rely on his personal popularity, strong economic performance, foreign policy success of bringing Russia back on the global stage and the all important annexation of Crimea. But what we’ve seen since around 2018 is that all those tools that he was able to rely on have become much more blunt. His popularity ratings are nowhere near what they were before. The level of enthusiasm about Putin is much less. The economy has been stagnant for a decade. Living standards are about the same as what they were just after the 2008-2009 economic crisis.

There’s no new Crimeas on the horizon. Crimea was this unique event. A low risk, high reward operation that to the surprise of the Kremlin, I think even, was extraordinarily popular. But there’s no other foreign policy opportunity like that. The performance during the pandemic has not been good. Russians have developed a vaccine, but the Russian populace has been very reluctant to take it. Russians have a long history of being skeptical about vaccines and that has really played out in their lack of trust in this Sputnik vaccine which was created by the Russian government after all. And there’s a lot of distrust among the mass public towards the Russian government.

So, autocrats don’t like to use repression. They would much prefer to use these other tools. But I think what we see in Russia is that these other tools have become much more blunt and that makes, repression, political clampdowns, a much more attractive strategy. And the risk, of course, for Russia is that once repression gets introduced at a very high level, it’s very difficult to dial it back. In part, because repression makes it more difficult to solve the problems that generate opposition in the first place. It doesn’t help promote growth. It doesn’t increase trust in government. It doesn’t reduce corruption. So, it has this self-reproduction that can take place once repression starts to be introduced at a high level.


You also have a fascinating quote in the book where you write, “Using coercion is not as easy as it seems. Any security agency that is powerful enough to put down a popular revolt is also powerful enough to overthrow a leader.” Which emphasizes that beyond just the negatives that coercion does in terms of creating distrust in the population, it also risks the possibility of strengthening those political elites, who are oftentimes the most dangerous to those in power within a personalistic autocracy.

Timothy Frye

Absolutely. Personalist autocrats face this trade-off when they decide how to set up their security agencies. On the one hand, they can create a very powerful security agency that they can use to repress revolts, but that’s precisely the kind of security agency that’s most likely to be successful in overthrowing them or, you know, they could create a fragmented security structure and have multiple agencies. And in Russia, there are multiple agencies, multiple security forces, who are used to help keep the populous in line.

And that can make it more difficult for them to coordinate and overthrow the government. But it does make them less able to coordinate to put down a mass revolt as well. So, this is again, one of those difficult trade-offs that I identify in the book that tries to get us beyond this vision of Putin as all powerful, as omnipotent, and recognize that he faces all kinds of tradeoffs, particularly in the use coercion.


And I think the big insight in the book, the reason why you describe him as a weak strong man, is because you make a great case that in a personalistic autocracy, there are certain constraints that define the decisions that a leader needs to be able to make. And you make comparisons to other leaders around the world, whether it’s Chávez in Venezuela or whether it’s Erdoğan in Turkey. So, Russian foreign policy has often confused observers. It’s very aggressive, especially in its annexation of Crimea, its involvement within Ukraine, even the earlier war within Georgia. How does autocracy shape Russia’s approach to foreign policy, Tim?

Timothy Frye

It’s a great question. So, one of the difficult trade-offs that confronts Putin on foreign policy is that this more assertive foreign policy has been popular among the Russian political elite that backs him particularly among the foreign policy elite and the security services. However, at the same time, it makes it difficult to introduce the kinds of economic reforms that would promote broad-based economic growth that would keep the populous happy and keep his approval ratings up. So, there is this real trade off that Putin has to make about guns and butter. All politicians have to face it and Putin faces it in a very stark way. Another way that autocracy influences Russian foreign policy is that anti-Westernism is a common tool that modern autocrats use in order to keep certain segments of the political sphere happy. Orbán does it. Erdoğan does it. Chávez certainly did it.

So, among these, kind of larger, regionally important autocracies, they like to play on this card in a way that suggests something endemic to modern autocracy rather than something that’s unique to Russian history or culture. So, the other interesting point is that Russian public opinion towards foreign policy is very nuanced. On the one hand, if you ask Russians, whether they think Russia is a superpower and whether they would like to see Russia as a global power 70-80% say yes. But when you ask a more sophisticated question that says, ‘Would you rather see Russia as a country that is militarily powerful and that other countries fear, but not necessarily the most economically developed country, or would you rather see a Russia that’s economically developed, but not a country that other countries fear militarily?’

Majorities over the last 20 years have preferred economic development over spending more money on national security. So, when you ask Russians to take into account the costs of having a more assertive foreign policy, they’re much more skeptical than if you ask them just a fairly naive question. And if you look at popular support, for example, for the intervention in Syria, it’s always been low. Russians have been very skeptical about the use of direct military force in Eastern Ukraine. That’s one of the reasons why the Kremlin continues to deny that they’re involved in any way in the military activity in Eastern Ukraine. Because it’s not very popular. And if you look at the possible merger of Russia and Belarus. Only about one in five Russians support this, recognizing that there would be a lot of costs to go along with this as well.


So, you mentioned that people in Russia would prefer economic development or resurgence of their economy rather than foreign policy escapades even if they supported them in theory. They’d rather see economic development at home. One of the challenges within Russia is the state itself. The fact that it doesn’t abide by the rule of law. The fact that it seizes foreign companies. I was reading Catherine Belton’s book, Putin’s People, that discussed some of the forced seizures of some of the oil and gas companies within Russia. Why does Putin continue to take steps that undermine the rule of law that would be able to help energize the economy in the long run?

Timothy Frye

This, I think, illuminates this trade-off that Putin makes between averting a coup and keeping the mass public happy very clearly. So, in managing the economy, Putin can distort the economy in order to deliver benefits to specific interest groups among his inner circle through corruption, through the takeover of foreign companies through the weak rule of law. At the same time, Putin needs to worry that distorting the economy too much would slow growth and thereby risk mass discontent.

So, Putin faces this constant trade-off of finding that right where he is able to deliver sufficient growth to the Russian populace that they don’t take to the street. And over the last decade, we’ve seen that living standards have been flat, but we haven’t seen the kind of prolonged stagnation that would really bring people onto the street. And in part that’s because Putin faces this trade-off in that he wants to allow the inner circle to enrich themselves, but not so much that it risks his position as President of Russia by encouraging mass discontent to a weak economy.


So, Putin is in theory in power until 2036 based on the recent constitutional reforms. But at the same time, there’s no guarantee that he’s going to stay in power that long. There’re possibilities beyond just obvious ones like health or something happening to him. There’s also the possibility of the political dynamics changing in Russia. You wrote in your recent article in Foreign Affairs, “Putin is a deft tactician with considerable financial resources facing a disorganized opposition. Yet no amount of shrewdness can overcome the agonizing tradeoffs of running Russia the way he does.” So, Tim, how long do you expect Putin to continue to navigate these threats to his power?

Timothy Frye

So, the tradeoffs that Putin has had to make have certainly increased. The economic one has become much more difficult as the economy has slowed. It’s hard to deliver large rents to your inner circle while also providing broad-based economic growth. The constraints of an assertive foreign policy that brings economic sanction, certainly all of these things have made it much more difficult to govern in Russia. And the point I want to make is that the governing modality has changed a lot in the last few years as Putin has moved from using propaganda, performance, and popularity to stay in power, to relying more on coercion.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that autocrats can stay in power with a heavy dose of repression as long as the economy doesn’t fall off for long periods of time. We often think of Putin as this master tactician, but actually his time in power is about par for the course for the region. Lukashenko has been in power for 26 years. Nazarbayev was in power for 29 years and on and on down the line. So, there is something about being a post-Soviet autocrat that lends itself to these long tenures. So, will Putin step down in 2024 when he’s up for reelection. He might not even know himself at this point. A lot might depend on the context.

One thing we know about personalist autocrats is that when they leave power, it tends to be very ugly. So, some of the data I cited in the book is that if you look at personalist autocracies from 1945 until, you know, 2012. Personalist autocrats fare much worse than autocrats who governed by a ruling party or lead the military. For example, about 70% of personalist autocrats are overthrown by irregular means, either a coup or mass protest and about 80% of those autocrats ended up either dead in jail or in exile. Only 20% enjoy a peaceful retirement, if the numbers are correct. Now Russia differs from a lot of autocracies in a lot of ways that might change those numbers.

But it’s very clear that the Kremlin understands the risks of losing power, not just to Putin, but to Putin’s family, to his inner circle, to everybody who’s really hitched their political star to Putin. And they will fight very hard in order to keep power. One of the reasons why Putin put forward these constitutional amendments that would allow him to run in 2024 and again in 2030 is he himself said that he was already beginning to see infighting and conflict about who would rule Russia after 2024. And he wanted to nip that in the bud.


So, Tim, we’ve talked a lot about Vladimir Putin, and it’s easy in a personalist autocracy to focus on the autocrat, but Russia is more than just Vladimir Putin. And as we look to a path, an opportunity for democratization, we have to imagine that it would come sometime after Putin. But you write in the book, “A Russia without Putin as president may disappoint those seeking a more open and friendly Russia.” So, do you see a realistic path for democratization in Russia in the future?

Timothy Frye

One of the main taglines in the book is that a big problem in Western commentary and policy making toward Russia is to conflate Vladimir Putin with Russian politics. And the book is an odd one in that it’s not really about Putin. It’s really about how Russia is governed and the main message is the need to look beyond Putin to understand how we interact with Russian society, how we interact with powerful interest groups within the bureaucracy and within the economy and how he faces these really difficult trade-offs that threaten his hold on. So, the book is not really about Putin. It’s really about governing Russia. And if we look for a path forward on Russia, I think, there are real reasons to actually be optimistic. If we look at Ukraine, Ukraine is a much poorer country than Russia.

The geographic divisions within Ukraine are much more difficult than within Russia. But Ukraine regularly now holds what are considered to be free and fair elections. It has a vibrant, free press and a vibrant civil society. Corruption is rampant. Government performance is not great. There’s tremendous distrust and political apathy. But, you know, it does have many of the attributes that we associate with being a democracy. So, Ukraine, why not in Russia? Russia is also better educated. It’s wealthier. It’s more urban. And it is more ethnically homogeneous than many Latin American democracies for example. And inequality in Russia is high, but inequality in Brazil, Argentina, in many Latin American countries are high as well. Younger people in Russia hold far more favorable views toward the west than does the older generation.

So, on these indicators one could imagine a path forward for democracy in Russia. On the other hand, Russia is a personalist autocracy and Putin has usurped power from the courts, from the parliament, from the state bureaucracy in a way that makes it difficult to transfer power and to create a more open political system. For example, if you look at the likelihood of transitioning to a more competitive political system, it’s much more likely to happen under a one-party autocracy or a military autocracy than under a personalist autocracy. The other factor is that Russia is a global power and the ability of politicians to play on Russian nationalism as a break on Western oriented democracy, as it’s often used in Russia is another factor that pushes against a more open and democratic Russia.

So, I think the question is much more open-ended than people actually believe. I think there’s a view that Russia’s had a thousand years of autocracy. There’s always been a strong hand to rule Russia. But you can say that about a lot of countries that are now  democracies. And, you know, if you look at some of the structural conditions, one could imagine a more open and politically competitive Russia and one that even has better relations with the West. You know, as we saw during the 1990s.

One interesting thought experiment for you. So, let’s say that the collapse in oil prices didn’t happen in the 1990s, but instead we saw a massive increase in global oil prices of 1998 till 2006. Let’s say that that happened early in Yeltsin’s rule and the economy boomed. One could easily imagine that Russia would be in a very different place than it is today, but for a quirk of the timing of a global energy crisis.


Well, Tim, thanks so much for talking to me. Your book was such a fascinating read. It was one of the best books to come out so far this year in 2021. So, thanks so much for writing it and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Timothy Frye

Oh, thank you very much. I really enjoyed speaking to you and I hope the response is positive.

Key Links

Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia by Timothy Frye

Russia’s Weak Strongman: The Perilous Bargains That Keep Putin in Power by Timothy Frye in Foreign Affairs

Follow Timothy Frye on Twitter @timothymfrye

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