The Strongman’s Power Trap

MOSCOW – Earlier this year, when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he was forming a 400,000-man national guard that would report only to him, many Russians wondered why a new military force was needed. After all, Russia’s army was supposedly back: Putin had equipped it with new toys, and even arranged for two small wars – in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine, starting in 2014 – to prove it.

But the failed coup against Putin’s fellow strongman, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, points to an important reason for establishing a Praetorian guard. Putin has so hollowed out Russia’s democratic institutions that the only means to remove him from power now would be through a military putsch.

Putin, Erdoğan, and even Chinese President Xi Jinping all have similar, justifiable fears about their political survival. All three came to office in systems that place real constraints on the exercise of power – even if the system is otherwise undemocratic or an infant democracy ready to be strangled in its cradle. In Erdoğan’s case, Turkey had the rule of law and institutional checks and balances on executive power; and in Putin and Xi’s case, there were unwritten rules sanctified by decades of precedent.

These rules – established in Russia by Nikita Khrushchev after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, and in China by Deng Xiaoping, following Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 – were designed to take the murderousness out of top-level governance by guaranteeing that a leader would not threaten the life and safety of either his predecessors or his colleagues. In this system, a government official may be removed from power or placed under house arrest, but there is no risk of imprisonment or physical harm against him or his family.