The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

By trying to silence protesters, Vladimir Putin is falling into a repression trap

As the Russian president becomes less popular, he’s turning to blunt coercion

Russian police block a protest Saturday against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (Anton Basanayev/AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime has started to rely more on repression as a central tool, culminating in the arrest of the opposition politician Alexei Navalny and Saturday’s crackdown on protesters. It’s not unusual for autocratic regimes to coerce protesters, arrest political opponents and harass potential critics.

However, repression has its downside: It helps keep incumbents in power but may prevent them from addressing the deep-seated problems that drive protests and opposition in the first place. The more they rely on coercion, the more they neglect the problems generating protest — such as declining living standards, corruption and a lack of accountability — and spark further opposition, creating a “repression trap” for the regime. Here is why Russia may be falling into this trap, damaging the regime’s long-term stability.

Putin’s arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny is a sign of weakness, not strength

Putin relied on both popularity and repression to stay in power

Putin’s formula for staying in power has two ingredients: his personal popularity, reflected in high approval ratings and a loyal security apparatus to keep political opponents at bay. However, the mix of these ingredients has changed over time. Russian political scientist Vladimir Gel’man characterized Putin’s first dozen or so years as a “vegetarian” autocracy, which turned massive economic growth into high approval ratings, with little need for crude repression.

After mass anti-government protests in 2011 and 2012, however, Gel’man argues that the Kremlin turned carnivorous, using a “politics of fear” to intimidate the public and persecute regime critics. The Kremlin depicted Russia as a fortress besieged by enemies abroad and fifth columns at home. This justified growing restrictions on political rights, while the regime boosted its popularity by annexing Crimea from Ukraine.

Neither is working as it used to. After a decade of economic stagnation and recent missteps, Putin’s personal popularity has declined. The annexation of Crimea and the economic boom of the 2000s are old news. A survey conducted in late 2020 found that mishandling of the coronavirus crisis, economic hardship and Putin’s decision to change the Russian Constitution so that he could perhaps rule until 2036 have lowered his support by a fifth. Elites are fighting among themselves, as the government is less able to deliver largesse to them.

What’s Vladimir Putin’s end game? Other post-Soviet autocrats give a few clues.

Now he relies more on coercion

That is why the government is now relying more on repression. In recent years, the Kremlin has passed legislation greatly expanding the definition of “foreign agents” to delegitimize actors who get any foreign funds and are engaged in a broad range of civic and political activities. It has dramatically increased video surveillance, expanded censorship on the Internet, raised penalties for slander and introduced a host of other controls.

The state’s treatment of Navalny suggests that this campaign has gone into a new phase. For a long time, the Kremlin thought that Navalny was less trouble on the streets than in jail. Then, Navalny says he was poisoned as part of an operation by Russian security services and arrested upon his return to Russia from Germany.

The danger for the Kremlin is that repression takes on a self-defeating momentum. Cross-national work by political scientist Christian Davenport finds that past repression predicts future repression. Sergei Guriev and Oleh Tsivinskii build on this work to show that past repression is the most powerful factor predicting repression in the future. More plainly put, authoritarian regimes find it hard to turn away from repression once they start to rely on it. Repression doesn’t solve the underlying problems, as Putin has discovered. It has kept him in power, and marginalized his opponents, but it hasn’t promoted economic growth, strengthened property rights or reduced corruption.

Putin’s support is weakening. Will that show up in Russia’s regional elections?

Indeed, Russia’s turn to coercion has coincided with economic stagnation and a sharp decline in the business climate. Arrests of business executives — often because of hostile corporate takeovers by rivals in league with state security — increased by a third in 2019, and the business sector’s distrust of the security services and the legal system reached new highs. That won’t exactly encourage economic growth and bolster Putin’s popular support.

Furthermore, the use of repression tends to increases the decision-making clout of the security services within the state, making it more likely that the government will favor coercion over persuasion or co-optation when dealing with the opposition. Policymaking in the Kremlin is notoriously opaque, but longtime observers have recognized the increasing power of the security services in recent years.

Don't miss any of TMC’s smart analysis! Sign up for our newsletter.

To avoid the repression trap, the Kremlin would have to use sufficient force to silence the opposition. That’s going to be hard. Navalny persuaded 200,000 Russians to take part in an unsanctioned protest with a high expectation of police violence in the middle of a Russian winter during a pandemic. That suggests a depth of commitment among Navalny’s supporters that will be hard to extinguish. Even should protests fade, the Kremlin’s heavy-handed response is hardly likely to boost its popular support on its own.

Alternatively, the Kremlin could find other sources of popular support. An easy foreign policy victory might do the trick, but low-risk, high-reward operations such as the annexation of Crimea are hard to find. Another option would be to reduce corruption, increase accountability and level the economic playing field — measures that will do little to endear Putin to the security forces and economic elites that are central to his rule. Given these options, cycles of protest and repression may become a common feature of Russian politics.

Professors: Don’t miss TMC’s expanding list of classroom topic guides.

Timothy Frye (@timothymfrye) is the Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy at Columbia University and Co-Director, ICSID, Higher School of Economics. He is the author of “Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia” (Princeton University Press, 2021).