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Russian Autocracy: The Dialectic Of Self-Destruction. Why Russia’s Modern Regime Has No Life Prospects – Analysis

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The Russian government’s so-called “Special Military Operation,” a military invasion of Ukraine, failed: the distorted reality in which the Russian government found itself of its own free will led to failure. This happened not only because of the Ukrainian resistance and the help of the international community, but also because of the internal problems of the Russian regime. And this is understandable.

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There are two poles in the paradigm of unfreedom: you are either a tyrant or a soft-autocrat. 

If you are a tyrant, you do not really care about public opinion, because society is definitely not a pillar of your power. This is the basis of your entire internal policy of tyranny, based on total and unquestioning repression and coercion.

But if you are a soft-autocrat, you need, just vitally need, an independent opposition media, even if limited by “red lines” and supervised by the appropriate state censors. You need a more or less open exchange of opinions. Why? Because you need real public signals, not ones modeled or stimulated by your own, you don’t want to eat your own tail.

Such controlled freedom is one of the keys to your success and your political longevity as an autocrat. You must meet the aspirations and sentiments of the majority, which is the base of your success. The Russian majority, the root electorate, is in this sense a favorable basis for the flourishing of an authoritarian regime because of its historical foundations and the peculiarities of national cultural and ethical evolution. I am referring to Russia’s centuries-old cultural, ethical and technological detachment (or rather backwardness) from the Western (and also from the Eastern) world; the sacralization of power and the low level of social humanism and tolerance; centuries-old nationalism with permanent imperialist intentions, and so on. We could go on and on. If, in addition to such social drivers of your success as the domain of an autocratic regime, you have high-quality and distributed bureaucratic competencies in economics and political management, you can be a very stable autocracy. 

Thus, of course, you will not create Singapore based on social intension. This requires root liberal institutions, above all an independent judiciary, which is impossible when your autocracy is focused on rent-seeking political entrepreneurship and nepotism as a means of vertical stability of power. But you will not fall into North Korea either, since you will protect and develop your welfare in the capitalist frame of the economy as the most effective for your quite down-to-earth goals. At the same time, adequate economic management prevents you from tilting toward the suicidal populism of Chávez’s Venezuela, which eventually turned into the Maduro dictatorship.

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A shift toward dictatorship is completely inevitable, and hybridism is transformed into something simpler once you start “tightening the screws. In Russia, the inevitable trigger for this tightening was the military invasion of Ukraine. And that is why many call this so-called “special military operation” a strategic mistake of the Russian autocratic regime. In such a case, the regime simply has to conform to the new paradigm, as this is an inevitable logical rut. 

If you are staging a performance like the one the Russian government staged on February 24, you need to centralize the resources for shaping a certain and non-alternative public opinion, i.e. the media and social networks. This is necessary for more concentrated and expanded informational manipulation, which means the inevitable closure of all opposition media that are alternative to the government’s political doctrine. 

You also need to neutralize dissenting public Influencers as a permanent threat to destabilization. You neutralize them by physically destroying them, forcing them out of the country, imprisoning them, discrediting them, etc. 

And you also have to consolidate public opinion as much as possible and concentrate public sentiment in the direction of aggressive patriotism, when the majority will demand “just retaliation” against the “enemy” you have declared for one or another, phantom reason: for example, the “threat” of NATO expansion to the borders, “oppression” of your language speakers in other “unfriendly” countries, etc. For all this, you replace propaganda (which is actually the way of information policy in democracies and partly in soft-autocracies) with total informational manipulation and the creation of an informational “alternative reality”, i.e. nothing but compilation of facts and outright lies.

All three of these changes and new discourses in domestic politics carry real landmines for the Russian regime.

By removing opposition media and other information resources from the available field of public view, you deprive yourself of the opportunity to get real signals about changes in preferences in various social strata, about the transfers of these preferences. This means that you deprive the basis of your success – social legitimacy – of sustainability, because your picture of public opinion is distorted. Now you yourself, as the creator and chief interest holder of the regime, are in fact captive to the systemic manipulators that are the pro-government media, which now completely fill the information space. You are no longer able-and you don’t want to-get the real vibrations of society, because you are focused on only one feedback from society-your own stimulated and created aggressive-patriotic approval.

The personal elimination of opposition Influencers – from politicians to actors to singers – inevitably splits society along with other negative drivers into antagonistic and often militant groups. It provokes conflict on a deeper and more everyday level-family, friendship, neighborhood, corporate, etc. People with strong and difficult to break commonalities in viscous domestic interactions begin to conflict aggressively in an ideological sense, which carries over to all other spheres of contact. At the same time, complete self-removal from each other or direct active conflict is impossible or difficult because of the established interrelationships – father-son, neighbor-neighbor, seller-buyer, subordinate-supervisor, etc. As a result, such disconnection usually leads to micro-tears in social homogeneity: spoiled but not terminated relationships, ignoring each other with forced contacts nonetheless, etc. In extreme cases, such antagonism leads to direct and aggressive conflicts. In general, such social stratification mediated in one way or another by power, with direct and public physical oppression of leaders of various public opinions, as rank-and-file macro and micro groups of social interests, creates gradually significant social tension. And it in no way contributes to the stability of the regime itself, which until now has relied on social consensus and stability

As for replacing propaganda and modeling of public opinion with direct manipulation and indoctrination of a relevant and necessary agenda for the regime, this dangerous but inevitable transformation for a shifting autocracy also carries enormous risks. Once it has provoked a total aggressive and unifying social emotion, it is difficult to reduce it as “technologically. It is not a supertask to create a social mood, but a titanic and often impossible task to change it, since such a mood has a multiplicative effect. It proliferates into other aspects of life, into everyday life and shorter human connections. Examples abound, from the behavior of social primate groups to the history of dictatorial regimes right up to the present day. 

When the moment of high risks for the regime and the need to change political discourse arrives, changing social opinion and attitudes to other, more moderate ones is almost impossible due to their high inertia, distribution and assimilation. Thus, the regime becomes a prisoner of the rut it has created.

In general, the loss of equilibrium in any authoritarian regime leads to shifts in the political order in the positive or negative field. As a rule, such shifts occur endogenously, i.e. from within, on the growing social and economic problems, the stratification of power and society, etc. In Russia’s case, the regime itself has chosen to shift its own quite stable equilibrium, not in the direction of liberalization (which was entirely within its power and favorable), but in the direction of a tougher dictatorship, inevitable given the correspondingly chosen geopolitical course. 

Another thing is that the regime in Russia is personified, and the domain needs to maintain its dominant position and status quo among the various interest groups of the elites. As the risks of weakening social support and increasing discontent within the elites increase, the domain needs to make transformational decisions aimed at preserving its stability – this is an inevitable dialectical rut. In the vast majority of cases, such decisions will be clearly non-progressive for society and not in the direction of liberalization, since this entails increased competition, both social and elite. At the moment of threat, liberalization is a destructive strategy for the autocrat, since it leads to the abandonment of power and carries with it high risks of persecution later on. 

But then the domain and its entourage are forced to make more conservative decisions. They can maneuver, but only within the boundaries of given circumstances, i.e., their understanding of reality and prospects. As a rule, these boundaries are not too wide and the vision of the prospects is not too multifaceted, even if the domain is smart and far-sighted and the government managers are competent. The invasion of Ukraine was precisely such a decision, driven by all the features mentioned.

This is the great problem of personalist regimes, where there is no possibility for alternative assessments, comparisons and weighing. This is exactly the kind of threat of personalization that the USSR abandoned after Stalin’s death, that China’s Deng Xiao Ping abandoned, that Singapore is abandoning, and that is why the wealthy countries of the Middle East are being transformed. On the contrary, regimes that increase personalization inevitably lead to social collapse and deterioration of positions of power. They have to bear much higher transaction costs in order to maintain their position. There are plenty of such examples as well, among them: Venezuela, Belarus, and now apparently Russia.

What do the domain and the upper strata of the ruling elite get in such a case? They get a “distortion” of reality, created by themselves, when important information is systematically distorted, be it public opinion, political disposition, or a technical report on the state and capabilities of the armed forces. As a result, assessments are distorted in the paradigm of an “alternate reality,” and this distortion leads to correspondingly negative consequences for the regime itself.

The consequence of the apparent failure to achieve any of the goals of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is only the first of a series of apparently subsequent ones. Increased social ferment, stratification, and erosion of social consensus are next. But more importantly, there is an increase in the claims of the elites and the competition of their interests among themselves and with the supreme power, both political and economic. The proliferation of economic and geopolitical problems and threats to the actors of these groups correspondingly erodes the stability of the regime and the supreme power, especially the persona of the domain. 

In the end, there are only three options left for the domain, all of which are actually a grenade behind the sinuses.  

The first is to roll back to the beginning of the active phase of aggressive action, for example, through a truce and a readiness for a treaty process. However, the costs for the elites are already enormous, and the national-patriotic community has been modeled in society and the atavistic emotion of “just aggression” has been stimulated. Offering a de facto opposite, “roll-back” political agenda carries great risks for the authorities, since this would be selling “cabbage instead of meat” to the people standing in line for meat and could be seen as a betrayal. This would actually be a violation of the existing social contract on the part of the government that proposed it. Neither society nor the elites are ready to accept a situation in which they have incurred and will obviously continue to incur costs without a corresponding pro-announced reward. Selling cabbage instead of meat at the same price is no easy task. 

The second scenario is a continuation of the course taken. However, this also involves a huge increase and expansion of costs for the regime, because it generates the need for social tightening. This concerns, firstly, the inevitable socio-economic mobilization after a while, as the economic and military opportunities are obviously narrowing. Second, it is a significant increase in repression, obligatory to prevent and curb outbursts of both social discontent and dissatisfaction or conspiracy within the elites. In fact, this scenario is a direct path to a totalitarian tyrannical dictatorship, the movement along which, unfortunately, no longer depends much on the actors themselves, who are, as I have mentioned more than once, in a “rut. 

If anyone thinks that the main beneficiaries and actors of Russian autocracy, including the current domain, themselves want bloody tyranny, they are deeply mistaken. This regime is not tyrannical by nature. It is mercantilist and nepothetically corrupt. It is the logical consequence of the erosion of the Soviet dying dictatorship and the new, post-dictatorial opportunism of the former and new emerging elites of the 1990s. The main actors and beneficiaries of the current regime clearly understand the convenience and possibilities of capitalism and market exchange, as well as cooperation in general within the framework of globalization. And if we are now seeing a shift toward dictatorship as a consequence of the military conflict unleashed by the regime, this is the result of growing risks for the upper elite group led by the domain with regard to their influence, opportunities, and security. Risks that they do not know how to neutralize other than geopolitical military aggression. However, these risks are dialectically inevitable and inherent in the lifeline of any autocracy.

Finally, the third option is the renunciation of power by the domain. There is no point in talking about its prospects in detail, since this scenario seems to be the least likely and most fatal for the domain and the supreme elite, at least for now. For its successful implementation, beneficial for the domain and its affiliates, it requires guarantees of security and refusal to be persecuted from both outside and inside. At present, such guarantees and the very possibility of obtaining them look completely illusory. In fact, so does the very intention of the domain and the elite group closest to it to consider such a prospect. 

Russia’s current position in the conflict with Ukraine places the Russian regime before an existential choice. It cannot be said that all decisions of the Russian regime prior to February 24 were irrational or disastrous for it. Rather, on the contrary, previous policies were quite balanced and successful for the regime, and the decisions made were rational and effective for overcoming cyclical crises. 

But February 2022 radically changed everything. The decision made then broke all rationality and shifted the regime into a “bad track” with no positive prospects for it, no matter what decision and with what intensity was made.

Proceeding from this and taking into account the current changing balance of forces and disposition of the sides in the military conflict, the most probable actions of the Russian regime look quite obvious and predictable. This is a balancing act between an attempt to “roll back” and increasing escalation – both in terms of military actions and geopolitical position, as well as in terms of domestic social policy. Of course, the regime is interested in preserving social consensus for as long as possible, since a shift into total tyranny, as has already been said, would sharply weaken its stability and is not in its basic interest. Therefore, the regime is trying and will continue to try to stimulate social loyalty and to prevent discontent for as long as possible for its survival.

This explains in particular the lack of overt mobilization today and the presentation of the military action as a TV show, which has no direct connection to people’s daily lives. This is why prisoners are hired into private military formations, so combat contracts are awarded in the most remote and impoverished regions of the country. This also includes the titanic, unsuccessful efforts of the government’s economic bloc to contain the negative effects of sanctions pressure and to maintain both macroeconomic stability and consumer opportunities for as long as possible.  

There is only one problem.  First, both of the aforementioned scenarios of the most likely actions of the Russian authorities and balancing between them carry great misfortunes for Russia as a state in the not so distant future. They are inevitably destructive for the economy and for society, regardless of whether the population realizes this fact. And second, it should be realized that when (or if) there is no alternative, the regime will be forced to enter a phase of total tyranny, primarily and among other things, against its own population. History, unfortunately, does not allow us to doubt this.

Today Russia is a degradating state. Degradation, as an assessment of the process of change, is true of all the variables of the state – social, cultural, economic, ethical. And the factors relevant to changing the trajectory of the processes are not yet traceable.

Paul Tolmachev

Russian-born Paul Tolmachev is a portfolio manager at BlackRock (London, UK) with $500 million in personally managed assets. He also is a visiting scholar at the Stanford Institute For Economic Policy Research, where he researches institutional and political economy.

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