Leaders Are Not Their Countries

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán attends a debate in the European Parliament in Brussels, May 19, 2015
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán attends a debate in the European Parliament in Brussels, May 19, 2015 (European Parliament)

It’s a tried-and-tested strongman tactic: conflate yourself with the nation to silence your critics. Read more

Putin Wins Sham Election, Trump Battles FBI

Russian president Vladimir Putin participates in a videoconference from the Kremlin in Moscow, December 27, 2016
Russian president Vladimir Putin participates in a videoconference from the Kremlin in Moscow, December 27, 2016 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

To no one’s surprise, Russia’s Vladimir Putin won another six-year term as president on Sunday. Against a slew of unimpressive, Kremlin-approved candidates, Putin supposedly won 76 percent support with 67 percent turnout.

Here is the best analysis I’m reading:

  • Robert Coalson: The Kremlin has placed Putin entirely above and outside of politics. His supporters may complain about various policies or problems in their lives, but they don’t connect those problems with Putin.
  • Mark Galeotti: Having turned the law into an instrument of state policy and private vendetta, having turned the legislature into a caricature without power of independence, and having encouraged a carnivorous culture of self-aggrandisement and enrichment, can Putin afford to become an ex-president? Conventional wisdom would say that he cannot; without being at the top of the system, he is at best vulnerable, at worst dead, and he knows it.
  • Torrey Taussig: One of the greatest threats to a personalist regime’s stability is succession. Systems governed around a cult of the individual set up a self-defeating incentive structure. Once power has been consolidated, the leader will seek to eliminate able and ambitious competitors who could threaten his rule. This strategy, while effective in the short term, hollows out the leadership funnel in the long term. Unlike in autocracies run by strong parties, in which leaders rise within the party’s hierarchy, personalist systems have no institutional structure for preparing the next generation of autocrats. Read more

Putin’s Success Abroad Built on Rotten Foundations at Home

Russian president Vladimir Putin attends negotiations in Minsk, Belarus, February 11, 2015
Russian president Vladimir Putin attends negotiations in Minsk, Belarus, February 11, 2015 (Press Service of the President of Ukraine)

2016 was a good year for Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader. He tightened his grip on the Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula his army snatched from Ukraine in 2014. Ukraine continues to battle a Russian-backed insurgency in its southeastern Donbas region, delaying its Westernization. Russia has made itself indispensable to a resolution of the war in Syria and voters in the Philippines and the United States embraced Putin’s truth-free style of politics to elect strongmen of their own.

But all this has come at a cost: Russia’s economy is now in a precarious state. Read more

Putin Dismisses Confidant in Russian Elite Shakeup

Sergei Ivanov, then Russian president Vladimir Putin's chief of staff, attends a gala dinner in Moscow, May 9, 2015
Sergei Ivanov, then Russian president Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff, attends a gala dinner in Moscow, May 9, 2015 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Sergei Ivanov’s dismissal as Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff this week is the most important change in the upper echelon of Russia’s political elite since Putin returned to the presidency four years ago. Ivanov was the longest-serving head of the Presidential Administration in post-Soviet Russia. He has now been appointed to the largely powerless position of presidential representative for ecology and transportation. This is certainly a demotion.

But that does not mean this was an abrupt change or a purge.

Two weeks ago, Putin’s replacement of four governors and several other high-ranking cadres was dubbed an empowerment of people with a background in the security services, the so-called siloviki.

Now Ivanov, the highest-ranking silovik, has been dismissed and replaced by a diplomat. Read more

Putin Removes Medvedev Appointees in Security Shakeup

Russian president Vladimir Putin speaks with his prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev, at his country residence outside Moscow, January 25
Russian president Vladimir Putin speaks with his prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev, at his country residence outside Moscow, January 25 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Nine top security officials lost their jobs in Russia this week, five of whom had been appointed by the previous president, Dmitri Medvedev, between 2008 and 2012.

Among those were the head of Russia’s witness protection program and two police chiefs in the regions of Omsk and Tomsk.

The changes come only weeks after Vladimir Putin, who returned to the presidency in 2012, replaced the long-time head of the Federal Protection Service (FSO), Evgeni Murov.

The organization is somewhat comparable to America’s Secret Service in that is responsible for the protection of federal officials and property, but its full purview is ambiguous.

Health problems were said to play a role in the removal of the septuagenarian Murov, but Russia watchers also saw his agency getting the short end of the stick in a contest with the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB spy agency Putin himself served in.

Murov’s replacement came only a month after Putin created a brand new paramilitary service, the National Guard, which answers directly to the Kremlin as opposed to any minister. With an avowed Putin loyalist, Viktor Zolotov, at its head, this new organization has all the trappings of a Praetorian Guard. Read more

Will Russia Go into Libya Next?

Russian president Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting at his country residence outside Moscow, October 13, 2014
Russian president Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting at his country residence outside Moscow, October 13, 2014 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Herein may sound like rampant speculation, but I’m not the only one considering it: according to The Economist, high-ranking European diplomats also wonder if Russia will make Libya the next frontier of adventure. There are good reasons to consider why Putin may be doing so. Read more

Putin’s Russia Is Taking a Dangerous Turn

Russian president Vladimir Putin observes a military exercise in Kaliningrad, September 26, 2013
Russian president Vladimir Putin observes a military exercise in Kaliningrad, September 26, 2013 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Russia’s economic downturn and standoff with the West have given the increasingly authoritarian government of President Vladimir Putin more than the excuse it needs to keep a lid on political freedoms. But requiring constant emergencies to justify one’s regime is a treacherous proposition: it could quickly escalate to a point beyond which either ordinary Russians or Putin himself are not willing to go.

The recent creation of a National Guard suggests that Putin is aware of the danger. Read more