EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia
DATE: 9 September 2021, 3pm-4pm
SPEAKERS: Dr Timothy Frye
EVENT MODERATOR: Dr Jade McGlynn
Dr Jade McGlynn 00:02
Good afternoon, everyone. And thank you for coming to our discussion with Professor Tim Frye today. I’m just going to give everybody a couple of minutes to filter in to do just bear with us, whilst we wait for, for the audience to arrive.
Dr Jade McGlynn 01:25
Wonderful, let us start I know probably a few more people are going to come in. But to that we can get make the most of the discussion. And of course, the professor’s price time. I’ll start now. So those of you who don’t know me, I’m Dr Jade McGlynn, I’m Associate Fellow here at HJS where I focus on my research area of Russia and then the broader sort of Eurasian space. I’m delighted to be hosting today’s event which is weak strongman: the limits of power in Putin’s Russia and its being held in conversation with Professor Timothy Frye, who is the professor of post-Soviet Foreign Policy at Columbia University over in New York, and a research director at HSE, the highest school of economics in Moscow. His books include property rights and property wrongs, how power institution and norm shaky economic conflict in Russia, and building states and markets after communism, as well as of course, Weak strongman: the limits of power in Putin’s Russia, recently published by Princeton University Press, and I will shortly include a link to where you can buy this excellent book in the zoom chat shortly. In today’s discussion, we’ll talk not only about this book, Weak strongman, and its convincing takedowns of some of the, if I was being mean, lazy thinking, if being less mean, stereotypical things around Russia, and how power works in Russia. But we’re also going to touch upon and make the most of some of Professor Frye’s sort of broader three decades of on the ground research experience in Russian politics and society, and, of course, the upcoming Duma elections next week. But before launch my first question, that’s just a tiny bit of housekeeping, please do send in all of your questions. And to do so you can use the q&a function on zoom, then we’ll have around 20 minutes at the end to answer questions. And I’ll invite you want to ask your questions to Tim directly. So, thank you. So, Tim, let’s start with your most recent book. And then the title, obviously, of the event, Weak strongman which is the book rather than the event, the book is a tour de force that touches upon the most sort of pertinent nice, frequently posed questions that face Russian analysts, Russia analysts, one of your key arguments is that in the, in the broader sort of West if we can use this problematic term, and we’re over reliance on interpreting Russia through the figure of Putin, in your view, what are the main flaws or disadvantages of this Putin centred approach to understanding Russia? What does it cause us to miss?
Dr Timothy Frye 02:38
Thank you very much. It’s really a pleasure to be here. And thank you very much for the kind words about the book. All books are labours of love. This one especially, so is the first time I was writing a book for a general audience, although I think there’s a lot of arguments and evidence in the book that will be new and useful for Russia hands, but it was really written for the Russia curious rather than for the for Russia experts. And the book is really an explainer book that tries to take the best social science research we have on Russia, which I think has been fabulous over the last 20 years and really a tremendous amount of good work and political science and economics and sociology, and tries to translate it for a general audience, but also allows me to talk about some of the experiences I’ve had in Russia and the Soviet Union as well. Working for the US State Department working the Russian securities exchange commission, and of course, the last 10 years, at least. So, the book is really a labour of love. And it was written in part because there was great research being done on Russia that really got us beyond a lot of the stereotypical thinking that reduces Russian politics to Putin’s worldview, or to a very straight jacketed view of Russian history. And one of the things that I think these two views get wrong is especially pertinent today, is as we see Russia taking a much more repressive term in the last 16 to 18 months with the real uprooting of the non-systemic opposition, we see that that’s not happening. When Putin was at 80% approval ratings when the economy was humming, when, you know, the afterglow of Crimea, made everyone in Russia a little bit taller, a little bit smaller and above average, but it’s coming at a time when Putin’s popularity has suffered is Putin fatigue going on the economy has been stagnant for about a decade. Now, propaganda is not seemingly as effective as it was in the past. And this is the time that we’ve seen this real crack down. So, one of the main arguments in the book is that Putin’s policies have changed over time, even as Putin himself has been more or less constant, and Russian history is more or less than constant. So, what I tried to do in the book is look at the constraints and the trade-offs that Putin faces, like all autocrat’s face, show how ships in those trade-offs that led to changes in behaviour, with the increased use of repression in the last 18 months being a prime example of that. And I don’t think we can attribute that solely to Putin’s KGB background, or the Russians 1000 years of autocracy, or we would have seen this happened much earlier in Putin’s term. So, I think he’s really responding to circumstances rather than to some coherent worldview or to some historical imperative.
Dr Jade McGlynn 05:55
And that’s really interesting, actually, that leads me on very nicely to my next question, which was going to be about sort of the, there can be a tendency sometimes to try to identify you know, what his reasons ideological foundations, there have been different approaches there was for a while everybody, everybody quoted Dugin, lot of master’s theses ruined by Dugin quotes.
Dr Timothy Frye 06:16
I think very influential, just as Dugin himself, he’ll tell you how influential he is.
Dr Jade McGlynn 06:24
I am sure he would. I may not bother to ask him. Then they will they of course, been other more historical figures who you also reference the book. Do you think that not just (inaudible), but perhaps sort of, within? within the Kremlin, that that there is any kind of ideological, any ideal connections? I mean it’s hard to define an ideology, I mean.
Dr Timothy Frye 06:57
Medina Gell-Mann has a quote, great that he thinks ideology has been the least important factor in Russian politics over the last 20 years. And I’m pretty sympathetic to that view, I don’t think that there’s a coherent set of beliefs about how the world works, or how the world should work. I do think that there are there is a worldview around among those who are very close to Putin. But I think it’s much more opportunistic, you know, the closest we would get is some kind of great power. Belief in Russia’s place on the global stage. I think that’s the closest we come. But that’s something that a lot of big countries think powerful countries aspire to. Also, I think the anti-Westernism is much more superficial in that many of the official spouting you know, anti-western is also sending their kids to London in New York to study and buying property in Europe. And even among the Russian populace, I think there are real limits to the extent to which anti-Westernism can be a real driving force among the, you know, broader community just not that important an issue for ordinary Russians who are much more concerned with, you know, everyday issues about the economy, employment, public services. Also, there’s just, there’s just an evidentiary problem in trying to interpret the impact of Putin’s worldview on his behaviour, because we’re not privy to the inner conversations of people within the Kremlin. Then politicians are known for not exactly revealing their true motives publicly. So, I think we need to be careful about, you know, reading into Putin’s behaviour. Some deeper ideological or personal attachments, particularly given how he has changed strategy and tactics of frequently over the last 20 years.
Dr Jade McGlynn 09:10
Okay, great. So, if it’s not, if we shouldn’t sort of over rely or rely on ideology, or even sort of, if we see these ideas, very cadet reference that this sort of Russia sort of a great the great power, of great state is something that, of course, isn’t unique, as you say, is not unique to Russia. And it’s certainly not unique to Putin. We can’t really rely on these aspects. And we can’t really rely on saying, oh, well, Putin has a KGB background, just to explain, I suppose Russia’s particularly Russia’s most recent autocratic term, the one we’re talking about, over the last sort of 18 months, and particularly maybe over the last 10 months. What, what is the best way to explain and understand
Dr Timothy Frye 09:58
In the book I tried to draw on comparative politics literature, and research on modern autocracies. And one of the main themes is that autocracies are not all in one piece. We have one party regimes like so in China, Mexico, under the PRI we have military regimes we see and in Pinochet’s Chile and we have personalist autocracies, like we see in Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, Belarus, a number of the Central Asian countries, and these different types of systems that we see different patterns of politics, different types of outcomes that vary across these three different types of regimes. For example, you know, the way in which power is changed the way we used to turn over in government changes a lot in these three types of governments. Because in one party regimes, a leader can retire for the party and military regimes, the leader can retire to the military and lead a comfortable life in personalist autocracies, there’s no soft-landing path. So, we see that turnovers in power are often much more violent, they are much less likely to lead to democracy. And the leader spades are often much worse than these personalist autocracies, with the main outcomes typically being jail, exile, or death. Now, I’m not saying that that’s happening to Putin, or that’s happening anytime soon. But it does underlie how this, this type of autocracy faces a particularly difficult challenge when the President speaks term limits and that’s why they often try to extend them. But I think a better way to think about Putin is that he faces to two different constituencies that he needs to satisfy to some degree, he needs to satisfy his inner circle by rewarding them and preventing them from engaging in a coup, which is, of course, one threat for autocratic leaders. At the same time, he also needs to ensure that the people don’t take to the streets in protest, which is another way that autocratic leaders can lose power. And what makes this an interesting problem is that satisfying these two groups is often mutually exclusive, right? So that, for example, a good example comes from corruption where it’s helpful for an autocrat to allow the inner circle to enrich themselves by engaging in corruption. At the same time, the autocrat, has to be careful that the inner circle doesn’t steal so much that the economy tanks and people take to the streets. So, what the book does is it goes through a variety of different policy areas. And it emphasises that although Putin faces, you know, no open, direct political competitor, he does face these difficult trade-offs and is far from omnipotent. Because these two satisfying these two groups often involves a difficult trade off
Dr Jade McGlynn 13:10
Thank you. And just to pick up on that point around corruption, I mean, which is obviously something that you pick up on this in this book, and clearly something that you’ve explored in in your previous research as well. How would you be able, how would you explain the centrality of corruption not just to the economic system, but sometimes to what I wouldn’t necessarily say, perhaps not daily life anymore, but certainly to the performance of many human bureaucratic administrative tasks in Russia?
Dr Timothy Frye 13:36
Yeah, I mean, corruption is a is a central tool for autocrats to use because they have the power to intervene in the economy in ways that helps them politically. There’s a nice dissertation by one of my former students not Noah Buckley, who’s now Trinity College Dublin. And if the surveys about petty corruption across Russia’s regions over a long period of time, and one of the things that he finds is that the perceived levels of corruption that everyday ordinary Russian’s experience goes down in the years in which governors are appointed and goes up in the years when they’re not in an appointment year either in election or being appointed Putin. So, this suggests that there really is a political component to corruption in a way that it’s used to reward insiders, but also that it does represent a threat. You know, we look around the former Soviet space, and one of the most common rallying cries for the opposition or ways to get people on the street is through anti-corruption activities. So, I’m not a big fan of the kleptocracy brand, in part because I think there’s just a lot more that that inner circle could steal. And that there is this constraint of needing to provide a standard of living in Russia that keeps people from being too disgruntled and taking to the streets. Because there’s a lot of evidence of Putin’s, popularity ratings are linked to the underlying economic conditions in the country. So, this is a good example of this trade off that autocrats’ face and Putin faces as well.
Dr Jade McGlynn 15:23
That’s really interesting. Um, and I guess, thinking as well, about the recent, the recent national security strategy, where actually corruption comes up quite a lot and they sort of references wrapped in testability. And parts of your reasoning, I don’t know how they routed kind of a straight face. But obviously, you’re still talking about as part of this as part of this trade off. Thank you. I mean, just talking about the economy, perhaps more broadly, I mean, not that corruption is only an economic issue, but it’s definitely another area that invites sort of confused. Some can sometimes invite can either invites confused analysis or the analysis can be confusing. Because it would think you have the chapter, your chapter. So that explains how Russia’s economy is never as strong or as strong as it looks. It’s not as weak as weak as it looks. And in this chapter, you have this wonderful part where you include several quotes during that 2007 introduction about how in the next 10 years, Russia will be a top five economy it comes up quite recently, why isn’t Russia a top five economy?
Dr Timothy Frye 16:29
It’s less because of the economy per se, than because of the politics. Looking more broadly, personalist autocracies tend to have slower, worse economic performance than one party regimes or military led governments for a couple of reasons. One is the general economic direction of the country is dependent on the whims of a particular leader. And, you know, should that leader change their mind or lose office, there is this deep structural uncertainty that these kinds of regimes generate about, you know, long term economic investment, it becomes risky given that, you know, politics is not rooted in a broader set of institutional constraints on a leader that would prevent them from taking the for the country in a different direction. You know, we’ve seen Putin’s economic policy evolve, you know, the, the first three or four years in office, you know, Gaidar, (inaudible) and the liberals were very happy with the anti-red tape campaign, with banking reform, pension reform and other policies. But then oil prices zoomed up. And Putin became, you know, very much a champion of natural resource led development, oil prices fell, and then he became a champion of state led development. And what we see now I think, is trying to, a very technical technocratic approach, trying to promote economic growth that just seems destined to really only produce a pretty modest result. Russia is too big, too dynamic, too wealthy and economy to have that kind of and the state itself is too ill equipped to really directing guide investments and help Russia make that jump from being a middle income, country and escape this middle-income trap to becoming a richer in better govern place.
Dr Jade McGlynn 18:40
Do you realistically see any kind of pathway out of that approach like what would it take to change that economic liberal one will be –
Dr Timothy Frye 18:52
One big if there was a prolonged a shock in natural resource prices that deprive the Kremlin of the revenue that it would be needed in order to keep the inner circle happy while also providing sufficient public goods to keep the public off the street. That might, that might be the kind of, event that would push the Kremlin towards putting greater weight on efficiency versus political considerations when it doles out the budget. Now, that doesn’t seem to be happening in the near term. And also, the Kremlin still has, you know, plenty of reserves in the various national wealth funds. So, you know, I don’t see that happening. And that one of the interesting things, this is both a political and an economic question is how much resources have been devoted to developing Moscow versus the rest of the country. And this, again, is a common autocratic strategy of urban bias, where you try to really buy off the residents of the capital city, because they are in some ways the, you know, most direct political threat, a protest in the capital city has really different way than a protest and, you know, outside of the capital, and, you know, we see Moscow, in many ways has been a real showcase for poor Russia, in a lot of ways it’s become a an easier and more pleasant place to live as long as you’re staying out of politics. And that’s, you know, part of the strategy. At the same time, it’s not great for economic development, because that’s not where most of most Russians live. And there’s lots of lots of parts of Russia that are really suffering from mis-governance and under a provision of public goods.
Dr Jade McGlynn 20:48
No, it’s true. There’s a market sort of market improvements, every time you go, we sort of go back to Moscow in especially within that sort of, it does tend to grow as you go positive, the public you know (inaudible) I remember this. Wonderful. And just one of the comments that can sort of feature as an argument, the future sometimes to bring the political and economy back together, one of the comments or features sometimes it’s the mission, well, you know, this, Russia only has a GDP the size of Italy. So, you know, it can’t be this great superpower. What do you think about a comment like that?
Dr Timothy Frye 21:30
What was well, it’s to directly equate country well, with global power status is a very tricky thing to do. Norway would clearly be a GDP per capita is really the prime indicator, then we should all be worried about Norway’s global position, or if North Korea, another an act, complete economic basket case, but one that certainly punches above its weight on the international stage simply because of its erratic behaviour and its nuclear programme. So, there are many considerations that go into, you know, global power. And Russia in some ways is very well in doubt. You know, my colleague, Steve Stanovich, often says, No, people say that Putin is playing a weak hand well, he says, no, actually, Russia’s got a pretty good hand, if you look at their geography, for example, if you look at the nuclear weapons that they inherited from the Soviet Union, the seat at the United Nations, and it is still a, you know, big, well, a big economy, and it is, you know, well-educated public. So, I’m, you know, on a lot of dimensions, you know, Russia can really be an important player global power, not quite a superpower on the level of, say, the United States or, you know, China as it as it grows. But it’s, it’s an important country and will, uh, will remain one. And we should also bear in mind, you know, Thomas Shellings, famous adage that, in international politics it’s very important to remember that it’s much easier to break things than to create them. And Russia is very much in a position to play a spoiler role on lots of issues from North Korea to relations with China, to Iran, let alone to you know, relations with NATO and, you know, up and down the whole western front. So, you know, we often overstate how badly the Russian economy is doing we look at the numbers, it’s not as bad as people say. And we need to remember that, you know, power in international arena is really multi-dimensional.
Dr Jade McGlynn 23:50
Thank you. There’s just a quick reminder to the audience to put in your questions in the in the q&a function. And now I would like us to move on, if possible, Tim, to a question to the elections, the upcoming election. One of your chapters is in the book, his chart is titled the surprising importance of Russia’s manipulated elections. If we think about next week’s selections, they’re going to be falsified. Everybody’s going to know then why hold the elections? What’s the point?
Dr Timothy Frye 24:20
Sure. So, there’s a debate in the literature about autocratic elections, where some people argue that autocrats actually like holding elections, because it allows them to divide the opposition and pit them against themselves. And it allows them to reward opposition elites by giving them a seat in Parliament with a nice apartment in Moscow and a, you know, a car with the driver paid for by the state and other kinds of perks. You know, other people argue that, you know, elections are really a potential threat, particularly because election fraud has been a common kind of focal point that opposition parties have used in many countries post-election, to try to overturn what is seen as a fraudulent election, Belarus being, you know, the most recent and most relevant example. You know, for a long time, when Putin was very popular, the economy was booming, after the annexation of Crimea, the need to falsify the elections was much less in part because there was greater popular support. And the Kremlin could claim in some ways that they had gained, you know, if not an honest majority, certainly an honest plurality of votes. But now, in 2021, we see United Russia is at its lowest levels of popularity, you know, the economy has been stagnant for a long time, the handling of Coronavirus has been really quite mixed. And, you know, the warm glow of Crimea has certainly faded. And we’ve seen a much greater pre-emptive effort on the part of the Kremlin to root out any of the non-systemic opposition. And we’ve, you know, we’ve seen this, you know, crackdown coming. So, I think these elections are going to be different from past elections, where there was a modicum of, you know, competition, and the Kremlin could, you know, claim that “Oh, well, this classification and all elections, and ours are no worse. And look, you know, our United Russia is popular, and Putin is popular, so the results wouldn’t have been different anyway”. Right now, I think that that’s not, you know, I think this is going to be a very different elections in the ones that we’ve seen in the past, simply because the tactics used to guarantee the outcome that the Kremlin would like a heavier handed than we’ve seen in the past.
Dr Jade McGlynn 27:03
I see I see. And, in terms of I mean, hopefully this isn’t too specific a question. But if in some elections, Putin has managed to keep his distance. Do you notice here, well, most likely, vaccines aren’t the most popular, aren’t always the most popular. This time, actually, there’s been sort of a closer connection as the idea of what’s made what’s led to that changed?
Dr Timothy Frye 27:27
I mean, I think Putin would prefer not to be so closely associated with United Russia, given that they’re a useful scapegoat, and that, you know, people are often very critical of them. But you know, Putin does have the resource of his personal popularity. And, you know, he can be the locomotive trying to pull along United Russia, you know, to eke out more votes. And, you know, I’ve talked before about the trade-offs of being a personalist autocrat, and elections highlight this very well, because the trick is, you have to manipulate elections sufficiently that you guarantee the outcome that you would like, but you also run the risk of manipulating them too much. In which case they reveal you know, the great weakness that’s that comes when you have when you have to devote so many resources to falsification and Belarus is a good example where it was simply implausible that Lukashenko could have won 82% of the vote and that caused this reaction. A reaction of the Kremlin, I think would really like to avoid
Dr Jade McGlynn 28:29
I think I mean, obviously, I think that it struck everybody just how impossible Lukashenko, he really was sort of taking the biscuit. In general, Putin have been a little bit more subtle in the implausibility of it. But of course, one of the things that they seem to care about a lot is high turnout, or reasonable turn out around that 70% mark. What are some of the different ways? Why do they care about it? And how do they perceive this?
Dr Timothy Frye 29:09
Sure. So, there are a lot of Russians who believe that their elections are free and fair. You know, this is not a uniform opinion that the elections are completely falsified. If you look at some of the survey data, you know, there are, you know, not majority, certainly, but you know, pluralities who are willing to say that, well, you know, our elections are more or less free and fair, and every country has, you know, has problems with their elections. And this is a line that the Kremlin certainly likes to promote. And, you know, it is a demonstration of strength, if you are able to get people to turn out without coercion, without, you know, a very heavy hand, as a way for Putin to demonstrate that, you know, he still has the ability to, you know, get people to take the costly action of actually going, going to vote. And this is important, not only for demonstrating to the populists that, you know, he still has sufficient authority to bring about this outcome. But it’s also important to send a similar signal to the inner circle, that you know, what continues to separate Putin from everybody else is that he has this great personal popularity that no other politician in Russia can really claim. So, it really works to moderate, you know, the two threats that that autocrats face, and that’s why the Kremlin is very concerned about Putin’s personal popularity, and what’s why the approval ratings are very important. And elections, in some ways are like approval ratings on steroids, because you know, it’s not just answering the question to the survey researcher, it’s actually having to go and pass the ballot.
Dr Jade McGlynn 30:55
Talking about Putin’s popularity there. If, obviously, at some point, somebody will come up with Putin just inevitably can no longer be the president of Russian Federation, as unlikely as that can seem actually, to me at point. How will any successes of Putin, I guess there’s a lot of ifs and buts here, but how do you think that his Putin’s popularity will endure over time in Russia sort of past his reign? His reign? Or? And how do you think any successor to Putin would deal with his popularity?
Dr Timothy Frye 31:28
Well, it depends a lot on you know, how if you were to leave office, if he leaves out leaves office, by natural causes, there will be a, you know, he will have a very revered place in which his successor will try to draw on, you know, the, the teachings of the you know, great leader Putin And, you know, if he goes out under other circumstances, you know, it could get very ugly, it’s often happens in these personal autocracies, but we Putin, my Andy Kuchins has this great line where he says, you know, in Russian history, we have Peter the Great, we have Ivan the Terrible, and we have like Vladimir the lucky in that, you know, when he came into office, you know, the hard work of the 1990s of building, you know, the market economy with all its flaws had already been done, that the country just experienced a great devaluation of the rubble, which then made exports a lot more a lot more efficient. And then, of course, oil prices surged. Right. So, I know he has been able to parlay this for, you know, this tremendous doubling the size, the Russian economy, and you know, the average GDP per capita living standards has soared, you know, that that has been a powerful, powerful resource for him. The annexation of Crimea again is the second event, his successor is not going to have those kinds of achievements to draw upon when they come to power. So, if the change in power happens, you know, during a time when the economy has been muddling along in Russia, the global position, you know, continues to be, you know what it is. It would be very difficult, I think, for Putin just to anointed successor who would then experience the same kinds of popularity that Putin has.
Dr Jade McGlynn 33:21
I see I see Thank you just want to move on to a slightly different point around media and manipulation. And you have a chapter on this on media manipulation, and you sort of explain the importance for autocratic regimes of controlling the media in such a way where there’s still some plausibility some creditability and you cite Sergey Guriev information autocracy idea basically for the modern autocrat, it’s better to manipulate and coerce broad business. And two weeks ago, I posted as we were discussing just before this event, I hosted an event with Ben Noble, Jan Matti Dollbaum & Morvan Lallouet about their new book on Navalny. And they also talk about this idea. And they argue that Navalny among other factors are sort of pushed the Kremlin from this information autocracy approach towards a more traditional form of autocratic coercion. Do you agree with this argument?
Dr Timothy Frye 34:15
In the book, I argue that, you know, what makes studying autocracy interesting is that they have multiple tools, and they rely on them to different degrees, depending on the situation. So, you know, propaganda is what is one such tool and I have a chapter on what we know about the effectiveness of Russian efforts to manipulate public opinion, personal popularity of the leader, the strength of the economy. Simple performance, I think, is a very important tool for autocrats to be able to point to allow them to stay in power, but they all also rely on repression, as well. And what’s interesting is that there’s this mix, there’s this menu of different tactics that autocrats rely on to varying degrees. And I think, in some ways, you know, the informational autocracy was particularly helpful during periods when the economy was booming. And when, you know, the annexation of Crimea was very popular. And, as these other tools for legitimating power in Russia have become more blunt. That makes repression, a kind of, tool of last resort that autocrats would like to avoid, because it is risky. It is costly in lots of ways. It does strengthen the security services in a way that makes many autocrats nervous, because of course, the security services are particularly well placed to engage in a coup. So um, you know, I think that the, it’s never an either-or situation where the leaders rely only on repression, or only on propaganda. And I think what we’ve seen over the last, you know, 10, 12, 15 months is a shift away from using performance and propaganda and personal popularity as a legitimating narrative toward one that relies much more on repressions and threats and fear, including a heavy dose of anti-Westernism.
Dr Jade McGlynn 36:33
Thank you. To pick up on one of the points you’re talking about there about sort of extensiveness and effectiveness and of media control in the information space. I mean, the particularising argument you make that if medium activation worked in the USSR would probably still be with us. So, it’s important, obviously not to conflate the two, but I would be really interested in hearing, or I think our audience be really interested in hearing as well, your thoughts, perhaps on some of those who have focused on the effectiveness of Russian sort of media or disinformation campaign. So, like, the idea that the Trump vote was swayed by Russian interference, or indeed the Brexit vote here in the UK.
Dr Timothy Frye 37:15
So, I’ve, you know, one chapter that looks at media manipulation within Russia. And one of the takeaways there is that it really depends on the kinds of issues you’re looking at the ability to have the Russian government to shift public opinion, on economic issues is much more limited than it is on foreign policy issues. So, the government has tried to blame bad economic performance on the sanctions on factors unrelated to Putin. And that strategy. I don’t think it’s been particularly successful if you look at some of the academic research, whereas on low information issues and foreign policy issues tend to be low information issues, you know, the Kremlin, like all, you know, ruling parties has greater leeway to sway public opinion on these low information issues. And on that the disinformation, now, I haven’t spoken to the Brexit case as well. But if you look at the academic literature on, you know, the Trump vote, you know, most of the people who study election series, they are pretty sceptical, that had a big impact compared to just because the scale of Russia’s operations on social media were so small relative to the entire, sea of information about the elections. And that much of the Russian disinformation campaign was simply repeating themes that were popular, particularly among far-right pro Trump voters. So, whether or not that, you know, that was an independent effect, or whether they’re just piggybacking on, you know, domestic sources of disinformation, I think is difficult to judge, you know, the greater threat on the elections is the hack and dump operations, which that the Kremlin did, towards the Democratic National Committee, which played on some of Clinton’s weaknesses. But even there, you know, it’s very difficult to demonstrate, given how that media has an independent impact, given how hard-wired partisan identification is, and in the habit of voting, that it really is only affected at the margins. So, to say that that was really the decisive factor, I think it is to go too far.
Dr Jade McGlynn 39:50
And thank you, thank you very much. I think most of the academic literature shows similar things on Brexit but obviously just since I’m in London, felt wrong (inaudible). And just before we get to the questions from the audience, and we have quite a few, I would want to just ask. We had the Biden-Putin summit in June, and there was some hope about maybe just building up even small areas where there could be engagement wherever perhaps that would be cybersecurity or finding some sort of a strategic dialogue. To what extent do you think there’s any scope for optimism in our in future engagement? Or is it just a case of not letting?
Dr Timothy Frye 40:30
Well, what is, to my mind, what has been most dismay, is that even, both sides have been reluctant to even begin to build the infrastructure necessary to begin holding talks about, you know, potential areas of cooperation. And one area that I thought when there might be some movement during the summit was around diplomatic relations. And, you know, bringing back the levels of staffing in each country. So that, you know, each country could, you know, provide the services that embassies provide, and, you know, Russia in the US are both big countries. So, it’s important to have conflicts in different parts of each country. And that seems to me to be a low cost, pretty technical issue, that the summit could have been the moment when the two leaders could say, look, this is an area where at least we agree on this. And that hasn’t happened, even that minimal level of cooperation. So, I’m still, you know, fairly, you know, pessimistic. Know that the environment is one area, where Russia seems to be, you know, recognising the importance of the environment in a way that they hadn’t in the past. And that could be one area of potential cooperation that doesn’t, doesn’t involve, you know, pressing national security issues, where there could be some scope for, for cooperation. I think it’s also important to point out, if you look at public opinion polling in Russia, in the US about the desire for better relations here, there’s still sizable pluralities in both countries that would like to see better relations for all of the scepticism that is, you know, deeply rooted on both sides. You know, we look at, for example, a Russian public opinion towards the US, it tends to follow events in a reasonable way, rather than being inherently anti-Western. So, it goes up and relationships are better, and it goes down relations are, are not so good.
Dr Jade McGlynn 42:54
Thank you. That’s very, very far and comprehensive answer, and on that I should really hand over to the audience because they also have a bunch of questions. So, because there’s quite a few questions, what I’m going to do is I’m going to ask three people to ask their questions after each other and then you can take them through. I vaguely tried to group them. And so, the first question is from Maximilian Hess, please.
Maximilian Hess 43:20
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions and for your lovely presentation so far. My question is regarding the transition of power and wealth from one generation to another. And how this is affecting the Kremlin and Putin’s stability. In my view there’s often sort of this idea that the new generations the generational change is constantly a destabilising factor. In my conversations with some members of the Russian elite and wealthier groups, I’ve often gotten the opposite impression that really, the fact that Putin is handling and seen by them to be doing a good job of handling this intergenerational transfer of wealth and power, which in some view hasn’t happened for many years, is really a strengthening factor. So, I thought I’d put the question to you, how do you see plutons handling of intergenerational transfer of wealth and power? And do you see it as a stabilising or destabilising factor?
Dr Jade McGlynn 44:17
Thank you very much. We’re just going to go next to Mike’s, please. I’ll read out Mike’s question. So, the question is, I’m wondering if Dr Frye could speak a bit about how this notion of preaching as a weak, strongman fits into the current developments we’re seeing in Russia right now. And the dropping of the pretends to be a managed democracy. And then the third question comes from Simon, I only have Simon J. I’m sorry, I don’t know. Oh, dear, do I have to ask that question as well. Sorry about this. So, Simon’s question is, while the power in Russia is not in the single hands of Putin, how much of the hold on power is? So, what are the chances that the similar level of power can be transferred to a different person? I mean, in case it happened without a smooth handoff from Putin, for example, in the case of his death,
Dr Timothy Frye 45:36
Right, we have three really terrific questions and I intend to answer them in the order they were asked. So, I think with the intergenerational transfer of wealth, it depends on whether we’re talking about the children of the elite, who seem to be doing quite well. And Putin seems to be managing, you know, that situation quite well. For the ordinary Russians, you know, we do see this big split in public opinion about support for Putin. You know, that breaks with the under 30 crowd being much more sceptical about Putin than the over 30 crowd. So, Putin is a very, you know, gifted autocrat in that he is a has been able to manage these tensions. But I do think that there is still going to be this, this tension with the next generation of elites as well, if the political system is simply reproduced, where instead of the current elites, we have the children of the current elites, continuing to enjoy the benefits and the you know, the access to state contracts and tax breaks that ordinary Russians don’t have, you know, whether Putin stays in power or hands power to somebody else, that tension is not going to go away. So, I think, you know, it is there anything in the short term, it’s certainly a stabilising factor and that it keeps the elite on board. Over time, though, it doesn’t resolve the underlying problem of, you know, these conflicting demands of ordinary Russians and elite Russians, on the question about how the weak strong man framework applies. Now, I want to make one caveat here. And that’s the title is much more provocative than the text of the book. Often the case, I suppose, the text is much more nuanced and much more on the one hand, on the other hand, but you know, it’s difficult to sell a book with the title, sort of constrained, strongman or moderately constrained strongman. So, you know, I struggled with the title for a long time. But I think what one of the things that it points to is how many of the tools that Putin’s used to govern in the past to become less effective, and now he’s turning to a more restrictive strategy with a greater reliance on repression. And one point I make in the book is that this doesn’t necessarily mean that Putin is more likely to fall from power, because he is relying on repression more now, these other tools are far less effective. We’ve seen leaders like Lukashenko, and other leaders in the region stay in power for long periods of time, without providing, you know, big increases in standard of living or foreign policy successes, and with a heavy dose of repression. And if we look at Putin’s time in office, it’s about par for the course for the region at this point, you know, Lukashenko has been in power longer, Nazarbayev was in power longer, you know, other leaders have stayed in power for long periods of time, and it was only their untimely deaths that that brought them down. So um, you know, just because Putin is relying more on repression doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s likely to fall from power soon. But it does mean that the main mode of legitimating is ruled and shifted, I think, in the last year. And again, I think in terms of the ability to transfer power in these types of persons regimes is actually pretty limited. Nazarbayev seems to have been successful so far, in stepping down, and you know, not facing jail, exile or death, which is a common fate for these personalist autocrats but even Putin himself in defending why it was necessary to change the constitution, something he had been reluctant to do, to allow him to stay in office after 2024. Even he pointed to infighting among the elites, as one reason why it was important to maintain the stability, the hard-earned stability, as Putin often says, of keeping him in power. So, if we think comparatively, it’s the ability to transfer power and these types of regimes is often quite limited.
Dr Jade McGlynn 50:12
Thank you very much. I’m just going to take you now to our next few questions. I’m so they’re a little bit more focused towards foreign policy. To the first question comes from, there are actually has two questions, Magnus Berkman. Not having good luck today. I’ll just read the questions. Let’s not waste any time. In your opinion, and Professor Frye, were the Russian military deployments in recent years, so Georgia, Crimea, the little green man and in eastern Ukraine, likely designed more to shore up internal support of the Putin regime within Russia, or to affect Russia’s international standing. The next question comes from Gary, I’ll see if Gary can answer it. If not, I’ll just quickly go myself.
Gary Rayant 51:19
Hello. Hello. Hello. Hi, very much, Dr Jade, for letting me ask the question. Thank you, Dr Frye. I was wondering if you could look inside the Biden-Putin talks, and maybe tell us what you think was asked and said.
Dr Jade McGlynn 51:47
Wonderful, thank you. Thank you. And then the third question comes from Robin Ashby. Robin, if you’re there.
Robin Ashby 51:56
Yes, thank you doctors both. How worried should neighbours west of Russia be, are that internal weaknesses and economic failure could lead Putin to external adventures to reinforce his credentials as the strong, unassailable national leader.
Dr Jade McGlynn 52:15
Thank you very much. Thank you, Tim, over to you.
Dr Timothy Frye 52:18
Fantastic. Thank you very much that the foreign policy chapter in the book was the most difficult to write, in part because Russia is a pretty unusual autocracy when it comes to foreign policy given its huge global footprint that most autocracies don’t have, you know, we can talk about comparative election manipulation and media manipulation and corruption in the economy. It’s pretty common across autocracies. But Russia is a pretty unusual autocracy. So, the foreign policy chapter was the most challenging to write. On whether or not the moves in Georgia, Crimea, Syria, were driven by domestic or international factors. First of all, I think it’s we often lumped these three together as if they’re all driven by the same things. And they’re often you know, just kind of tagline. But we should remember that that, you know, the international context was different for each of them, and Russia’s response was different in each of these. So, to my mind, you know, Russian foreign policy, particularly the use of force abroad is, is primarily driven by international concerns rather than by some need to satisfy you know, domestic and political conditions. Even in Crimea. You know, Putin’s popularity was in the, you know, mid 60s. And by, you know, some accounts, the Kremlin was very surprised by the, you know, just a huge outpouring of support that took place with the, the annexation of Crimea. I think it was more driven by the need to try to keep Ukraine in check, you know, to keep the military position in the Crimea, and to send a broader signal about the limits of domestic political change on Russia’s borders. And even if you look at domestic public opinion, you know, Crimea was tremendously popular intervention in Syria has not been particularly popular, and most Russians would, you know, would have preferred to see the Russian involvement end there, and the troops come back, you know, years ago. Even the Russian support for fighters in eastern Ukraine, that too, is something that there’s not a lot of popular support for, and one of the reasons why the Kremlin, you know, does not, you know, advertise its role in eastern Ukraine and, you know, denies that it has, you know, any involvement there, which most people find a pretty, pretty unconvincing, but that they are so intent on covering this up, it tells you something about their view of public opinion opponents, which is not very supportive of the introduction of Russian troops into eastern Ukraine, because one could imagine easily an alternative strategy that tries to use eastern Ukraine as a way to rally, you know, great power sentiment, and that really hasn’t happened that much, in Russia. On the Biden Putin summit, I think Biden just had a very, you know, simple message that he wanted to send is that Donald Trump is not in power anymore, and that there’s a new sheriff in town, and you know, there’s going to be a return to the more traditional relationships relationship that Russia and the NATO allies have had. That really marks a departure from the last four years. And, you know, I don’t think was a terribly successful summit, I think it’s something that Biden ministration wanted to happen so that they could move on to other issues that they saw is more pressing and important. And the fact that they didn’t even hold a joint press conference together, you know, tells you that this was really, for, you know, the public side of this summit was really about, you know, parallel press conferences, really, then they an effort to point to some concrete gains that were made during the negotiations. And on, you know, Russia’s Western neighbours, and, you know, the ability, you know, whether or not Russia, what neighbours on to the west should be concerned about a weak Russia, you know, using either a pretext to try to introduce military troops or to shore up the Kremlin’s internal position. Um, you know, we need to make an argument, but you can make an argument that Russian foreign policy is driven by weakness at home. I don’t think that that is the case, actually. Or you can make the case that, you know, Russia’s more assertive policy is really driven by, you know, Russia being in a strong position, we need to, you know, separate out those two conditions. And if we look, there’s not really clear evidence that, you know, Putin’s position at home, whether it’s strong or weak, really has a big impact on foreign policy, if you look at say, Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, you know, Putin was that is, you know, when you’re summit of his height, even if you’ve been, you know, relegated to the role of Prime Minister in 2008. In Georgia, he was at, you know, a middling level in a popularity in the during the annexation of Crimea. And his popularity was at its highest ratings when, you know, the annexation of, or the introduction of Russian troops into Syria happened. So, this, it’s hard to draw a clear case that, you know, domestic weakness or domestic strength maps easily onto foreign policy decisions made by Russian.
Dr Jade McGlynn 58:30
Thank you so much. Thank you so much, Tim. I feel like we’ve had a really wide-ranging discussion in there and thank you so much to the audience. Some really, some really wide-ranging questions as well. I’m afraid we have to end it there are a few more questions I sorry that we didn’t manage to get around to them but thank you the audience for coming for listening, for putting questions on, thank you so much Tim for answering these questions so masterfully prepared.
Dr Timothy Frye 58:56
Thank you very much as I mentioned in all books, this one was a labour of love. So, you know, I really enjoy talking about it I’m not surprised if that discussion was right ranging because the book itself does try to cover an awful lot of academic research on you know, a broad range of topics so I hope people will enjoy the book. And you know, I really enjoyed writing it.
Dr Jade McGlynn 59:19
I enjoyed reading it and I think any I think the audience but as well the link is in the chat. Just as a reminder, you can buy this from Princeton University Press, as well as you can find it on their website. Thank you to everybody and goodbye.