Between 1996 and 2011, I served as a consultant to the Kremlin, advising Russian Presidents Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin, and Dmitry Medvedev. And yet even I can hardly claim to understand the real mechanisms of power in today’s Russia. In the past few years, the country has reached a level of dysfunction that has pushed it to the brink, threatening its very existence. Ill-conceived military adventures, poor decision-making, and political skullduggery—sometimes of the lethal variety—have wreaked havoc on Russia’s economy and led to international isolation.
Some have concluded that the problem is simply one of autocracy, that there is no longer any distinction between the Kremlin and Putin. As Vyacheslav Volodin, a high-level domestic policy aide to Putin, has publicly said, “While Putin is there, so is Russia; once Putin is gone, so is Russia.” This conception of Putin as sole sovereign has developed only gradually. In a 2002 census questionnaire, Putin described himself as “an employee working in management, providing services to the people.” Today, he has eschewed that modest image and embraced a cult of personality: portraits of Putin appear in many Russian homes, and busts of Putin crowd department store shelves. This aesthetic of dictatorship encourages the idea that the Russian state is Putin’s property.
The trouble with that diagnosis is that it cannot explain Russia’s recent erraticism. Putin is hardly a mysterious figure; his biography is well known. And his many opponents, despite their best efforts, have found no Machiavellian depravity in Putin’s character. His hypocrisy and penchant for gambling are fundamentally rational and devoid of eccentricity.
So if the Russian state were nothing more than an extension of Putin, how would one explain the reckless decision to invade and annex Crimea in 2014 or the risky military intervention in Syria that Russia launched last year? If Russia were a pure autocracy, such actions would suggest a leader with a personality like Stalin’s or Mussolini’s. But there are no evil geniuses in
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