Putinism, both as a system for ruling Russia and as an ideology, has become defined gradually over the last 22 years. Elements of what has now become what we might call ‘Putinism’ – authoritarianism, personalism, social conservatism, violence at home and abroad, religiosity etc. – have always been present within Russia under Vladimir Putin. However, the elements of ‘full Putinism’ were balanced by other factors, i.e., political, economic, and institutional factors within Russia, until the last year and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Analysts, when producing classifications of Putinism, deducing its relationship to democracy and dictatorship, and adducing what might be its ideological antecedents and characteristics, have been struggling to work out what the balance within Putinism has been, i.e., between consensus and coercion, dictatorship, democracy and authoritarianism, and rights and obligations, and between loyalty to the regime based on its values or its delivery of a better life. This is why there have been so many different interpretations of Putinism over the years.
There were, before the war, an almost infinite number of ways that the different elements of Russia’s polity under Putin could be aligned. This gave room for multiple definitions of Putinism as a system of rule and as an ideology. Putinism was defined as a fully-fledged authoritarian system, indeed even a fascist one, but also as an illiberal polity albeit one that was as democratic as could be hoped for given the issues that faced post-communist Russia. Between these extremes, most analysts described it as some version of Russia under Putin, as a hybrid system: it was variously categorised as a state torn in two between informal political practices (corrupt, neglectful of citizens’ political, economic and social rights) and a formal constitutional system that mandated rights and practices such as elections; just another ‘normal’ middle-income country, struggling to cope with the competing pulls of democracy and authoritarianism; or one more neo-patrimonial state in which elites undermined market and democratic governance to extract rent from society and economy.
Things were no clearer regarding the ideological nature of Putinism. It was difficult pre-war to argue unambiguously that Putinism was an ‘-ism’. Putinism, it was argued, contained only a very thin ideological core, if it had one at all. It was more about moderation between the recent extremes of Russian history, Soviet communism and the shocks of economic liberalism than anything else. Putinism was less an ideology than a ‘mentality’, a set of political predispositions that are common to authoritarian polities. These predispositions made up a ‘code’ rather than a prescriptive ideological system in the way that Marxism-Leninism had during the Soviet era. Moreover, there was a great deal of variety in Russian intellectual life and thought.
Putinism has developed as a system of regime maintenance, with the construction of this system influenced by competing forces within the regime.
The last year, and the movement to wartime Putinism, have clarified what the balances are between factors in the Russian political system. Some have portrayed the settling of Putinism into a fully authoritarian, repressive, and ideological variant as an inevitable outcome of Putin’s rule, often portraying it as a reflection of who Putin is. This, however, is too neat a picture of how Putinism developed and what Putinism is. To begin with, it makes it all about Putin. Putin is the prime mover in the Russian political system certainly, but he is also the head of a political elite that is invested in the system of rule and privileges that has been established over the last twenty years. Russian politics – and Russia’s future – is not all about Putin.
Putinism has developed as a system of regime maintenance, with the construction of this system influenced by competing forces within the regime. The development of Putinism as regime maintenance has thus been ad hoc rather than planned or emanating from Putin’s personality. Putinism as a system of regime maintenance has developed in response to Russia’s many weaknesses, particularly economic weakness, and to Putin’s inability to create a political order that can deal with these weaknesses effectively to ensure consistent performance legitimacy. None of the competing forces that have been identified within the Russian political system – economic liberals, securocrats, oligarchs, technocrats, etc. – have been able to construct such an order or agree on the contours of it, torn as they are between different views of development and economic security, and international politics, and over the distribution of rent.
Putin’s inability to create a political order that can deal with Russian weaknesses means that the Putin regime has always been vulnerable, or at least believed itself so, to external pressure and influence and to suffering loss of power. These threats, real and imagined, have been things like contagion from Colour Revolutions threatening Putin’s tenure, loss of influence regionally, and exogenous economic shocks such as Russia experienced during the financial crisis in 2008-2010. Putinism developed as a response to this vulnerability and has been a part of efforts to over-guarantee continuity in power. This has not been a linear or smooth process. In the early to mid-2000s, the emphasis was on controlling the political process by curtailing the powers of regional and economic elites and by building up United Russia as the governing party with a majority in the Duma. Ideological development took second place to this initially, although it was boosted by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004. This highlighted the danger of losing control over elections and the need to defend electoral manipulation in Russia. This was done through the promotion of the idea of Russia as a ‘sovereign democracy’, one with its own distinct (i.e., non-liberal) democratic norms that meant that it should not be subject to either procedural or moral criticism.
Ideas like ‘sovereign democracy’ were not made a part of any official ideological system in the 2000s. Putin never used the term, nor did he give his imprimatur to how such terms defined state-society relations. Vulnerability, however, drove things forward once again, this time the vulnerability caused by the economic crisis that started in 2008 and the electoral protests that accompanied Putin’s return to the presidency in the 2011-2012 electoral cycle. Putin’s response to these events was to justify further political closure by denying his opponents legitimate political agency. He did this in a series of articles just before the 2012 presidential election in which he argued that Russia was a ‘state-civilisation’. This civilisation is, Putin claimed, based on conservative values shared by all of Russia’s religious communities and represented by the state. Political positions not based on these shared values, like liberalism, multiculturalism, and ethnonationalism, were not organically ‘Russian’ since they had not emerged from the lived experience of Russia’s different ethnic and religious groups learning to live together. They were, therefore, a threat to Russia, part, even if inadvertently, of the Western assault on the statehood of others that came from globalisation and the West’s insistence on the universality of liberal democratic norms. Threats, of course, need to be dealt with, and they were through repression (the arrest of demonstrators) and through legislative persecution (the ‘foreign agent’ laws that allowed for the demonisation of opponents). Rhetorically, the new discourse also made the success of the Putin regime less about delivering economic growth and more about its protection of a value system of Russia’s state-civilisation. Legitimisation could be claimed by the regime as it ‘delivered’ protection from existential threat, something that was much easier to achieve than economic growth since it could be proclaimed rather than experienced tangibly.
Putin laid the ground for the development of a Putinist ideology through his discourse on Russia as a ‘state-civilisation’, but this was not yet a closed ideological system. Putin introduced themes into Russian public discourse that came to dominate regime propaganda, but he did not use these themes in his speeches systematically or routinely. Indeed, after they had done their job in helping secure his re-election in 2012 and consolidation of power, Putin backtracked from them around 2014. As a result, Putinism was ‘incomplete’ as an ideology. The media aired a ‘regime-supporting’ set of discourses inspired by Putin’s ideas about Russia as a ‘state-civilisation’ and the threat from the West, but these ideas were used sparingly, if at all, at the apex of the political system, in Putin’s speeches and in the pronouncements of other senior regime figures. Putin’s ideas did not, therefore, create an ideocratic system. At its heart, the Putin system remained pragmatic to a great extent. It fed ideological lines to the Russian people to either inoculate them against Western soft power or to breed apathy amongst them by delegitimising political alternatives to the regime. At the same time, however, Putin remained somewhat ‘free’ of ideological constraint, freedom that his Soviet predecessors had not enjoyed under the ideocracy of Marxism-Leninism. The West, for example, was repeatedly described as Russophobic in the mass media, but Putin himself never went as far as to pathologise the West. This left room for negotiation, partnership, and cooperation between Putin, who alone could define what was in Russia’s interest, and Western politicians, who were rational.
This changed in the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Texts like Putin’s article on Ukrainian and Russian history, which in turn underpinned his speeches justifying the invasion in February 2022, were based on the idea of Russian and Ukrainian civilisational unity that was under threat due to a ‘forced change of identity’ in Ukraine and the construction of an ethnic Ukrainian state that would place Ukraine outside of what Putin described as its historic home in the ‘Russian world’. This was a threat generated from outside of Ukraine as an ‘anti-Russian project’. If this was successful, it would mean the end of Ukraine since ‘ true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia … For we are one people.’ Statements like these, and the speeches that Putin has given since the invasion, like his 2023 Federal Assembly Address, have been no different from the regime-supporting discourses that the mass media have produced since 2012. Putin, in other words, has fully entered the discourse that he inspired in 2012 but then soft-pedalled after it had served its immediate instrumental purpose of consolidating his power upon returning to the presidency in 2012.
This change to a more heightened ideological state in the run-up to and after the invasion of Ukraine has made Putinism a unified entity for the first time. The contradictions that were characteristic of it in the past have either been resolved or made trivial: obligations to the state now unambiguously trump rights, democracy has fully succumbed to authoritarianism, and the balance between loyalty to the regime based on its values or its delivery of a better life has been completely tipped in favour of loyalty to the regime-as-Russia under siege. The resolution of the contradictions that lay within Putinism will likely mark the end of its development. Putinism will now stand or fall as it is. The potential that Russia once had to develop in one of several directions, a potential that it shared with all hybrid systems, is no longer there under the conditions of war.