Despite Putin’s bluster, the authoritarian regime he has constructed is exceedingly brittle. At the center stands Putin; surrounding him, the power-hungry loyalists he has folded into his inner circle. Some, called the siloviki, belong to powerful institutions such as the secret police or the army. Others, formally affiliated with various government agencies, are loyal only to Putin. In such a system, sycophantism is rewarded above good governance, empire-building runs rampant, policy loses its effectiveness, and corruption becomes routine.
The neo-tsarist ideology of Russian imperialism, Orthodox revival, and anti-Western Slavophilism that Putin has constructed has limited appeal to the cynical men who help him run Russia. Therefore, Putin’s ability to retain their loyalty rests primarily on his control of the country’s financial resources. Thanks to the record-high energy prices that accompanied his assumption of power in 1999, Putin was able to personally purloin some $45 billion and still have enough money to raise the country’s standard of living, strengthen the Russian military, and keep his cronies happy. No longer. Oil prices have collapsed and are likely to stay low; Western sanctions are hitting hard; and the Russian economy is on the downswing.
Sooner or later Putin will be forced to make some cuts, but it is hard to know where that money will come from. Given the ongoing war in Ukraine and his anti-Western ideological crusade, reducing military funding will be unfeasible. And Putin’s popularity would take a serious hit if he were to roll back support to the lower classes. The only option, therefore, may be to stop his cronies from dipping into state coffers, even if doing so will alienate them.