Autocrats face hard choices about rewarding narrow interest groups or pursuing policies with broader benefits, using repression or persuasion against political opponents, and choosing how much to censor the media, cheat in elections, and violate human rights in order to stay in power. Rather than flowing directly from Putin’s worldview or Russia’s historical legacy, policy choices in Russia are often the result of difficult trade-offs among and between political elites and the mass public.
Third, personalist autocracies have a range of tools—all rather blunt—for managing a modern society. Much popular commentary revolves around Putin as a master of repression to keep society in check. And it is true that crackdowns on free media, intimidation of political opponents, and arrests of human rights activists are part and parcel of political life in Russia. But repression is costly, not always effective, and rarely a first choice. Influential elites and the mass public do not automatically follow the leader but instead need to be convinced to do so, sometimes via fear, yet also via persuasion or self-interest. Autocrats like Putin prefer to rely on personal popularity, economic performance, manipulated elections, and foreign policy successes to stave off elite coups and popular revolts, but these commodities are usually fleeting and beyond the control of the ruler.
From this perspective, a view of Russia emerges that is less focused on President Putin’s personality and seeming omnipotence, and less centered on Russia’s unique history and culture. Rooting Russia’s politics in common patterns of autocratic rule produces a picture of Russia that helps us see the constraints on Putin’s power, recognize the difficult policy choices before him, and better understand Russia’s politics.
—Timothy Frye, Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021), 23.
This really seems the thrust of Frye’s work here. I found myself rereading this passage several times because it is so at odds with the tenor of the bulk of Ukraine war coverage I see each day.