Streetwise Professor

August 28, 2018

What Happens When the Putin Hamster Wheel Stops Spinning?

Filed under: China,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:30 pm

In a Bloomberg interview, Russian sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya basically echoes things that I’ve written here for over a decade.

First, though she doesn’t use this exact terminology, Putin’s Russia is a quasi-feudal “natural state” in which Putin is the balancer, and maintains balance by allocating rents among jostling elite clans.

Second, the transition to a post-Putin Russia will be messy.  Kryshtanovskaya sketches out the game theory, which I’ve done in the past.  It’s not that complicated–collusive/cooperative arrangements among rivals unravel as the end game nears.  With a mortal man playing such a crucial role in enforcing the cooperative agreement, such an unraveling is inevitable.

Putin is subject to constitutional constraints that would, in theory, cause the end game to precede his demise or dotage, but he recognizes this, and will find some new role that concentrates power in his hands, thereby effectively neutering who ever succeeds him as president.

But that just delays the inevitable. As he ages, and the clans he keeps in check believe that the cooperative horizon is shrinking (perhaps due to observation that Putin is slipping mentally or physically), one (or all) will make a power grab.  That could lead to chaos.

One wildcard that  Kryshtanovskaya doesn’t mention, and which wasn’t as big of a factor when I was writing about this years back, is Kadyrov.  He is another actor–and a mercurial and dangerous one–who could play a decisive role in the end game.  Although it has been suggested that he has ambitions to rule Russia, it is more likely that he will make a play for greater autonomy when the center weakens, and will also throw his weight to influence the outcome of the battle to succeed Putin.  And once that is settled, it is not difficult to imagine that his demands and independence will result in a Third Chechen War.

It is precisely this inherent instability in a de-institutionalized, personalized political system that limits Russia’s long-run challenge to the US.  Periodic, episodic turmoil is not conducive to posing a persistent geopolitical challenge.

Until recently, China’s more collective leadership system and periodic, regular transfers of power have been another factor that makes it a more dangerous challenger to the US than Russia.  Interestingly, Xi’s concentration of power in his person may bring all of the trade-offs that Putnism has, with the biggest downside being instability and potential chaos when succession looms.

I’d say that bodes well for the US in the long run, but since we appear to be converging to Russia from above, perhaps not.  On that subject, more later.

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  1. Could he conceivably abdicate? Romans did it, Kings and Popes have done it, the Emperor of Japan apparently plans to do it. Where could he be safe?

    Comment by dearieme — August 29, 2018 @ 6:57 am

  2. @Dearieme: Yeltsin was left well enough alone…

    Comment by HibernoFrog — August 29, 2018 @ 7:35 am

  3. Troubled Times came after Ivan The Terrible. “there is nothing new under the Sun”

    Comment by NV7 — August 29, 2018 @ 12:22 pm

  4. This is a question we can answer: managers of remaining cash-generating assets start mysteriously falling out of windows, as has recently happened to a certain Bruno de Cooman.

    Comment by Ivan — August 29, 2018 @ 5:21 pm

  5. As far as constitutional constraints go (on the off-chance these are still meaningful to anyone in any way), there is a widespread speculation that they will be circumvented by the upcoming formal Anschluss of Belarus (currently independent in name only), with Putin then starting his very first presidential term at the new entity.

    Comment by Ivan — August 29, 2018 @ 5:40 pm

  6. My question is – what happens to all Putin’s money when he eventually cedes (or loses) power? Does it simply vanish?

    Comment by Doug Niedermeyer — September 1, 2018 @ 2:35 pm

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