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Putin’s ‘fear dictatorship’ Political scientist Daniel Treisman on the state of Russia’s autocracy

Source: Meduza
Andrey Rudakov / Bloomberg / Getty Images

In April 2022, economist Sergei Guriev and political scientist Daniel Treisman published a book titled Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century focused on modern autocracies and what they call “spin dictatorships,” which base their authority on manipulation and propaganda. The book was submitted for publication prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. While Guriev and Treisman long categorized Vladimir Putin as a “spin dictator,” they warn in this book that the Russian president has grown increasingly reliant on force, morphing into a “fear dictator.” Meduza special correspondent Margarita Liutova spoke to Professor Treisman to learn more about how Putin’s regime has changed in recent years — and what the future might have in store for Russia.

Daniel Treisman, Professor at University of California, Los Angeles

‘Fear dictatorship’

Over the course of his years in office, Vladimir Putin’s style of authoritarianism has changed dramatically, Daniel Treisman tells Meduza. During the first two terms of Putin’s presidency and especially during Dmitry Medvedev’s turn in office, there was a focus on maintaining the image of “modernity, sophistication and international respectability.” This is in stark contrast with the political reality of Russia today, as the Kremlin attempts to scare all potential opponents and pursue anyone even hinting at anti-war sentiment.

“I think it’s only reasonable to classify this now as a fear dictatorship, although there are still some elements of attempted manipulation [as is done in a spin dictatorship],” says Treisman.

A “fear dictatorship” and a “spin dictatorship” are not mutually exclusive, however. While Putin won’t be able to return to just a “spin dictatorship,” he will continue to employ tactics characteristic of both.

People want to believe they live in a democracy

If Putin is committed to a “fear dictatorship,” then why has he announced that the 2024 Russian presidential election will comply “with all democratic standards”? This way, the president can appeal to a large audience, explains Treisman, catering to those in the country who still hold democratic values but who are currently willing to accept the militaristic regime. Judging by the available surveys, a majority of people in Russia still believe the country’s leader should run for office in fair elections, and Putin wants to at least formally conform to these ideals.

People still want to believe that they live in a democratic country, argues Treisman:

It’s difficult to recognize that terrible things are happening. So I think there’s a great innate psychological tendency to cling to illusions if they are more comfortable. And I think the regime exploits that. So to a great extent, its propaganda works when there’s a willing recipient who will do their part to make sure that the reassuring message lands successfully.

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Transformation from spin to fear dictatorship

When Putin first entered office in 2000, he appeared genuinely inclined to cooperate with the West and seemed to accept democratic constraints — all the while centralizing power. Many underestimated the depths to which Putin was willing to descend, says Treisman, explaining that it’s easy for a “spin dictatorship” to morph into a “fear dictatorship.” This usually happens when a leader begins to doubt whether the manipulation tactics characteristic of a “spin dictatorship” are still effective. “I think Putin came to believe that the sophisticated techniques that he had been using in the early part of his tenure, I think he lost faith that those were still effective,” Treisman explains. Instead of relying on political advisers and liberal economists, he shifted focus to the intelligence community. After all, they know exactly how to intimidate and exert control.

When it comes to his decision to launch the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Treisman believes Putin convinced himself that Russia, “with its great power ambitions,” was challenged by the international community. His frustration about Russia’s role in the world, as well as his own position, were key in his decision to invade. “Putin shut out of his echo chamber any of the people who might [have] persuaded him to do something different,” says Treisman. Now, all those who are left around Putin share his preferred version of reality.

Nationalism among Russian society

Russian society seemed to be rapidly modernizing and opening up to liberal values, but it now looks increasingly imperialistic and chauvinistic. It’s not that Russian society has suddenly changed, explains Treisman. Rather, many underestimated that this “blatantly aggressive and extreme action would nevertheless evoke this extreme, very strong, patriotic loyalist reaction.”

There have been contradictory trends in Russian public opinion, however. For example, after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, there was incredible euphoria for a period of four years that eventually faded away. Levada Center’s polls show that after the annexation, negative attitudes toward the U.S. increased. By 2021, this number dropped to pre-2014 levels, before increasing again after the start of the full-scale invasion.

It’s hard to say for sure how long this “nationalistic boom” will last, says Treisman:

We don’t really know how deep [the nationalistic sentiment] runs because, of course, in this environment of intimidation, there’s a lot of conformism. There’s a lot of superficial loyalty and there’s a lot of confusion, […] and conflict in the Russian psyche — on the one hand, the urge to be loyal, to stand by one’s own people, and on the other hand, alarm and a sense of perhaps even horror at where Russia seems to be going.

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The Russian opposition’s role

While there have been internal conflicts within the Russian opposition, dissatisfaction with the Putin regime has spread far beyond just Moscow and St. Petersburg since 2017. Demonstrations in support of Navalny, for example, have taken place all across Russia. But the Russian opposition is up against an “incredibly well-resourced, experienced, and organized oppressive machine,” says Treisman. At the end of the day, the opposition wasn’t ready to overthrow the “FSB state.”

“I don’t think anybody was predicting that we were going to see a revolution in Russia in which the supporters of Navalny and other anti-Putin groups would rise up and take the Kremlin anytime soon,” recalls Treisman. There was progress in Russian society’s willingness to go out and protest, though this was largely sidelined by the full-scale invasion.

Putin’s struggle to keep his grip on power

Putin has grown more dependent on the secret service and the military, though it’s become increasingly difficult for him to keep them under his control — best exemplified by Prigozhin’s mutiny. The Russian president received numerous warnings that the Wagner Group founder would become a problem. With the rebellion, it became clear that Putin was unable to defend himself. Now, Putin is undertaking the task of figuring out who in the security services are actually loyal to him.

It’s unlikely there will be a coup in Russia, says Treisman. What’s more likely is a “gradual erosion of power of the Kremlin.” With the Wagner rebellion, “it was a huge failure to react and failure to preempt and it may be getting just too much for one person in the Kremlin to deal with all the issues related to fighting the war, as well as worrying about loyalty in the different branches of the security state, at the same time as tracking and managing domestic public opinion and all the issues and problems that arise throughout the 11 timezones.” He adds, “we may be seeing the beginning of that kind of a gradual meltdown.”

A future in which Putin steps aside, either reducing or transferring his powers, is also possible. This would likely be the case if he began to allow others to make important decisions. If Putin decides he can no longer effectively manage the situations at hand, he may decide that stepping aside is the safer option, though Treisman notes that this remains unlikely.

‘Adversarial engagement’ with the West

When dealing with “spin dictatorships,” the best way to engage is through “adversarial engagement,” as Treisman calls it. The U.S. and the E.U. must work actively to address dictatorships’ exploitation of Western corruption and economic ties, including closing off all channels for corrupt money and finding ways to limit the influence of dictators on Western societies. This means dealing with lobbyists who work in the interest of dictatorships, making it harder for dictators to hide their money in the West, and closely following how foreign states attempt to influence domestic politics:

It remains necessary to put as much pressure on Russia in all ways possible, short of direct NATO military involvement, to make sure that Ukraine can defend itself and that Putin doesn’t come out of this perceived as a winner, but strengthened domestically.

In the future, if Putin’s successor becomes less dangerous for the outside world, then the West should be ready to reintegrate Russia, argues Treisman, by providing it with more modern, less aggressive, and more open opportunities to prosper and develop as part of the global economy and the international community. Currently, however, the most important task for the West is to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia and to be ready to support the country’s political and economic development as soon as such an opportunity arises.

A “fear dictatorship” won’t necessarily last forever, Treisman tells Meduza. “Repression can be very effective in the short run, but it leaves you with […] problems, with economic challenges […] and the internal difficulties, domestic policy dead ends, that one started with.”

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Interview by Margarita Liutova

Abridged translation by Sasha Slobodov

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