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Saving Putin’s Face

Maxim Trudolyubov
Protest with Ukrainian flags and poster comparing Putin to Stalin
Washington DC, USA March 6, 2014--Crowd of people at pro-Ukrainian protest with sign comparing Putin and Stalin.

For eight months now, Vladimir Putin and his entourage have been busy doing just one thing—trying to prove to themselves and others that the February 24 invasion was not a mistake. Each new war plan that emerges after the previous one has failed is a prohibitively costly operation to save Putin’s face.  

Admitting mistakes and changing policy decisions is hard for any political system, but a system that has put its leader’s infallibility at its core perceives that as fatal. Putin’s “perpetual winning” has been a product of aggressive mythmaking, on the one hand, and some real-world effort on the part of the government’s technocrats on the other.

The Russian elites see Putin “as a guarantor against defeat,” the Russian political commentator Tatyana Stanovaya has observed. Many have quietly disagreed with the president’s choices but in the end acquiesced to his policies because normally, he has been able to win, or at least escape defeat. Putin’s elites have grown accustomed to seeing their boss on the winning side. They have learned not to question him: success is never faulted.

Useful Crises

Putin’s officials have long agreed to the role of administrative foot soldiers who have delegated their judgment to the higher-ups and concentrated on the technical issues at hand. Of course, mindlessness is endemic to many bureaucracies and corporate cultures, but Russia’s case is extreme, a result of Putin’s governance philosophy. For years, he has relied on using or causing crises to boost his popularity and strengthen his grip on power.

After the horrific terrorist attack in the North Ossetian town of Beslan, Putin canceled gubernatorial elections and called it a counterterrorism measure. After the 2011–2012 protests in Russia the Kremlin started to introduce its foreign agent legislation that, in the end allowed it to get rid of the majority of political opponents, unwanted NGOs, and media. The 2014 annexation of Crimea caused an upsurge in Putin’s approval rating and thus allowed him to introduce more restrictive measures, including the legislation on “undesirable organizations.”

During these and other crises Putin would always arrogate to himself more power and resources, while burnishing a heroic personal image. But the crises have consequences, economic and social. For damage control, the Kremlin has consistently relied on able bureaucrats to stabilize the currency, carefully manage resources in a stagnating economy, and manipulate public opinion during turbulent moments.

That is why even now, amid a full-scale war, the Russian economy looks better than it otherwise would have. The increased sanctions pressure means Russia will likely face a worsening economic and social landscape next year, but so far the country’s economy has been kept in relatively decent shape. Because of high energy prices Russia’s fiscal revenues have not been affected by decreasing exports. The Russian Central Bank has prevented financial instability and has therefore also protected the real economy, researchers from Bruegel, a European think tank, concluded in a recent report.

Civilian Bureaucracy Takes the Reins

With the war effort failing, Putin is now going to rely on his trusty bureaucrats even more than before. “Let down in Ukraine by his natural allies, the security services, Putin is now looking to senior figures in the civilian bureaucratic apparatus,” independent investigative journalists Farida Rustamova and Maxim Tovkaylo have reported.

Putin has effectively overhauled his government amid the war effort. In mid-October he set up the Coordination Council, a government body responsible for transforming the economy according to the military’s needs. The council, headed by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, will set targets for supplying the army, control prices, suppliers, and logistics, and build and equip barracks and other military facilities. This means that military supplies and logistics operations have been effectively taken away from the Defense Ministry, which has repeatedly proved incapable of meeting the demands of Russia’s stalled military campaign, Rustamova and Tovkaylo conclude.

It is not just Putin’s inner circle and the military but an increasingly wide group of civilian officials who are now effectively responsible for Russia’s war against Ukraine. It is they who, by doing efficient damage control, are saving Putin’s face—not their country or their co-citizens, who are being sent to the battlefields of Ukraine.

Years ago, choosing to stick to Putin, the guarantor against defeat, may have been a reasonable decision, although a complacent one. But Putin has been crossing one red line after another, and many of those able professionals have gradually turned into “desk perpetrators,” a term signifying those not directly involved in military aggression but enabling military crimes from the safety of their offices.

Russia’s public service has seen remarkably few cases of defection. Yet it is hard to imagine that all those officials and experts cannot see how ruinous are those decisions they are responsible for implementing. For them, what is happening is not a catastrophe. A catastrophe, apparently, would be Putin losing face, admitting his horrendous miscalculation and correcting it.

Cultures of Shame, Cultures of Dignity

Fear of public shame is one of the hallmarks of what some anthropologists and sociologists have called the “honor-shame culture.” Challenging someone to a duel over an insult, swearing an oath to avenge an insult, the custom of blood feuds, and the like are this culture’s most salient elements. The bedrock assumption is that a reputation, a socially conferred value, can be granted or taken away by others. The “shame” of admitting mistakes here equals social and sometimes actual death. Honor-shame cultures are found in many existing societies and social groups, including the criminal underworlds.

By contrast, dignity cultures profess a quality that is intrinsic to human beings, a quality that cannot be taken away. In dignity cultures, admitting a mistake is not a shameful step; it can even be a respectable one. By admitting a mistake, a person can eventually return to the interrupted path and achieve more than before. For example, a government minister who has made a mistake resigns, but can return to politics during the next election cycle.  

For society as a whole, the willingness to admit failure is certainly a sign of social health because it is a correction mechanism that allows a group, a corporation, or a country to do its homework and avoid repeating old mistakes. The gradual demise of the honor-shame cultures—once prevalent everywhere—is one of the reasons why Western societies have remained relatively peaceful and successful during the second half of the twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries.

A Face That Cannot Be Saved

The tragic irony is that human lives and an insane amount of resources are now being spent to save the face of one person. And this face still cannot even appear at an international meeting, the recent G20 meeting being a case in point, because it is guaranteed to be publicly ostracized.

The Russian elite’s unquestioning following of the perpetually winning leader has long outlived itself. The country’s standing in the community of nations and Russia’s economic ties with the West will have to be restored. That will require negotiations, and that will require admitting failures and, yes, admitting crimes. In order to be able to proceed with that, Russia’s elites will have to give up Putin. This face can no longer be saved.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.


About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more