For reasons still mysterious to me, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to praise and defend Russian President Vladimir Putin. Just yesterday, in an interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox, President Trump affirmed his respect for Putin. When O’Reilly challenged Trump by calling the Russian president a “killer,” Trump defended Putin, whom he has never met, by criticizing the United States: “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”
A generous interpretation of this odd, unprecedented defense of Putin is that Trump is praising the Kremlin leader in order to cultivate better relations with Moscow. That is a naive, but tolerable, foreign policy. (U.S. foreign policymakers should pursue concrete national and economic interests, not “better relations,” but that discussion is for another day.) A more worrisome interpretation, however, is that Trump admires Putin’s policies and ideas, and may even seek to emulate his method of rule. That is unacceptable. Understanding Putin’s methods for consolidating autocracy in Russia might help us stop autocratic tendencies in the Trump era now, before it’s too late.
Like Trump, Putin had never run for elected office until he won Russia’s presidential election in March 2000. Few at the time in Russia or the world fully understood Putin’s political agenda. Given his political inexperience, weak support among elites and tenuous electoral mandate, most observers assumed initially that he could not change the basic nature of Russia’s political system, considered by most analysts at the time, including me, as a weak but functioning democracy. That early assessment proved incorrect.
When first elected president, Putin promised to make Russia great again. To do so, he pledged to end the economic collapse, political chaos and lawlessness — the “carnage,” if you will — of the 1990s. He ran as a law-and-order candidate. In the fall of 1999, Russia experienced several terrorist attacks allegedly orchestrated by Chechens (though precisely who perpetrated these crimes remains a subject of dispute). Putin responded by promising a harsh crackdown on terrorism and restoring sovereignty over Russia’s borders. He then invaded Chechnya, and used brutal methods to end hostage standoffs with terrorists that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. In Moscow and other large Russian cities, security forces rounded up and deported Chechens and other Muslim-minority immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus who allegedly looked like Chechen terrorists.
Putin also moved quickly against another declared enemy of the state: the independent press. He chased Vladimir Gusinsky, the owner of Russia’s most important private television company, out of the country, and eventually seized control of his television network. Putin did the same to Boris Berezovsky, taking control of his television company as well. Further crackdowns on other pockets of independent media came later.
Putin accomplished these aims, and most of the others that followed, by means of presidential decree — the Russian equivalent of an executive order in the United States.
At the time, many government officials, business people, political elites and even some civil society activists warned against overreaction. Putin, they argued, needed to restore order. His defenders noted that he was implementing economic growth policies, including a 13 percent flat tax for individuals and drastically reduced corporate taxes. In exchange for these “market reforms,” Putin won support from the business world and its political allies. Liberal friends of mine inside the Russian government at the time argued that they had to stay where they were so that they could resist Putin’s autocratic ways. Sixteen years later, some in the Russian government still make this argument.
Even before Putin was elected, I wrote an essay for this newspaper that argued against accommodation and complacency. Published on March 3, 2000, the article started as follows: “Not since the August 1991 coup attempt has the future of Russian democracy been more uncertain than it is today. Ironically, at a time when Russian society has embraced individual liberties, a free press and competitive elections, the new leader of the Russian state, Acting President Vladimir Putin, has demonstrated real ambivalence toward democracy.” For worrying about the possibility of accelerating autocracy in Russia back then, I was denounced as an alarmist by many, not only in Russia but also by voices in the U.S. business community and even some in the Clinton administration.
Today, of course, we see clearly how Putin’s first modest antidemocratic steps ultimately led to autocracy. Whenever Putin faced challenges to his power or constraints on his personal rule, he chose to increase repression, not to moderate. He arrested business leaders who dared to try funding opposition parties, including, most dramatically, the richest man in Russia at the time, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He used the powers of the state to limit real competition in national elections. He ended the direct election of governors.
And when tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets to protests against his regime in December 2011, Putin labeled them traitors and puppets of the United States, and then used a variety of means — disinformation, blackmail, and arrests based on bogus charges — to weaken and eliminate his opponents. One of the leaders of these protests, Boris Nemtsov, was later assassinated. Some remain in jail or under house arrest, while many others now live in exile. Just last week, liberal opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza was apparently poisoned for the second time in two years.
To counter the urban, educated, wealthy “creative class” protesting against him, Putin also mobilized his electoral base: the rural, poor, uneducated supporters who were the primary losers of Russia’s (partial) integration into the global market economy. Putin and his administration took deliberate actions to polarize Russian society, pitting citizens from big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg against “real” Russians in the rural heartland.
In retrospect, Russians who lament the consolidation of Putin’s autocracy all say they reacted too slowly at the beginning. They didn’t believe things could get so bad. They didn’t believe Putin would ever go as far as he did. Back in 2000, Putin had few allies within the state, and lukewarm support in society. He won his first election because of government support and weak opponents, not because of wild enthusiasm among voters for him or his ideas. Back then, important actors in Russia’s business class remained autonomous from the state, regional leaders also acted a check on Moscow’s power, independent media still existed and parliament still enjoyed some real power. Had these forces pushed back immediately against creeping authoritarianism, Russia’s political trajectory might have been different.
Sounds familiar? Trump also had never run for office before last year. He presented himself emphatically as a law-and-order candidate. He has promised to cut taxes, thus ensuring support from the business community. Like Putin in 2000, he has pledged “to make America great again.” Just as Putin ordered the Russian army into Chechnya, Trump has already threatened to send federal forces into Chicago. Just like Putin, Trump and his team have labeled as enemies protesters, journalists and members of allegedly “terrorist” nations. Trump’s recent Twitter screed against those opposing him — “Professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters” — sounds eerily similar to Putin’s reaction to crowds mobilized against him in 2011-2012.
Like Putin, Trump’s weapon of action so far has been the executive order. Trump’s ideology — a populist conservative nationalism aimed against the liberal international order — hauntingly echoes Putinism. Moreover, Trump’s electoral base strikingly resembles Putin’s domestic base. While some in his new Cabinet have expressed different views, Trump himself continues to demonstrate tolerance of Putin’s autocratic ways at home, and indifference toward Putin’s antidemocratic and inhumane actions abroad, whether in Ukraine, Syria or the United States. When offered the chance to criticize Putin’s policies, Trump instead tries to establish moral equivalency between the United States and Russia. The parallels between the two leaders may help explain why they seem to admire each other so much.
Thankfully, this historic analogy is not precise. American democratic institutions — including Congress, the courts, the opposition party, state-level governments, the media and civil society — are much more robust today than similar Russian institutions were in 2000. And as demonstrated already in the Trump era, when millions across the nation protested against Trump in general and then, a few days later, thousands protested against his ill-advised migrant travel ban, American society is far more willing and capable to mobilize to defend democracy than Russian society was in 2000. Our executive branch is also filled with patriots committed to our Constitution, including some recent political appointees. And Trump’s autocratic proclivities today are not as obvious or well-defined as Putin’s were in 2000. (I realize some will find this last assessment naive and overly optimistic.)
Even so, certain lessons from the Russian experience remain relevant. First, small steps toward autocracy at the beginning of a new presidency can produce momentum toward bigger autocratic changes later. Second, we must beware of the dangers of acquiescence or indifference. We should not rely on the hope that initial dangerous acts will fizzle out, or that working from within will help to protect democracy. Let us not end up in the position of those Russian democrats, both inside and outside government, who later wished that they had stood up to Putin’s autocratic ways earlier, when it was easier and they had more power to do so. The moment to check such proclivities is now, while our democratic institutions are still resilient and our citizens are still ready to act.