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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
15 October 2022: Power vs strength, plus texts and tunes
Welcome to a (mercifully?) short edition of the TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup — penned as I await a flight to London.
It’s been a week of walking tight-ropes, and not just for Vladimir Putin. I was invited by the good folks at Foreign Policy to contribute some thoughts about the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties, the jailed Belarusian activist Ales Bialiatski, and the banned Russian human rights group Memorial. That decision, as you might have noticed, sparked equal measures of elation and condemnation, and it dawned on me after I accepted the commission that it would be impossible to say anything meaningful without angering at least some one. The fact, though, that no one has come calling for my head may not indicate that I’ve threaded the needle. It might mean that I’ve said nothing meaningful, or that nobody bothered to read it. Who knows?
What I’m thinking about
Back to Putin’s tightrope. Can you believe there was a time when we used to write pieces that began with sentences like “Pity Vladimir Putin”? Dear reader, if I ever write that sentence, please cancel me.
That said, Putin has backed himself into an unenviable corner — as evidenced by his announcement on Friday that Russia’s military call-up was coming to an end, and that there were no plans to extend it.
Now, a number of observers have noted that it’s hard to take Putin at his words, and that the end of the “partial mobilization” could, in fact, translate the start of a full-scale draft. Maybe. As I’ve said a number of times before, I’m done making predictions about Russian politics. But there was a reason the Kremlin leaked rumors of a 1.2-million call-up, and it wasn’t just a vain attempt to scare the Ukrainians. I’ll put it this way: as political pronouncements go, Putin’s statement yesterday smacked less of Winston Churchill and more of Liz Truss.
As I wrote when Putin announced this mobilization, it was to be expected that Russians would resist — and resist they did. (So maybe there are some predictions I’m still willing to make, but that’s a topic for another day.) That resistance, individual rather than collective and thus not a threat to Putin’s ability to rule, was nonetheless a very real impediment to his ability to govern.
I’ll put it this way: Putin is powerful, but he’s not strong.
That thought came into focus for me during an online panel discussion earlier this week, together with Elise Giuliano, Josh Tucker, Oxana Shevel, Anastasiia Vlasenko and Tim Frye — particularly because I remembered the title of Tim’s recent book, Weak Strongman.
Putin is powerful because he sits atop a system of relationships that allows him to get extraordinary depth and breadth of compliance from people on all rungs of the politico-economic food chain. This compliance comes about because people’s incentives are most often closely aligned with Putin’s. But Putin is not strong, because he does not have the wherewithal to maintain that kind of compliance when people’s incentives begin to run counter to his.
The military mobilization is a perfect example. He has every reason in the world to want it to work, but he doesn’t have the command-and-control structure that success would require. The reality of what going to war involves — as opposed to the fiction of watching it on television — shifts the incentives of citizens who might otherwise be happy to be loyal, or at least to perform loyalty. In turn, the reality of those citizens’ resistance, whether heading for the border or buying their way out of the draft, shifts the incentives of bureaucrats, who seek to cope, rather than to control. And the reality of the resulting dysfunction shifts the incentives of Putin himself, who will need to find another way to survive a war he should never haver started.
What I’m reading
I didn’t get to read as much as I would have liked this week, but a couple of things did catch my eye. One was a piece in the Russian ‘patriotic’ website Readovka, warning readers about what would face the country if it loses the war in Ukraine. Tellingly, they have about as much faith in an ‘off-ramp’ for Russia as those who have lambasted Emanuel Macron (or Elon Musk) for suggesting one. Russia, they write, will be more than just humiliated: it will be broke, occupied (formally or otherwise), and, most likely, thoroughly undemocratic. It’s worth reading, with the help of Google Translate, or through the lens of Ksenia Kirillova, who brought it to my attention.
The other document capturing my attention this week is the Biden Administration’s new National Security Strategy. By and large, I’m inclined to give the Biden Administration a B+ on foreign policy, and there are a lot of things to like in the strategy, particularly the emphasis on the ways that security is bound up with a lot of things we don’t usually associate with security — things like climate, food security, biosecurity and migration. But I found the strategy vexing nonetheless, mostly for what it lacks. Specifically, the document contains nothing approximating a coherent and proactive vision for Europe and the post-Soviet space. The Biden Administration is right to say that Russia does not have the means to reshape the world — or even its neighborhood — the way Putin would like. But pretending that Europe and Eurasia can go back to some kind of status-quo ante whenever this war ends strikes me as spectacularly un-strategic.
What I’m listening to
I’m heading back to England and feeling more than slightly cheeky. I’m not sure whether it’s Putin’s tribulations that have cheered me up, or Truss’s, or both, but who cares? Whatever the explanation, it’s time to admit to my guilty pleasure of the summer, namely Wet Leg’s eponymous debut album. Maybe not the kind of stuff a serious academic and policy wonk is supposed to listen to — but like I said, who cares?