The world that Putin wants
What does Russian President Vladimir Putin want? As Russian military forces continue to target Ukrainian civilians while reducing Ukraine’s major cities to rubble, debates about Putin’s ultimate motivations have reached a fever pitch. But the simple dichotomy driving our current debates — that Putin is either crazy or a “rational actor” — is fundamentally misleading. It does not give us any insight into the type of regime Putin has built in Russia, nor does it pinpoint the broader forces within Russia that are driving the conflict. What Putin wants is a world run by other Putins.
There is a word for Putin’s kind of state: patrimonial. The patrimonial state is one in which the leader portrays himself as the embodiment of the nation and treats the entire state as his personal property. The last vestiges of the democratic legitimacy Putin once claimed have long ago been excised. The Russian Constitution of 1993 has been amended to suit Putin’s political interests so many times that it is in effect a dead letter, and Putin is essentially Russia’s “president for life.”
In short, Putin is a patrimonial strongman. He is also attempting to create a patrimonial world order.
Within the territories he considers historically part of the Russian imperium, Putin wants to install patrimonial leaders willing to pledge fealty to him personally. For an example, look no farther than President Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, the patrimonial dictator whose rule was propped up by Putin after a rigged national election in August 2021. In territories outside the “Russian world,” Putin seeks to undermine constitutional, democratic rule in states that can still pose a threat to patrimonial regimes like his own.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine thus cannot be understood except in the context of the wider global wave of patrimonialism that has threatened the U.S.-led global liberal order over the past two decades. In a newly published article, we show how the global patrimonial wave really began with Putin’s rise to power in 1999-2000. Putin’s attacks on what he portrayed from the beginning as a Western liberal conspiracy to undermine Russia’s statehood have proven to be a model for would-be patrimonial rulers around the world — not only in former communist countries like Hungary under Viktor Orban, but also in places like Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro, Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the United States under Donald Trump.
Everywhere these men make the same basic argument: The “neoliberal” order merely pretends to be democratic, when in fact it is run by representatives of a “deep state” who conspire to steal from ordinary people and undermine social order and traditional morality.
That such a recipe for the destruction of democratic institutions has proven to be so potent around the world is one of the most remarkable developments of the early 21st century.
But the patrimonial ruler’s strength is also a source of weakness. Fearing rivals from within, they invariably gut bureaucracies and institutions. Anywhere a modern state is needed — whether it is battling COVID-19 or protecting the environment — patrimonial states perform miserably. In Putin’s war, this inherent weakness of the strongman has caused serious intelligence failures, leading to an overestimation of Russia’s ability to achieve a rapid military victory and the underestimation of Ukrainians’ determination to fight back.
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, commentators often emphasized Ukraine’s problems with economic development, social inequality, and political corruption. Yet Ukraine is also undeniably a democratic state; indeed, it has now passed what political scientists have termed the “two-turnover test” for democratic consolidation — that is, two straight free and fair elections in which the opposition candidate takes office after defeating the incumbent.
What bothers Putin is not NATO enlargement, but the prospect of encirclement by states increasingly committed to the rule of law. That’s where Ukraine was headed.
What, then, will the war in Ukraine mean for the future of global democracy? Ukraine may win, but it faces an uphill battle. Its own democratic institutions may well be destroyed through military force. President Zelensky, his family, and his closest supporters face the real threat of arrest, trial, imprisonment and torture in Russia. Similar authoritarian methods of rule are being deployed more harshly than ever before not only in Ukraine, but in Putin’s Russia as well.
Notwithstanding the human tragedy now unfolding in Ukraine, there is a chance that this watershed moment may mark the end of the global patrimonial wave.
First, Putin has now revealed to the world the true aims of his regime — not only to counter global “neoliberalism,” but also to reestablish a patrimonial world through violent attacks on any who oppose him and the installation of little Putins wherever he can. Many of those who once apologized for Putin because of their shared dislike of the supposed “deep state” will have a much harder time justifying their support for him now.
Second, the shock of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is forcing Western leaders and engaged citizens to realize that the democratic freedoms and rule of law most of them have enjoyed since the end of the Cold War can no longer be taken for granted. They must be actively defended with a renewed fidelity to the founding concepts of Western liberalism itself.
Finally, there is at least a chance that in this crisis, the devastating political polarization that has undermined democratic debate in so many countries will begin at last to ebb, replaced by a common understanding among party leaders on the moderate right and left that unity against Putin’s naked aggression is more important than the stoking of “culture wars” and the scoring of cheap political points.
If this turns out to be the case, we may be witnessing the last bloody act in the global patrimonial wave.
Stephen E. Hanson is vice provost for academic and international affairs and Lettie Pate Evans Professor of Government at the College of William & Mary, where his work includes oversight of the university’s Global Research Institute. Jeffrey S. Kopstein is a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine. Together they wrote the recent paper “Understanding the Global Patrimonial Wave,” published in Perspectives on Politics.