toward a new equilibrium in Russia?

Anna Colin Lebedev (University of Paris-Nanterre) recently wrote a 30-tweet thread about current Russian opinion that I found illuminating.

She discounts the value of surveys because they make two assumptions that do not apply in Russia (if anywhere): there is a correlation between discontent as measured by polls and explicit acts of resistance, and leaders care about discontent because they want to be reelected. Both are premises of the “public sphere” model elaborated by Habermas, which is only partly applicable in the USA, and hardly at all in Russia. There, Lebedev writes, the risks of explicit protest are very high, but the state may respond favorably to “legal complaints (for example, within the military) … agreements, workarounds, [and] personal contacts.” (I am translating from Lebedev’s French and responsible for any errors).

To use a phrase from James C. Scott that Lebedev doesn’t cite, Russians often opt for the “weapons of the weak“: everyday resistance, foot-dragging, noncompliance, and grudging compliance. These options are available not only to the truly weak but to the people whom Lebedev calls the “intermediate elites who run municipalities, administrations, military institutions, and even businesses.” These elites were already skilled at quiet noncompliance, and many recent examples have been reported: e.g., the Mayor of Moscow declaring prematurely that the objectives of mobilization have been fully met, or teachers failing to administer the awful new civics curriculum that I discussed here while their superiors turn a blind eye.

Lebedev writes: “There are two ways a tree can fall: it can be cut down, or it can be rotted from the inside while it still looks solid. An insect that devours the tree from within is not visible and does not make a difference. But many insects together destroy the tree.”

Destruction isn’t inevitable, and Russia may simply slip down to a new stable equilibrium. As I understand it, for the past two decades, Putin has had: 1) carrots, 2) sticks, and 3) a reputation for competence. His carrots are mostly economic: the Kremlin controls vast revenues that it can distribute to businesses and business leaders, regional governments, security services, and institutions like the church. The sticks can be brutal: consider numerous murders, prosecutions, and the cities of Grozny, Aleppo, and Mariupol. A reputation for competence is essential for making people heed carrots and sticks; otherwise, they will try to get away with doing whatever they want. Putin has appeared competent even to many of his critics. For instance, in the Red Sparrow series by Jason Matthews, he is a diabolical genius.

Entering 2023, Putin has fewer carrots because state revenues are down and the costs of the war are absorbing his funds. If Russia goes ahead with the massive expansion and modernization of the military that Putin’s team have promised, there will be little money left for other constituencies. The Kremlin is still a deadly force when people openly attract its notice. More than twenty critics suddenly died in mysterious circumstances during 2022 alone, not to mention the mass murder of Ukrainian civilians. However, the security services have their hands full and probably cannot address widespread noncompliance. Finally, Putin’s reputation for competence is shattered among Russia’s “intermediary elites,” if not yet among ordinary Russians. To me, it is especially noteworthy that the Russian state probably miscalculated the size and preparation of the army, because this error suggests that it cannot even see itself clearly. The reason was probably corruption rather than deliberate resistance, but these two behaviors merge in practice.

One can easily imagine a downward spiral, in which diminishing “state capacity” on the Kremlin’s side encourages less compliance by intermediary elites, who fail to generate the money, valid information, and mobilized soldiers that the state demands, thus further weakening the Kremlin’s position. The security services might continue to play Whack-a-Mole with actual opponents, who would be vastly outnumbered by ordinary scofflaws.

However, I don’t think the spiral will necessarily go all the way to collapse. The situation could stabilize at a level where Putin simply has less control over his vast country, rather like the situation in the 1990s.

I generally favor decentralization and polycentricity, but the consequences of diminishing state control in Russia will depend on who fills the vacuum. Russians will not be better off if people like the Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin or the Chechen boss Ramzan Kadyrov prosper at the Kremlin’s expense. My late colleague Mancur Olson argued that a “stationary bandit” (a ruler who has a stable monopoly on power) is more likely to promote the national interest than a bunch of “roving bandits,” who will only extract resources for themselves.

A weaker central state would be vulnerable in a crisis, but that does not mean that Putin (or a likeminded successor) would necessarily avoid crises. Facing an explicit enemy, such as a foreign government or a breakaway republic, might generate some genuine patriotic support and help to restore state capacity. Thus the Kremlin might continue to pick fights within the borders of the Russian Federation and beyond.

Chinese investors with connections to the Chinese state might also increase their sway within Russia. I am not sure whether that would be good or bad for Russians–or the world.

A situation like this could last for a long time.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.