The Weakness of the Despot


If you assumed that the West was just going to fold, because it was in decline and ran from Afghanistan; if you assumed that the Ukrainian people were not for real, were not a nation; if you assumed that Zelensky was just a TV actor, a comedian, a Russian-speaking Jew from Eastern Ukraine—if you assumed all of that, then maybe you thought you could take Kyiv in two days or four days. But those assumptions were wrong.

Let’s discuss the nature of the Russian regime. Putin came in twenty-three years ago, and there were figures called the oligarchs from the Yeltsin years, eight or nine of them. Putin read them the riot act, saying, You can keep your riches, but stay out of politics. Those who kept their nose in politics, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, were punished, sent to prison. Others left the country with as much of their fortune as possible. But we still talk about oligarchs. What is the nature of the regime and the people who are loyal to it? Who is important?

It’s a military-police dictatorship. Those are the people who are in power. In addition, it has a brilliant coterie of people who run macroeconomics. The central bank, the finance ministry, are all run on the highest professional level. That’s why Russia has this macroeconomic fortress, these foreign-currency reserves, the “rainy day” fund. It has reasonable inflation, a very balanced budget, very low state debt—twenty per cent of G.D.P., the lowest of any major economy. It had the best macroeconomic management.

So you have a military-police dictatorship in charge, with a macroeconomic team running your fiscal, military state. Those people are jockeying over who gets the upper hand. For macroeconomic stability, for economic growth, you need decent relations with the West. But, for the military security part of the regime, which is the dominant part, the West is your enemy, the West is trying to undermine you, it’s trying to overthrow your regime in some type of so-called color revolution. What happened is that the balance between those groups shifted more in favor of the military security people––let’s call it the thuggish part of the regime. And, of course, that’s where Putin himself comes from.

The oligarchs were never in power under Putin. He clipped their wings. They worked for him. If they didn’t work for him, they could lose their money. He rearranged the deck chairs. He gave out the money. He allowed expropriation by his own oligarchs, people who grew up with him, who did judo with him, who summered with him. The people who were in the K.G.B. with him in Leningrad back in the day, or in post-Soviet St. Petersburg––those people became oligarchs and expropriated the property to live the high life. Some of the early Yeltsin-era people were either expropriated, fled, or were forced out. Putin built a regime in which private property, once again, was dependent on the ruler. Everybody knew this. If they didn’t know, they learned the lesson the hard way.

Sadly, this encouraged people all up and down the regime to start stealing other people’s businesses and property. It became a kind of free-for-all. If it was good enough for Putin and his cronies, it’s good enough for me as the governor of Podunk province. The regime became more and more corrupt, less and less sophisticated, less and less trustworthy, less and less popular. It hollowed out. That’s what happens with dictatorships.

But such people and such a regime, it seems to me, would care above all about wealth, about the high life, about power. Why would they care about Ukraine?

It’s not clear that they do. We’re talking, at most, about six people, and certainly one person as the decision-maker. This is the thing about authoritarian regimes: they’re terrible at everything. They can’t feed their people. They can’t provide security for their people. They can’t educate their people. But they only have to be good at one thing to survive. If they can deny political alternatives, if they can force all opposition into exile or prison, they can survive, no matter how incompetent or corrupt or terrible they are.

And yet, as corrupt as China is, they’ve lifted tens of millions of people out of extreme poverty. Education levels are rising. The Chinese leaders credit themselves with enormous achievements.

Who did that? Did the Chinese regime do that? Or Chinese society? Let’s be careful not to allow the Chinese Communists to expropriate, as it were, the hard labor, the entrepreneurialism, the dynamism of millions and millions of people in that society. You know, in the Russian case, Navalny was arrested—

This is Alexey Navalny, Putin’s most vivid political rival, who was poisoned by the F.S.B. and is now in prison.

Yes. He was imprisoned in the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine. In retrospect, it could well be that this was a preparation for the invasion, the way that Ahmad Shah Massoud, for example, was blown up in Northern Afghanistan [by Al Qaeda] right before the Twin Towers came down.

You have the denial of alternatives, the suppression of any opposition, arrest, exile, and then you can prosper as an élite, not with economic growth but just with theft. And, in Russia, wealth comes right up out of the ground! The problem for authoritarian regimes is not economic growth. The problem is how to pay the patronage for their élites, how to keep the élites loyal, especially the security services and the upper levels of the officer corps. If money just gushes out of the ground in the form of hydrocarbons or diamonds or other minerals, the oppressors can emancipate themselves from the oppressed. The oppressors can say, we don’t need you. We don’t need your taxes. We don’t need you to vote. We don’t rely on you for anything, because we have oil and gas, palladium and titanium. They can have zero economic growth and still live very high on the hog.



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