Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sole concern is the preservation of his own power
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sole concern is the preservation of his own power © Alexey Nikolsky.Sputnik/AFP via Getty

High carbon steel is strong but brittle, super-hard but liable to fracture under sudden impact. Mild or soft steel is ductile, prone to bend but less likely to shatter. The two metals are a useful metaphor for the contrasting properties of democratic and authoritarian governments.

The world’s rich democracies have been pulled out of shape lately. A glance at the voter suppression initiatives of the US Republican party attests that America still bears the deformations of Donald Trump’s presidency. In Europe, populists have launched myriad assaults on pluralist values and norms. And yet, warped as they may have been, the institutions of democracy have proved sufficiently supple to bear the blows.

As for the autocrats, Vladimir Putin remains in the Kremlin; Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan still occupies his Versailles-like palace in Ankara; and in Beijing emperor-in-all-but-name Xi Jinping has become ever more confrontational in his drive to dismantle the western-designed international order. But then it is the nature of their rule that autocrats are all-powerful until they are rendered powerless.

A British diplomat once told me of his apprenticeship on the Soviet desk at the Foreign Office. It was the early 1980s and the Soviet Union looked to be at the zenith of its military power. Seen from the west, the Soviet system of state economic planning was unsustainable. On the other hand, the unchallenged working assumption was that it would last for ever. The same colliding expectations often describe the west’s view of Putin’s Russia.

This month the Russian government published its updated National Security Strategy. Anyone who has shown a passing interest in the Kremlin’s worldview will be familiar with the general thrust. Nationalist autocrats need enemies abroad to justify political repression at home, and the Russian president has long found his in the west.

So a beleaguered Russia has been encircled by a hostile US and its Nato allies. The enemy forces — some, including the US, now officially designated “unfriendly states” — are moving their militaries closer to the nation’s border. Washington is deploying its international financial might against Moscow. Western economic sanctions are an integral part of this multipronged attack on Russia’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The threat, the document continues, reaches beyond the military and economic. The attack is cultural and civilisational. Westerners are spreading social and moral attitudes that “contradict the traditions, convictions and beliefs of the peoples of the Russian Federation”. The country must be defended against foreign ideologies and values.

If confirmation were needed, this is not the analysis of a Russian leader now seeking a fundamental shift in relations with the west. His recent meeting with US president Joe Biden in Geneva may have reframed the relationship with Washington, but it has not reset it.

For all that, Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, detects an important addition to the latest strategy — a recognition of threats within as well as without. They include weak economic performance, heavy dependence on oil and gas, adverse demography and lagging technologies. By Trenin’s account: “The Russian leadership has every reason now to turn inward to address the glaring weaknesses, imbalances and inequalities of the country’s internal situation.”

Add the rampant corruption that starts with the Kremlin and you have the explanation for Putin’s fear of Alexei Navalny, the imprisoned opposition leader. Foreigners cannot be blamed for state graft as well as falling living standards. And the decarbonisation of energy supplies will soon begin to cap the flow of money to the Kremlin’s coffers from oil and gas.

The temptation is to think we may be back in the 1980s — that the fissures are about to widen into cracks that will one day bring down the present system. To my mind that is premature. Putin’s sole concern is the preservation of his own power. He will happily steal Russia’s future to safeguard his own position. That is what he doing by throwing in his lot with Xi’s China — he will be gone before Russia pays the price.

The equal and opposite mistake, though, is to believe that the trajectory of the world’s authoritarian states is fixed. The autocrats, with their elaborate Potemkin facades, understand well the fragility of their rule. Even for emperor Xi, repression is as much a measure of fear as an instrument of control. The big question is one of timing. Like high-carbon steel, these regimes will keep their shape until the moment they snap.

Letters in response to this column:

Beware the false promises of regime change / From Andrew Douglass, Greenwich, CT, US

Media rhetoric overlooks Putin’s peaceful intentions / From Geoffrey Roberts, Emeritus Professor of History, University College Cork, Ireland

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