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25 February 2022

Putin’s power vertical and the pathologies of authoritarian rule

A stage-managed meeting in which he humiliated his cabinet may come to be seen as a turning point.

By Katie Stallard

Forty-eight hours before he launched his attack, on 21 February Vladimir Putin summoned the most senior members of his regime to an extraordinary, televised meeting in the Kremlin. Sitting behind an enormous white desk in the great gilded Hall of the Order of St Catherine, he called them up, one at a time, to a lectern and asked them whether they supported the decision to recognise the independence of the separatist territories in eastern Ukraine.

Some were enthusiastic. Nikolai Patrushev, the security council’s secretary and one of Putin’s closest allies, claimed that Nato and the United States were using Ukraine to try to “destroy the Russian Federation”. Others, such as the prime minister Mikhail Mishustin, who is meant to be overseeing Russia’s economic development, looked decidedly uncomfortable but said they agreed.

Then it was the turn of Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service and ostensibly one of the country’s most powerful men. But standing in front of Putin, he stuttered and stammered, struggling to formulate the correct response. The Russian president drummed his fingers on the desk and smirked. “I will support the decision to recognise,” Naryshkin ventured. “I will support, or I support?” Putin cut in. “Speak directly!” The exchange went on like this for several minutes before he was finally satisfied and allowed his spy chief to sit back down.

It was a theatrical display of raw political power that was clearly designed to show that Putin wields absolute, personal control. The footage was pre-recorded, so Naryshkin’s humiliation could have been edited out. Instead, the full, excruciating encounter was broadcast at prime time on Russian state television. The wider meeting functioned as a loyalty test, requiring every senior official and any potential future rivals to state on camera that they supported Putin’s decision.

“Probably deep down he knows he’s risking something,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a scholar of authoritarian political systems and the author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present. “The way I read this is that he is taking a big gamble, so he wanted to stage this performance to force these people to show that they agree with him and reaffirm that they are his lackeys.”

Putin has long cultivated the myth of his “power vertical” – the idea that he commands absolute top-down control and can personally direct officials at all levels to do his bidding. The reality is more complex. He sits atop a political system that spans both a sprawling, dysfunctional bureaucracy and a kleptocracy, with an inner circle dominated by close associates from his KGB days and old friends who have become billionaires under his rule. Maintaining the illusion that he is both popular and powerful helps to dissuade any would-be successors from challenging him, and reassures his patrons that his future, and theirs, is secure.

But the stage-managed performance he conducted on the eve of this invasion might well come to be seen as a critical moment in his two decades in power, and an object lesson in the pathologies of authoritarian rule. It was painfully clear that some of his most senior advisers did not fully agree with him, yet none of them was prepared to say so. At one point, he asked directly whether anyone would like to offer an alternative view. The response was silence.

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“When authoritarian rulers are in power for so long, they come to depend on their cheering cronies and dismiss any criticism,” Ben-Ghiat told me. “This leads them to act increasingly on their own instincts, and to think that those instincts are always right. When they are at the peak of their power, they feel invincible, and that’s when they start thinking about their legacy and taking risks.”

There is a terrible, brutal logic to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The country is slipping from his grasp, moving inexorably towards the European Union and the aspiration of eventual Nato membership. He accelerated this trend himself when he annexed Crimea and started a war in eastern Ukraine in 2014. By launching a large-scale offensive, the Russian president is attempting to halt that trajectory, overthrow the government, and return Ukraine to Russia’s sphere of influence by force. But while he has the firepower to devastate Ukraine and degrade its military capabilities, it is difficult to see an outcome that does not involve a long, bloody conflict and an even more concerted westward shift. 

It is possible that Putin’s subordinates have not been reporting the most pessimistic intelligence estimates up to him, opting for the safer option of telling him what they think he wants to hear. But it is equally possible that he was fully briefed on all the risks and believed that he knew better.

[See also: Putin has substituted his own interests for those of the Russian state]

Observing Putin’s behaviour, Ben-Ghiat said she was struck by the parallels to the other self-styled strongman leaders she has studied, such as Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin and Muammar al-Gaddafi. But she told me the most apt comparison was with Benito Mussolini. “He ignored the advice of every one of his military commanders and took over a number of roles including minister of war and minister of aviation himself. He kept saying that he knew better and that he knew what he was doing. And, well, the rest is history.” (The Italian dictator, whose slogan was “the Duce [leader] is always right”, was eventually overthrown and executed in a public square.)

By all accounts, Putin is obsessed with history and the great leaders of the past. As he turns 70 later this year, after 22 years in power, he must be contemplating his own legacy and how future historians will judge his rule. After invading Ukraine, unprovoked, and starting this war, he has ensured that he will be remembered, but perhaps not in the way he might wish.

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