The End of Russia’s Putin Era
Government has often been characterized as the institution that has a monopoly over the legitimate use of force. But effective governance requires more than this. Government must be able to display the ability to use sufficient force against those who oppose its mandates so that resistance appears futile. Most people comply with government mandates because not doing so is not a viable option. Actual use of force is reserved for those few who try to resist, to demonstrate to everyone else the negative consequences that come with non-compliance.
Look at the US government’s reaction to protesters’ January 6, 2021 occupation of the Capitol. That response is necessary, not because the protesters deserve their punishments, but to serve as a deterrent for those who might consider similar actions.
In that context, recent events in Russia have been disastrous for Vladimir Putin. Things are happening so fast that I may be way behind the actual events by the time this post appears, but look at what’s happened there.
On June 23, Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin led his mercenary soldiers into Russia, occupying a military base in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and advancing his troops to within 120 miles of Moscow. The fact that Prigozhin was able to do this with no Russian military resistance is, by itself, a massive blow to the authority of Putin’s government.
Putin, in response, accused Prigozhin of treason, calling his actions a military mutiny, and vowed that Prigozhin would pay for his actions. Yet a day later, Putin said Prigozhin could leave for Belarus and would face no charges. This is an amazing sign of weakness on the part of Putin. Is Putin’s position so weak that he must let a treasonous leader of a military mutiny go free to escape further damage?
Many people–including me–don’t believe Putin will just let Prigozhin go. Judging from Putin’s past dealings with those who have dared oppose him, I don’t expect Prigozhin to live out the year. But if I’m right, that will be yet another blow to Putin, who promised no charges against Prigozhin if he would just leave for Belarus. Putin’s credibility would be further damaged.
Revolts against governments are very difficult to predict. Few people are willing to express a willingness to oppose a government that displays the potential to unleash sufficient force to make resistance appear futile, so even if they oppose the government, they still comply with it. Suppose a government appears sufficiently weak that it might fall beyond some critical mass. In that case, people switch sides, and the government suddenly, and often unpredictably, collapses.
Consider Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Few experts foresaw those events because those governments exhibited sufficient power to prevent citizens from opposing them. Once vulnerabilities appeared, citizens joined the rebellions, and governments fell.
Now consider Russia’s current position. Putin appears much weaker this week than he did last week, and that damage will be permanent. Putin is in a precarious position, and it remains to be seen whether his government will last out the week, or the year, or be able to limp toward a situation where Putin can maintain control.
Russia is an oligarchy, and Putin depends on his supporting oligarchs to maintain his power. The threat to Putin comes not from a mass uprising by the Russian population, but from an abandonment of support from the oligarchy.
Putin has maintained the support of his oligarchs through a combination of carrots and sticks. They are wealthy and privileged thanks to government support, but also see that those who oppose Putin end up in jail, poisoned, or seem to fall out of upper-story hotel windows.
Putin’s recent show of weakness indicates to the Russian oligarchs that his hold on power is tenuous. Government overthrows tend to be sudden and unpredictable. But the ingredients are in place in Russia today.