Vladimir Putin and the myth that will not die
“Governance in Russia is a one-man show.”
Countless attempts have been made to end the claim. Vladimir Putin is not ‘a cross between Joseph Stalin and a Bond film villain‘, it also does not command a’well oiled machine‘governance with ruthless efficiency. For commentators who think politics in Russia isn’t all about Putin, repeating points like these to challenge the myth can become a sort of professional risk.
In a recent house in Chatham report, Ekaterina Schulmann and I join the long list of critics of the “one-man show” model.
Why bother, you might ask. One of the reasons is sheer stubbornness. As long as it is claimed that Russian politics can be explained by focusing on one man, people should be prepared to speak out against these claims.
Another reason is more practical. And it is a realization of the detrimental impact of this model on the development of Western policies. With relations between Russia and the West clearly at an all-time low, we need to appreciate – perhaps more than during more cooperative times – how Russian governance actually works. Now is not the time for cartoons.
Some might argue that the “one-man show” model is a straw man – no one in fact believes Putin is in control. Rather, he controls all the key decisions, they might say.
But this softer version of the model still misses the mark. And here are three reasons why.
First, even in cases where Putin is the main decision maker, he does not work in a vacuum.
Other actors – including in the bureaucracy – influence the information it receives and the range of options presented to it. The “one-man show” model is completely silent on the important agenda-setting power held by others beyond the Russian president.
Second, even though Putin is involved in all important decisions, he doesn’t necessarily impose his own established preferences (assuming he has them in all areas). A plethora of accounts portray Putin as an arbiter, acting as a judge between competing interest groups, rather than someone who simply dictates policy.
In fact, this “arbiter” model can help explain the frequent policy reversals in certain policy areas. These changes do not reflect Putin’s hesitation, but rather the changes in the balance of power between these competing groups. A focus on Putin alone would miss that.
Third, and more broadly, Putin’s behavior can be both activated and coerced by popular opinion in Russia. In other words, his power is’co-constructed“With Russian citizens, rather than being used to coerce the population into submission. And the role of the Russian people in defining the limits of the possible in politics will outlast Putin, making awareness of these attitudes and values vital. The “one-man show” approach also lacks all of this.
The “ vertical of power ”, propaganda and power
These three points relate to decision making. But the model faces even greater difficulties when it comes to making sense of politics. Implementation.
Contrary to the image of the “vertical of power”, state agents do not always comply quickly and effectively presidential ordinances. Government ministries often miss deadlines – and high-level political goals are delayed or quietly abandoned.
The idea of the “vertical of power” is presented by pro and anti-Kremlin voices – good and bad respectively. And that tells us a lot. This suggests that the “vertical of power” is more likely propaganda – positive or negative – rather than an indication of how governance actually works in Russia.
Vladimir Putin is extraordinarily powerful. This claim is so compelling that just stating it can make you roll your eyes in defiance of its banality.
And this power is sometimes clearly displayed.
But can these moments be generalized to the whole of Russian governance? No. To go from examples of Putin’s awesome power to a general claim that he is at the center of all decision-making – let alone the implementation of decisions – is simply wrong.
The “ danger ” of nuance
Recognizing nuances and complexity shouldn’t be controversial. And yet, it can be. The vicious debate surrounding Matthew Rojansky’s possible appointment to the United States National Security Council is a vivid example. Presented as insufficiently hawkish – someone willing to entertain shades of gray – some have suggested that Rojansky was a ‘useful idiot‘ or paid agent of the Kremlin.
May 12 open letter rightly called the attacks on Rojansky as attempts to discredit him and “to end the political debate”.
This politicized hint of nuance is not new – it is unlikely that it will go away soon.
But its effects might be less pernicious if people felt more able to separate complexity and criticism. It should be possible to judge Putin harshly while acknowledging that he does not rule Russia alone. And it should be possible to see the nuances of governance in Russia without being accused of forgiving the Kremlin.
The opinions expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of the Moscow Times.