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Is Vladimir Putin the very model of a modern authoritarian terrorist? Does it matter?

Is Vladimir Putin the very model of a modern authoritarian terrorist? Does it matter?
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a news conference following the Commonwealth of Independent States Heads of State Council meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, 14 October 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ramil Sitdikov / Kremlin Pool / Sputnik)

Vladimir Putin has increasingly embraced the authoritarian ideal of governance. With that comes a growing appreciation of classical means of governing through the use of state-sponsored terror — domestically and internationally.

In the wake of Russia’s increasingly disastrous invasion of Ukraine — and an invasion that has no clear exit ramp for Russia by Vladimir Putin’s lights except a hollow declaration of victory or a “mission accomplished”-style withdrawal — speculations about his worldview and the deeper motivations for this invasion (following the earlier annexation of Crimea) fill media articles, conference proceedings, think tank newsletters, scholarly papers and television commentary. Such sources hope to mine deeper truths about the Russian leader’s motivations.

For our prior efforts at this, see:

Inside Vladimir Putin’s head — what it may mean for Ukraine and everybody else

At the heart of Russia’s foreign policy, fear of the outside world


Those analyses were followed by several more recent articles exploring the broader implications of the Ukraine invasion. For these, see:

Thorny crown: Vladimir Putin is at risk of losing war with Ukraine and his own throne

Let’s hope Putin can control his trigger finger when it comes to nuclear weapons

Putin’s trashing of international norms will encourage rulers with malevolent ambitions

Earth to Vladimir Putin: You’re in a hole — stop digging

What seems relatively less examined — and often taken for granted with a shrug as a political and sociological given — is what kind of authoritarian political leader Vladimir Putin actually is.

What are the historical antecedents for this behaviour, or is it something new? There is also a related question of how he managed to rise to high office despite a less than distinguished career as an operative in the old Soviet-era KGB intelligence apparatus, mostly spent in a backwater of the old Democratic Republic of (East) Germany.

There is the question, too, of how that experience links to his decision-making and his army’s current misadventure in Ukraine. And, of course, underlying all those questions is: What manner of authoritarianism does Vladimir Putin exercise?

Behind that question, of course, lurks yet one more challenge: Is state terror an essential element of Vladimir Putin’s own brand of 21st-century authoritarianism, or is it somehow just an incidental byproduct of his rule of Russia in the lead-up to his war?

These questions can be central for determining how best to respond to Russia’s current aggression — and for thinking about what comes next after the war ends once the invasion finally collapses, the devastation in Ukraine has become truly massive, and the political stability of Russia becomes an open question.

Russian ‘democratic tradition’

Perhaps it is best to start with Russia’s democratic tradition, or, rather, the lack of it. Stretching back to the Russian state of Muscovy, absolute authoritarian rule has largely been the style of governance, up to the beginning of the 20th century. Further, absolutist rule has its origins in yet older influences, reaching back to the era of the vast Mongol empire that began with the Mongol’s Khanate of the Golden Horde — and years of efforts to displace it, led by absolute rulers in Muscovy. 

Centuries later, despite their fervour, the Decembrist reformist movement of the 1820s (and its suppression) barely had a sustained impact on governance in Russia. Then, throughout the 19th century, a reform-minded czar would be followed by a repressive one.

Meanwhile, the vast population of serfs in lifetime indentured status were finally freed from those restrictions in the 1860s, but most were still largely bound to their respective masters by tradition. In the growing, industrialising cities, unions were strongly repressed by authorities fearful of such movements.

Simultaneously, throughout the 19th century, the political, cultural and linguistic repression of subject minorities remained the norm. And opposition figures were frequently forcibly rusticated to distant parts of Russia’s vast land empire; publications were often suppressed or confiscated, and the authors and publishers arrested.

Russo-Japanese War, revolution and World War 1

It was only in the unrest and discontent that erupted at the time of Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 that a parliament with a limited franchise could gain even modest authority over state policies. Then, throughout the years of World War 1, the imperial family (and a few close advisers) remained the arbiters of what was permitted, despite the growing national crisis brought on by the war.

By the early months of the 1917 revolution in April, the new revolutionary government attempted to achieve a broad-based, more democratic government. However, given opposition from the communist and socialist left, and in the context of growing economic and social upheavals, Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government was incapable of responding to those growing demands for “bread, peace, and land.”

Together with the actions of communist-affiliated militias attempting to seize control of various state assets, the provisional government proved unable of securing even a semblance of control, especially as that government insisted on continuing the effort against Russia’s German and Austrian foes in World War 1.

The country ultimately slid into a civil war of great barbarity over nearly four years, including several foreign interventions, an army comprising former Czech prisoners of war who were fighting to depart from Russia, as well as armed bands despoiling much of the countryside. Achieving a sense of stability became a key objective for the new communist government (and a strong desire by most Russian inhabitants) in the face of the ongoing chaos. Stability — and the achievement and maintenance of it — has remained a key goal.

Communist government

The eventual end of the civil war brought the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to complete control, but not before they had turned on their erstwhile allies of the naval troops of the Kronstadt naval base. In securing state control, the government fell back on to the usual authoritarian tools, now undergirded by their ideological basis of control of the state.

As Joseph Stalin succeeded Vladimir Lenin, the methods increasingly included the arrest, and often death of, any political opponents (real or perceived), severe restrictions and internal exile of entire ethnic minorities, mass famines engineered by the government, state control over the media, and the enforced subordination of all forms of political and economic movements — and the suppression of freedom of expression.

As Joseph Stalin took command, the government institutionalised a vast network of harsh prison work camps (more extensive and onerous than with the czarist model) that came to hold many hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions in toto — of opponents and innocents alike. Many of the inmates perished and this system operated in tandem with the state’s near-total control over economic plans, policies and resource allocations.

In sum, virtually nothing from this history offered guidance for a democratic tradition. Instead, it was built upon those traditional patterns of absolutist rule that extended across the Russian Empire over centuries as it expanded into Eastern Europe, southward towards the Caucasus border lands, on to the traditional emirates of Central Asia, and then to largely unsettled parts of Siberia, and then Northeast Asian, Chinese-ruled lands.

When Premier Nikita Khrushchev gained power in 1956, there were glimmers of a slightly liberalised order, including a gradual draw-down of Stalin’s vast system of prison work camps, although political liberty and economic decentralisation were not part of Khrushchev’s agenda, nor were concessions to broader liberties.

However, by the mid-1980s, as Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the necessity of implementing the policies of glasnost and perestroika — transparency and renewal/restructuring  — had become urgent in order to maintain the existence and stability of the state. 

Vladimir Putin

It was during this period, of course, that a young KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, had been assigned to a backwater in East Germany. A loyal servant of the KGB worldview, he was on site as Communist Party control of East Germany evaporated.

Once he had returned to the then-Soviet Union, he was a junior political figure as the Soviet Union itself imploded, and as he watched the economy go into a tailspin, losing about a third of its total GDP during the economic free-for-all that quickly ensued. 

The lessons learnt from watching those experiences were that strong government mattered, and that limits on dissent and political opposition were vital if stability was to be ensured.

Further, it was crucial to align the newly emerging economic and business mandarins — those oligarchs who had insinuated themselves into control of formerly state-owned enterprises  — into deliberately subservient relationships with himself — making Putin the key choke point in doling out access to resources and opportunities. Putin by now had infamously explained that the collapse of the Soviet Union and its system was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.

Of course history and geography are not necessarily destiny, although they can be both influences and guides for the future. Importantly, for today’s Russia, those lessons have easily become the preferred, default setting.

While the Putin era initially had seemed to be open to more liberal policies as Putin was a subaltern to Boris Yeltsin, and then, unexpectedly, his successor as president of the now smaller, separate Russia, those older impulses towards authoritarianism at home (and then towards Ukraine as well) have been resurrected. But it is a version of authoritarianism with differences. Several months ago, Daniel Treisman, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles and Stanford University, writing in Foreign Affairs, noted:

“Seen in light of Putin’s evolving style of rule at home, however, the assault on Ukraine fits into an emerging pattern — one that features anti-Western nationalism; angry, self-justifying speeches; and increasingly open uses of force. Starting about four years ago, and even more insistently since the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has been reshaping the system through which he exercises political power. Gone is the soft authoritarian regime of his early years, administered in part by a team of liberal economists and technocrats who favoured Russia’s integration with the West and sought to attract investors with a show of commitment to the rule of law. Now, Russia is a brutally repressive police state run by a small group of hard-liners who have imposed ever-harsher policies both at home and abroad.” 

The wheel turns.

Treisman’s article came out during the early months of the Ukrainian invasion, and before most of the crimes by Russian soldiers against Ukrainian civilians in the war zones had been uncovered or mistreatment of POWs was recorded. This was largely before any hoped-for effects on morale as a result of the frequent Russian missile and drone terror attacks on clearly non-military, civilian targets like schools, apartment buildings, and hospitals truly began, and as the outlines of the kidnapping of Ukrainian children from the war zone was only about to commence. 

Nevertheless, Treisman was already able to observe:

“As Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine in late February, the Kremlin was already launching another offensive, aimed at the forward-looking, freethinking part of Russian society that refused to rally behind the official line. Putin’s agents quickly closed almost all liberal media outlets — including Echo Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) and Dozhd (TV Rain) — and restricted access to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. A new law threatened critics of the war with 15 years in a labor camp And in just the first two weeks of the invasion, the police detained more than 13,000 antiwar protesters.”

This behaviour has extended to the shuttering of human rights groups in Russia such as Memorial and Open Russia, and remaining groups such as the well-respected polling body, the Levada Center, have been required to identify themselves as “foreign agents.”

Further, given the use of approaches and technology that manipulate public opinion, Treisman and one of his frequent co-authors, Sergei Guriev, have labelled leaders like Putin as “spin dictators,” as they “manipulate information to build support and discredit rivals”.  Such efforts are, of course, in addition to the use of all those old, tried and true methods such as an attempt to poison, and then the arrest and incarceration of an  opposition figure like Alexi Navalny. As the war in Ukraine grinds on and on, the same kinds of efforts are being brought to bear as well in the Ukrainian areas held by Russia.

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Russian journalist and contributing columnist to the Washington Post, Vladimir Kara-Murza, recently received the Václav Havel Prize for his defence of human rights in Russia. Commenting on his arrest and his remarks prepared for the awards ceremony, the Post noted:

“Kara-Murza [delivered by his wife] draws an apt parallel between Russia’s current aggression toward Ukraine and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The Russian soldiers invading Ukraine display World War II battle flags on their vehicles and use slogans praising Stalin along with Vladimir Putin. In 1968, Czechs launched a reform campaign — known as the ‘Prague Spring’ — that aimed to create a more liberal society by limiting the powers of the Communist state. Soviet leaders felt threatened by the prospect of a liberal democracy blossoming within the Warsaw Pact, so they sent in tanks, crushing a movement whose members included Havel and many other dissidents.”

In his actual address, Kara-Murza wrote:

“[Vaclav] Havel once said that ‘if the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then … the fundamental threat to it is living the truth — this is why it must be suppressed more severely than anything else.’ The reality of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia bears out these words to the full. With the start of this brutal invasion of Ukraine, Putin also launched another war — a war on truth in our own country. Since February, Russia’s remaining independent media outlets have been silenced; the authorities have imposed near-total censorship of the internet and social media; while new, hastily passed laws have criminalized public opposition to the war with up to 15 years of imprisonment. Just as in communist Czechoslovakia that imprisoned Havel; just as in the Soviet Union that, even in its most ‘liberal’ periods, imprisoned thousands of dissidents; in today’s Russia of Vladimir Putin, speaking the truth is considered a crime against the state.”

Given this history and current policy, the challenge, now, is for terrorism to be called for what it is — whether it is the domestic version carried out inside Russia or externally against its invaded neighbour.

Now it is also important to accept the idea that this has been a continuing feature of Russian state policy, and then to label it for what it is. At some point, it is going to be important, if only symbolically, to seek charges under international law on those who have carried out such reprehensible actions.

Moreover, it is time to begin to set in motion ways to seek reparations for all the victims in Russia’s neighbour — likely by seizing Russian reserves held outside the country. For that, the suggestion first voiced by economist Robert Litan (and discussed by us here: Plans must be laid for a Ukraine settlement — and Russian humanitarian reparations) needs to be embraced internationally and the necessary mechanisms worked out to make it feasible and real.  DM


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