The Illiberal Tide
Why the International Order Is Tilting Toward Autocracy
Obviously, 2020 was a terrible year. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, there was one bright spot. Putin solved his “2024 problem”—the legal constraint to standing for reelection in 2024. He did so by ramming through a constitutional overhaul that nullified the previous term limit—a special provision designed especially for him. In principle, the new rules allow Putin to stay in power until 2036, which would make him the longest-serving Russian ruler since Peter the Great.
Of course, 2020 did not go quite the way Putin wanted. Massive demonstrations in Belarus, a neighbor and one of Russia’s closest allies, showed the fragility of personalistic authoritarian regimes in the region. Russia’s Federal Security Service, which Putin himself once headed, bungled an assassination attempt against the Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny. Still, Putin accomplished his top goal for 2020.
In contrast, 2021 has started badly for Putin. Navalny’s dramatic return to Russia after recovering in Germany, his arrest upon arrival, and his subsequent prison sentence on bogus charges set off the largest protests in a decade. Tens of millions of Russians have viewed Navalny’s video exposé on YouTube about “Putin’s palace” on the Black Sea coast. The triumphant constitutional reform of the first half of 2020 seems a distant memory.
Putin’s solution to the 2024 problem was for his own benefit, but it also was designed to reassure Russia’s political and economic elite. They were dreading a potentially treacherous succession crisis that might put their power, wealth, and freedom at risk. Anxiety over Putin’s plans started to bubble up as soon as he was reelected to his fourth term in 2018. In a political system built around a single leader, the 2024 problem quickly became the central obsession of Russia’s chattering classes.
Resetting Putin’s presidential clock does little for the Russian people, however. Although they dutifully voted for the new constitution in a slapdash referendum, Putin’s popularity has been in steady decline for several years and trust in him is at historic lows. Years of a weak economy and bad governance have taken their toll. Putin maintains his popular support through a combination of memories of past achievements, fear of instability, inertia, and, crucially, a Kremlin-constructed lack of alternatives.
Putin’s constitutional overhaul, a balm for the elite but a bust for the average citizen, is most of all a blow to the resilience of the Russian state. During his first two terms as president from 2000 to 2008, Putin repeatedly spoke out against amending the constitution to extend his time in power. In 2005, for example, he maintained that “nothing will remain” of a state where leaders change the constitution for their benefit. Yet the first and most consequential thing his designated successor, Dmitry Medvedev, did as president in 2008 was to amend the constitution to lengthen presidential terms from four to six years. Putin took advantage of this change to serve two more terms in 2012 and 2018. Finally, in 2020, Putin again rewrote the constitution for his own ends. He justified the change with standard themes he has invoked throughout his rule—the importance of stability, Russia’s vulnerabilities, the primacy of security, and the “absolute necessity” of a powerful president to hold the country together.
Resetting Putin’s presidential clock does little for the Russian people.
But the Putin of 2005, who warned against the dangers of amending the constitution to suit particular rulers, was right. Meaningful political stability is achieved not by keeping one ruler in power for decades and decades but by building a system that moves from leader to leader without major trauma. Even countries that have had regular and peaceful transfers of power are not immune to succession trauma under the right conditions, as the United States recently learned. Those based on one-man rule are even more at risk.
Putin’s new constitution, however, did not inoculate him against further difficulties. The Navalny challenge has made that clear. Claims that Putin has cemented his rule until 2036 are wrong. He will continue to face challenges at the ballot box in local, regional, and national elections, even though these contests are neither free nor fair; on the still vibrant Russian Internet, which is growing rapidly as an important source for political information; and on the streets, as people come out to protest a host of economic, social, and political troubles. A sham plebiscite, designed to give an aura of democratic legitimacy to autocratic rule, will not erase societal dissatisfaction with corruption, an unresponsive state, and economic stagnation.
Putin’s new constitution, however, does at least provide clarity for U.S.-Russian relations. Although 16 more years of Putin’s rule is far from inevitable, the new constitution makes it more likely than before. That means the poor state of U.S.-Russian relations will continue. On the Russian side, Putin and his close associates have consistently argued that the United States is out to get them and that the current international order is unfair to Russia. On the American side, the appetite for a broad-based rapprochement with Moscow is also absent. What the change in U.S. administrations might accomplish, however, is a return to responsible bilateral collaboration on global issues such as nuclear arms control, as well as a renewed push to reach out to Russian society.
Putin’s recent rush to amend the Russian constitution lacked the gravitas that Americans imagine attended their Constitutional Convention in eighteenth-century Philadelphia. It was more akin to what the Russian commentator Mikhail Rostovsky called “Special Operation Succession,” designed “to deceive and disorient the enemy.” The operation took place in three stages.
In the first stage, Putin used his January 2020 State of the Nation speech to call for constitutional reform. Brilliantly, his proposals were presented as weakening, not strengthening, the presidency. This set off a flurry of speculation that Putin was preparing to half exit the stage, turning over the presidency to a loyal successor while occupying a guardian position elsewhere in the system, such as the head of an empowered State Council (previously a toothless advisory body).
Once the list of proposed amendments was published, however, it became clear that they would do the opposite. In particular, they bolstered the president’s control over the courts and prosecutors, undermined the independence of local government, and gave the president more direct control over the “government” (the prime minister and other government ministers). Provisions that ostensibly gave the parliament more power over the government were counterbalanced by other articles that made it relatively easy for the president to ignore or overrule the legislature when necessary.
The second stage of Putin’s succession took place in March 2020. During the crucial March 10 State Duma vote to amend the 1993 constitution, Putin dramatically showed up in person to support resetting the clock on presidential term limits, the so-called nullification that allows him to legally stand for presidential election again in 2024 and 2030. And that was that. Within a matter of days, the State Duma, the Federation Council, and the legislatures of all of Russia’s regions voted overwhelmingly, often unanimously, for Putin’s proposed constitution. Putin signed the law on March 14, and the Constitutional Court consented two days later. The country’s Basic Law was rewritten in less than a week.
Putin’s constitutional overhaul is most of all a blow to the resilience of the Russian state.
After two months of furious speculation, Putin opted for the crudest option for solving the 2024 problem. Rather than engaging in an intricate maneuver that would allow him to carry on as the “paramount leader” or “father of the nation” although no longer president, Putin simply reset the presidential clock. It was a familiar model for Eurasia: since the Soviet collapse, presidents in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have removed or circumvented term limits to remain in office. These constitutional shenanigans do not always work, as former leaders in Armenia and Kyrgyzstan found out, done in by some combination of street protests and elite betrayal. Putin, though, decided he was secure enough to solve his problem the quick and dirty way.
The final stage of Putin’s special operation took place on July 1, with a plebiscite on the new constitution. The revised document required no such vote, and copies of it were on sale in Moscow bookstores before voting even began. The national referendum was a simple yes or no, even though there were 206 separate amendments under consideration. The idea of a popular vote was designed to give the appearance of legitimacy to something that, from a democratic point of view, was entirely illegitimate—amending the constitution for the benefit of one man, thereby opening up the possibility of extending his time in power by another 16 years.
In the end, there was only one possible outcome: Russia’s electoral authorities announced a strong turnout (65 percent) and an even stronger “yes” vote (78 percent). Independent Russian election analysts provided compelling evidence that both figures were seriously inflated, and subsequent polls showed that citizens were strongly divided over the “nullification” provision, with only one-third strongly supporting it and an equal number strongly opposing it. Putin’s subsequent self-congratulatory remarks hit the familiar notes, emphasizing that in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse Russia was still relatively new and in the process of formation. It remained “very vulnerable,” requiring “internal stability and time to strengthen the country and all its institutions.” Putin believed he now had a popular mandate to keep working on those issues as long as he felt necessary.
The popular vote in favor of a new constitution was designed to legitimize Putin’s hold on power—thus giving him a trump card to play against opponents who object to his autocratic rule. At one level, this is standard behavior from electoral authoritarian regimes—claiming a mandate from the masses even though the procedures are fraudulent. On a deeper level, though, it reflects an attempt to elevate Putin’s position above the simple title of president, sanctifying him as a national leader of historic proportions, one for whom special rules should be written. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a central event marking Putin’s exalted status as the “gatherer of Russian lands” and a special leader.
Over the last few years, however, Putin has been “desacralized,” as Russian analysts like to put it. Seven years of falling living standards and his widely unpopular 2018 decision to raise the pension age brought him back to earth. Putin has also run out of coherent ideas for ending a decade of economic sluggishness and has shown little interest in leading Russia’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, preferring to delegate that job to others. The plebiscite and new constitution are therefore unlikely to insulate Putin from ongoing challenges to his personalistic regime. His authority depends less on periodic and unfair electoral coronations than on a carefully managed sense among both elites and average citizens that there is no alternative—and that a great Russia should be led by a great Putin.
Observers do not know if Putin intends to rule until 2036, and he might not know, either. The new constitution makes it legal for him to run again in 2024 and potentially 2030, but it does not require it. Some scholars have argued, and Putin himself has suggested, that the real point of the amendments was to prevent a lame-duck scenario where the elite began battling over succession well before 2024, weakening Putin’s control.
Nevertheless, Putin has had many opportunities to step away from power, and he keeps hanging on. He is the anti-Godot of Russian politics: other actors constantly talk about when and whether he will leave, but at the end of each act he remains at center stage. Putin apparently believes he is best qualified to steer Russia through a dangerous international order. In a marathon press conference in December of last year, he said that he will be guided in his decision about 2024 by what is “good for the country.”
In the meantime, Putinism at home is beginning to look brittle. Declining living standards and economic stagnation—since 2013, real disposable incomes have fallen by ten percent and economic growth has averaged a paltry 0.3 percent per year—have become persistent problems. The Russian statistical agency reported in February that more than 162,000 people had died of COVID-19 in 2020, the fourth-highest number in the world and more than 100,000 higher than the official count from the Russian government’s coronavirus task force. Russian excess mortality for the year was over 323,000, so even the new numbers could well be an undercount. These harsh figures undercut Putin’s frequent claims that Russia’s pandemic response was better than that in other countries.
Despite government crackdowns and restrictions, protest activity in recent years has also been a noticeable thorn in the government’s side. Putin’s decision to raise the retirement age in 2018 sparked demonstrations around the country. A year later, Moscow saw some of its largest protests in nearly a decade after the government excluded opposition candidates from local parliamentary elections, a contest that most Muscovites had once ignored. Local protests around Russia have also grown in response to bureaucratic boneheadedness over issues such as landfills and zoning decisions. In July 2020, the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk had its largest demonstration in history when tens of thousands came out to protest the federal government’s arrest of the regional governor. The January 2021 protests after Navalny’s arrest spread to nearly 200 cities and towns across Russia, showing that popular anger over corruption, state lawlessness, and declining living standards existed in many places previously untouched by political unrest.
This is not to suggest that Putin is at any imminent risk of a popular revolt. He has reliable control over the state’s coercive authorities, including the secret police and Rosgvardiya, the praetorian guard force created in 2016 that controls the fearsome riot police. Putin will also no doubt use the failed insurrection in the United States to bolster his arguments about the dangers of protest. Political and economic elites in Russia are, moreover, in the same position as the masses. Putin controls the most important levers of power and wealth. The regime is far from monolithic, but even those elites who harbor doubts about Putin’s current effectiveness may fear that their fortunes, literal as well as metaphorical, might be threatened by a different ruler.
Although Putin’s rule now appears secure, there are plenty of opportunities for unexpected shocks to a degrading system. The Navalny challenge has spooked the Kremlin. Policing strategies were startlingly assertive in January. After years of an apparent unofficial ban on uttering Navalny’s name on Russian state television, he is now the object of merciless verbal assaults—a striking change in strategy. Many of Navalny’s associates have been targeted for arrest and lawsuits, and his anticorruption foundation has also been hit with felony charges. Putin is concerned about the national State Duma elections scheduled for September. The elections create opportunities for protest votes against the unpopular ruling United Russia party and its candidates and actual protests if the vote rigging is too blatant.
There is little chance for major progress on Russia’s relations with the West.
Dictators often see their hold on power crumble when they make mistakes. As the political scientist Daniel Treisman has argued, they might accidentally choose the incorrect path owing to poor information, hubris, miscalculation, or some other error. This happened in Belarus last year when President Alexander Lukashenko underestimated Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s popularity and Belarusian society’s capacity to protest. Although Lukashenko has thus far managed to hold on to power, his regime remains wobbly. Given reports that Putin relies heavily on information provided by his security services, which comes with built-in biases, he may be vulnerable to similar blunders.
The most important conclusion from the protests in both Belarus and Russia is that Putin has not solved the 2024 problem at all. Just because he can now legally run again does not mean that reelection will be a walk in the park. With Putin desacralized, controlling state television and manipulating elections to keep out dangerous challengers might not be enough. Fraud and repression will probably be necessary as well, and those do not always work. If Putin’s popularity continues to fall, some among the elite may even conclude that saving the regime requires a new face at the top.
In a larger sense, Putin’s personalistic autocracy is putting two contending theories to the test about the effect of a country’s economy and society on its political system. On the one hand, Russia today is unusually authoritarian for a relatively wealthy country (in per capita terms). During the 2018 men’s World Cup, many Western visitors whose only knowledge of Russian society came from vague impressions about Soviet shortages and post-Soviet mafia battles were amazed to find vibrant cities with hipster bars and cafés, international cuisine, and many of the same designer stores they would see in London, New York City, or Paris. The connection between economic development and democratic politics, known as modernization theory, is far from automatic, but Russia is still an outlier.
On the other hand, Russia in some ways looks like other authoritarian petrostates, where a small minority of elites extract rent from hydrocarbon exports and the people have limited political voice. The regime simultaneously keeps the security services and repressive organs in line by paying them well and letting them prey on private business. Although there is something resembling a middle class, the one in Russia is dominated not by small-business entrepreneurs but by dependent state employees.
Ultimately, however, contemporary Russia is not a neutral test of these two theories. In its hyperpresidentialist political system, much depends on its top ruler. Putin’s love of order, fear of instability, suspicion of the United States, and hatred of popular revolutions have meant that he views social forces seeking dignity and a political voice as harbingers of a Western plot to undermine his regime and weaken Russia. His animosity toward Navalny, for instance, seems rooted in paranoid suspicions that the opposition leader is part of a secret U.S. campaign against him. In the short term, Putin’s preferences trump any underlying economic forces.
A central Kremlin justification for removing Putin’s term limits was the dangerous state of the world. Russian officials tend not to consider the possibility that its actions may be contributing to global instability. Great powers—including the United States—are not known for their foreign policy introspection. This tendency is particularly pronounced in Putin’s Russia, where the country’s rulers share an image of Russia as a besieged fortress. When you think you are under attack, any action, including invading and annexing the territory of a neighboring country, assassinating opponents using chemical weapons at home and abroad, and directly and covertly intervening in a rival’s presidential elections, can be justified in the name of self-defense.
This besieged fortress mentality means that a major positive shift in U.S.-Russian relations is impossible. Russian leaders will blame the United States for future international setbacks or domestic disturbances. Putin has consistently held the United States responsible for such events in the past, including the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine in the early 2000s, the Moscow protests and Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, Belarus’s 2020 protests, and now Russia’s recent demonstrations. Although it sounds unbelievably cynical, Putin and his close associates seem to believe it.
Russian officials have already made clear that they expect nothing good from the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov accused its new leaders of “Russophobia” and “throwing mud at my country.” Ryabkov suggested that Russia would pursue a combined policy of “containment” with “selective dialogue.” Frankly, U.S. policy toward Russia is likely to be based on similar premises.
The containment part of this policy is already in motion. Biden ordered an intelligence review of several aspects of Russian behavior, including the SolarWinds cyber-hack and the use of a prohibited chemical weapon in the Navalny assassination attempt. Sanctions for the Navalny poisoning have already been imposed, and further retaliatory steps for other Russian actions are apparently forthcoming. Importantly, though, as former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul recently observed in these pages, a good containment strategy begins at home. This includes more robust cyberdefenses and transparency reforms in the financial sector to root out dirty money, whatever its origin. More generally, members of the new Biden foreign policy team are committed multilateralists who will work with U.S. allies to fashion a collective approach.
Selective dialogue has already yielded a major win: the mutual extension of the 2011 New START treaty for another five years. More difficult arms control discussions are now on the agenda. In November 2020, for instance, the Trump administration withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty, a useful transparency- and confidence-building agreement that NATO allies strongly support. In January 2021, the Russian government announced its intention to follow suit and leave the treaty. Arms control experts from Russia, Europe, and the United States have proposed a joint plan to save Open Skies, beginning with a U.S. review of its withdrawal and a statement of intent to find a way to rejoin. It’s not clear if this will work, but the Biden administration should try. Russia would also support an effort to bring the United States back into the Iran nuclear deal; it has no interest in a nuclear-armed Iran.
Longer term, the central arms control objective should be a follow-on treaty to New START. There is a range of complicated issues to address, including new types of weapons systems, nonstrategic nuclear weapons, long-range conventional strike systems, missile defenses, and so on. Dealing with these challenges will take years, which is why a five-year extension of New START was the right call and why the time to start new negotiations is now.
Russia likes to work with the United States on arms control because it is the one area in which Moscow is equal to Washington and ahead of any other country. Other topics ripe for discussion include climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and global health more generally, Arctic governance, nonproliferation, and military consultations, especially on deconfliction arrangements in areas where the two militaries operate near each other. Each of these issues is one in which, at least in principle, Russia and the United States could make progress without any expectation that it would lead to bilateral cooperation across the board.
A combination of containment and selective dialogue, however, is not enough. The Biden administration should also launch a concerted effort to reach out to the Russian people. The main principle of this outreach should be a sharp differentiation between the Russian government and Russian society. There are still programs up and running to engage with ordinary Russians, and the United States should continue to expand them when possible. Exchanges in spheres such as sports, education, culture, and the arts are perhaps small potatoes in the grand scheme of the overall relationship, but they are cheap and better than nothing. U.S. and Russian groups should pursue informal dialogue across a range of issues, such as science, health, climate policy, public health, and small-business development. It will be important to define this outreach in nonpolitical terms. Efforts to lecture average Russians about how to best organize their political system will be particularly unpersuasive after the failed January 6 putsch.
This societal engagement strategy should promote the prospect of better relations in a post-Putin era. Whenever and however it comes, it will be in the United States’ interest to have a broader set of Russian actors familiar with the United States and its people, just as it will be important to have Americans who have the same knowledge of Russia. Public opinion surveys after the 2018 men’s World Cup showed a Russian society eager to engage with the world, despite the model promoted by its political leaders and state media. This tendency is particularly pronounced among younger Russians, who are more pro-Western than older generations.
Russia’s 2021 protests showed that changing the rules did not guarantee smooth sailing for Putin.
This societal outreach strategy will not be easy. Putin’s new constitution and the imprisonment of Navalny are only the two most obvious manifestations of an ongoing crackdown. The Russian state seems increasingly interested in preventing or punishing citizens’ connections with the West. At the end of 2020, the State Duma rushed through a series of laws that allowed the state to block websites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, made holding political meetings even more difficult, and gave the government the ability to label individuals and organizations “foreign agents” for receiving support from abroad for political activity. The elasticity of the concepts of “support” and “political activity” will make this new law a very flexible weapon in the hands of Russian law enforcement. It will also make the strategy of engaging with average Russians more complicated.
Although it is unlikely that Russia will try to ban Western social media sites, Moscow could increasingly pressure them to remove undesirable content. Russia in recent years has sought to restrict and cripple the work of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty inside Russia. The Biden administration needs to develop a plan to defend RFE/RL from harassment and devise additional ways to support the free flow of information from outside Russia. Russian young people, like young people everywhere, increasingly get information online. News from a range of spheres—education, culture, science, and civil society—can potentially be delivered at a distance, expanding access to a broader group of Russian citizens.
Geopolitical confrontation with Russia has made it harder to pursue people-to-people contacts. Russia’s 2012 expulsion of the U.S. Agency for International Development ended a wide range of programs that were aimed at average citizens’ concerns, including health, business, and legal affairs. Russia’s 2016 electoral interference and the 2018 poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom predictably led to another round of tit-for-tat diplomatic skirmishes between the United States and Russia. Before the pandemic, the queue to get an ordinary U.S. visa in Moscow was ten months long, forcing tens of thousands of Russians to travel to neighboring countries to secure one.
In December 2020, the United States made that problem worse by announcing plans to permanently close the consulate in Vladivostok and suspend operations at the one in Yekaterinburg, citing severe personnel limits imposed by Russia. That would leave the United States with only the embassy in Moscow, a woefully inadequate diplomatic presence in the world’s largest country. In comparison, the United States has five diplomatic missions in India and six in China and Germany. The Biden administration should reverse this consular decision immediately. More ambitiously, Washington should quietly begin exploring efforts to unwind previous diplomatic expulsions, while reiterating its objections to the actions that instigated them. This would not be a matter of ignoring malign Russian behavior; consular issues do not affect Putin and simply hurt average travelers.
Given the difficulty of dealing with an increasingly authoritarian Russia and a considerable list of short-term priorities in arms control and other issue areas, there is no reason to pursue a broader-based reset. There is also little chance for major progress on a central and persistent problem in Russia’s relations with the West: how to reassure Moscow about its security in Europe (a good thing) without giving it a recognized sphere of influence (a bad thing). This will not change as long as Putin and his team are in power. Indeed, the Biden administration is likely to pay more attention to Russia’s neighbors—Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, and the Baltic states in particular—in ways that are almost guaranteed to push Putin’s buttons. With new U.S. officials inclined to talk more openly, more frequently, and more sincerely about democracy and human rights, the Kremlin’s color revolution warning meter will be turned up to 11.
Of course, it seems possible that the failed insurrection in Washington and the broader crisis of U.S. politics will somewhat temper the Biden administration’s impulse to promote democracy. Leaders abroad would likely welcome more humility. The Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman was correct when she commented that the U.S. electoral system is “archaic” and “does not meet modern democratic standards.” The statement’s rank hypocrisy does not make it less effective in Russia’s political discourse. Honest talk from American officials about how democracy building is a process that even established democracies must engage in is likely to be more persuasive than general platitudes. The point is not to abandon democracy promotion abroad but to make it more effective by sincerely embracing it at home.
Putin’s new constitution was meant to answer one of Russian politics’ biggest questions. Russia’s 2021 protests showed that changing the rules did not guarantee smooth sailing for Putin, including in 2024. Domestically, Putinism is adrift. Personalistic authoritarian regimes often collapse in surprising ways, whether through elite overthrows or mass uprisings. When the post-Putin era arrives, the United States should not assume that this necessarily heralds a democratic breakthrough. Historically, the end of a personalistic regime often leads to another authoritarian government. Still, nearly every leadership change in Russia and the Soviet Union over the last century has led to major shifts in domestic or foreign policy. The same will likely be true after Putin.
Putin could remain in power until the end of his days, designate a successor, or fall unexpectedly. Predicting when or how that happens is a mug’s game. U.S. leaders should not assume, however, that Putin is all-powerful and that his position is eternally secure. The opposite seems more likely. By continually remaking the rules of the game for his own benefit, Putin has created an unstable domestic political order. The United States should work with Russia where it can and contain Russia where it cannot while building a basis for long-term engagement when change does come.
Even Good Diplomacy Can’t Smooth a Clash of Interests