The Downward Spiral of Putin’s Garrison State

The debate on whether to arm Ukraine has revealed profound disagreement among Western observers about the drivers of Russia’s behavior. A successful strategy should always aim at denying the opponent the opportunity to wage the kind of war he wants to wage. But how can we strategize about Russia and Ukraine if we cannot agree on what kind of war the Kremlin is waging? What are the Kremlin’s goals? Is it driven by unlimited appetite for grandeur or by legitimate security concerns? Is it puppeteering the Donbas separatists in a ploy to keep Ukraine weak and susceptible to Russian influence or is it defying Western-led international order?

Realist scholars like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who have made tightly argued and parsimonious cases against any US military involvement in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, consistently prefer to treat Russia as just another state, albeit one with legitimate great power ambitions, including the right to secure its own sphere of influence. Ignoring domestic factors has been the perennial weakness of this brand of scholarship, and led, among other things, to realists being caught unawares when the Soviet Union imploded despite their predictions of the stability of the bipolar international system.

It may well be that the maximization of security is the ultimate driver of every foreign policy decision. Yet as political scientist Arnold Wolfers warned more than a half-century ago, security often serves as an ambiguous symbol, pliable in the hands of political elites. Moreover, scales measuring what constitutes a threat, what are acceptable costs and desirable benefits, differ from one political context to the next. Thus, no discussion of “solutions” to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict can be devoid of attempts to understand the nature of the Russian beast and its aims.

Unboxed, Russia’s political system is not a pretty site. Much has been written about Putin’s kleptocracy, the repression of domestic dissent, the rampant corruption, and the Orwellian control of the information space. All these are but symptoms of a less visible but far more disconcerting transformations within Russia’s political core: Russia is turning into a garrison state. 


The term “garrison state” was coined by the eminent American political scientist Harold Lasswell, in an article under the same title, published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1941, to describe a certain vision of a state that he feared might proliferate around the globe. In the garrison state, “the specialists on violence,” i.e., the military people, become the most powerful group in society. Of course, the suggestion that war-making is implicated in state-making was not new. What concerned Lasswell, however, was the repercussion of industrialized economy and modern military technology on the functioning of the state. Aerial warfare in particular obliterated the distinction between the military and civilian targets. Nobody was any longer safe. Thus, danger would become socialized into the very fabric of society, the fear of which the specialists on violence could aptly mobilize for total defense. All of this Lasswell wrote prior to the advance of intercontinental missile technology, nuclear weapons, and international terrorism.

The specialists on violence manage symbols, goods, coercion, and practices of the state in order to maintain morale and social cohesion within. The ruling elite establishes the monopoly on interpretation of the past, present, and future, which is mass distributed by state-controlled media. The suppression of the counter-elite and dissent as “enemies of the state” serves as “propaganda of the deed,” meant to tie any inclination to oppose the garrison regime with the feelings of fear and guilt. Unemployment is kept at a minimum through public sector works and mild income redistribution to ensure loyalty and a sense of participation in the total enterprise. The institutions of democracy, such as legislatures, elections, and pluralism of the political space will disappear, although symbols of “mystic democracy” may continue.


Although Lasswell’s world of garrison states did not come to pass, the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century were both the inspiration for and the incarnation of Lasswell’s dystopia, with the Soviet Union the most prominent one. It lasted until Mikhail Gorbachev’s “new political thinking” changed the discourse of the “ruthless imperialist enemy” that substantiated all garrison state practices of the Soviet Union: the sealed borders, the exhausting arms race, the command economy, and the self-righteous monopoly of the Communist Party. 

It was neither the sudden loss of dexterity by the Soviet propagandists nor the sharp rise in popular incredulity that undercut the narrative of the threat and laid bare the sad reality of Soviet backwardness. It was the refusal of Gorbachev and his team to go on living a lie, as Leon Aron argued some time ago. In 1985 Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, one of the architects of perestroika, decried the moral state of the Soviet society as its “most terrifying” feature: “[We] stole from ourselves, took and gave bribes, lied in the reports, in newspapers, from high podiums, wallowed in our lies, hung medals on one another. And all of this—from top to bottom and from bottom to top.” 

The garrison state fought back in the August 1991 coup but lost. Yet after a brief and chaotic interlude, it looks poised to make a comeback. The rise of Vladimir Putin and his close associates from the ranks of the Soviet security services and their entrenchment in power positions in the Kremlin may herald the advent of the most formidable garrison state yet. During the first decade of Putin’s rule, a set of symbolic and institutional tools of political rule emerged under the label of “managed democracy,” a concept developed by the Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov, himself a former intelligence officer. Effectively, Surkov’s ideology was cynical, pragmatic, and focused primarily on creating robust state structures that penetrate deeply into Russian society while preserving an outward semblance of democracy. Of Russia’s place in the world, Surkov said that it lives between the inheritance from the Soviet Union, which includes a seat on the UN Security Council and a nuclear arsenal, and the credit it received from the West in the form of Group of 8 membership (revoked in the wake of last year’s aggression) and other trappings of great power, which post-Soviet Russia had done little to earn (see his speech delivered in 2006 at Putin’s United Russia party convention). To fill the space created by Soviet inheritance and Western credit, Russia had to modernize and grow economically, which Surkov believed could only be done through Russia’s participation in the global economy.

Thus Putin’s regime initially cooperated with the West, and focused its energies domestically. Putin’s first task was to wrest control of the country from the hands of the business elite, i.e., the oligarchs. This proved easier in Russia than it would have been elsewhere because Russia’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of so few and the case against them could credibly appeal to the illegitimacy of their enrichment. At the same time, the disciplining function of the state was turned against domestic dissent of every sort: separatism in Chechnya, political opposition, independent media, journalists, and civil rights activists. 

As the state encroached, the Russian society, either out of apathy or fear or both, put up little resistance. This disciplined acquiescence of the masses, as Lasswell called it, was aided by the rising living standards in Russia underwritten by the soaring price of oil. One of the victims of the Putin’s garrison state, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, gunned down in her own apartment building, wrote in 2004: “Society has shown limitless apathy… As the Chekists have become entrenched in power, we have let them see our fear, and thereby have only intensified their urge to treat us like cattle. The KGB respects only the strong. The weak it devours. We of all people ought to know that.”

Even so, Russian society would not be coaxed into complete acquiescence. A series of mass protests in Bolotnaya Square in 2011–12, against rigged elections that kept Putin and his party at Russia’s helm, effectively undermined the efficacy of managed democracy. Michael McFaul, the US ambassador to Moscow until last February, repeatedly emphasized the game-changing importance of these protests for Putin’s regime. Surkov’s model was failing the Kremlin. Instead, new, more robust set of symbols was needed: in 2012, Surkov with his playful cynicism was out, creating the space for Alexander Dugin, a moralizing ultranationalist, to move in. Dugin’s “Russian world” is a civilizational construct so unique and so orthodox that it cannot be reconciled with anything outside of it. It must either repel or engulf. 

The new ideology was a perfect fit with the ultimate raison d’être of the Russian garrison state: the idea of the external enemy. It was only a matter of time before the energies of the Russian military and security establishment were unleashed against targets outside of Russia. The Russo-Georgian war of 2008 was sweet, but alas, short; the Russo-Ukrainian war is the new lifeline of the Russian garrison state.

The ultimate enemy, however, is not the hapless Georgians or Ukrainians. These nations lack full agency, weak and willing as they are to surrender what pithy sovereignty they have to the new overlords in Brussels. The enemy of the garrison state must be formidable, one that targets the whole society, every one of its members and thus substantiates the need of the specialist on violence to capture society in its entirety for the purposes of total defense. The exponentially increasing Russian defense spending, frantic rate of incursions into European airspace and waters, and the grandiose nuclear force exercises are not meant to intimidate Ukrainians, who very well know that they cannot withstand Russia militarily. Ukraine is an unworthy target of the garrison state, because it is not a credible threat.

The Russian garrison state of the 21st century is a different animal than its previous incarnation: it is run not by military officers, but by the KGB men. Their specialty is covert violence. Their locus is not the garrison, but penetrating networks of influence. Their mode is not the strict military discipline and rule following, but manipulation and disdain for rules. And they gauge the world with the scale of their own trade. Thus, it is not the threat of aerial bombing or even of a devastating nuclear strike that spur this new political mutation. The enemy of the Russian garrison state is the clandestine scheming of the West and its most powerful actor—the United States. NATO enlargement is only its most apparent manifestation. The West’s devious designs are omnipresent; they works in tacit and conniving ways: they infect the body politic with its decadent mores and greedy capital, they lurk among the nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups, they creep up to the borders of Russia in the guise of popular antigovernment protests. 

Another distinctive trait of Putin’s garrison state is the fusion of the specialist on covert violence and the specialists on covert enrichment into a single group. In the Soviet Union, a business elite, with its own private interests, simply did not exist. In the United States, despite the prominence of the military-industrial complex, the business elite is both large and diverse enough to keep the garrison state at bay (although it remains to be seen if it succeeds against the surveillance state). Yet much of Russia’s military-security elite has privileged stakes in the country’s wealth-creating enterprise, and the ones who do not will soon get an opportunity to grab devalued assets of those Russian oligarchs hardest hit by the Western sanctions. This Janus-faced KGB-mafia elite, enthroned in the Kremlin and controlling Russia’s political and economic life, is certainly unprecedented. So is the severity of the conflict with the West into which it is dragging the Russian people. 


If these contemplations have any validity, it is naive to hope that the West could “solve” the Russian question quickly and return to business as usual. The Russian garrison state has no interest in diffusing the narrative of threat upon which it depends. So far, the Kremlin’s manipulation of information and symbols has done remarkably well to foster internal cohesion, as well as support for Putin’s policies and deification of his person. Western responses to the crisis were merely used by the Kremlin to redouble its anti-Western rhetoric.

Undoubtedly, direct Western military assistance to Ukraine would be seized upon by the Kremlin to vindicate the enemy narrative crucial to the garrison state. The West’s refusal to create a world that corresponds to Kremlin’s fantasies levies the burden of spinning ever-taller lies on its spin-doctors, the lies that will some day collapse. In view of this, the decision to support Ukraine militarily should not be taken lightly. But waiting for the garrison regime to falter could take a long time. It also means allowing the ritual bloodletting of Ukraine to continue indefinitely and undermining the West’s own attempts to rescue it from economic ruin. 

Ratcheting up economic sanctions will certainly take its toll on the Russian economy. Even though many Russians, duped by propaganda and pride, seem prepared to suffer for the sake of their Motherland’s greatness, Putin will have to find a way to keep real unemployment low and redistribute income in order to keep up morale and mobilize popular support. Russia’s public sector employment is significant at more than 30 percent, but the remainder of the jobs is in the private enterprise, which is likely to suffer most. Russia’s giant shadow economy, estimated at nearly 44 percent of the GDP, can absorb some of the released labor force but will do nothing for the state and its defense budget.

The economist Grigory Yavlinsky, one of the few remaining Russian liberal opposition leaders, recently sounded the alarm that Putin’s policies and the ensuing economic isolation of Russia threaten the existence of the Russian state, as we know it. This is no reason for optimism. Increasing economic isolation could spell, in the short and medium term, a deeper entrenchment of the military and security elite, also known as the siloviki, to prevent such a collapse. Another opposition leader, Olga Romanova, observed the troubling shift of power in the Kremlin in favor of the siloviki, especially the military, in the last 12 months. Thus, the unintended consequence of sticking to economic measures only may be the increased likelihood of further military escalation. 

Another peril for the garrison state is the elite’s psychological coping with pervasive lying. The architects of the garrison state cannot very well start believing their own spin, for that robs them of their order-making powers. This leaves the elite the option to immune themselves with cynicism. Duplicity has proven enduring and resilient in many a political system that lacks mechanisms to expose it, and the present rulers of Russia seem to excel at it. But it is not infallible. If garrison state rulers lose their nerve, or, like Gorbachev and his team, they succumb to the specter of their nation’s repeated failure to flourish, despite its great size and resources, the enemy narrative ceases to be the governing principle, and the garrison state collapses.


Putin is not about to leave the political arena, and his garrison state may well outlive him. Russia’s liberal opposition is brave but weak and has just suffered a major blow with the murder of Boris Nemtsov, which some fear signals a new wave of repression against the “enemies of the state.” Russia’s middle class seems to choose exit rather than challenge the regime. Stripped of its better-educated, moderate members and mobilized by the enemy narrative, Russian society may long withstand the economic depravations brought about by Russia’s failing economy and blamed on Western sanctions. 

If the Soviet revolution of 1986–91 offers any guidance, the disruption of the garrison state pattern of rule is likely to come from within the ruling elite. Fortunately, the world might not have to wait for the emergence of morally superior leaders, rare as they are. We can count on another, more prevalent set of human qualities: greed and ambition. Perhaps the offspring of Russia’s incumbent specialists on violence will one day return from the posh boarding schools in the English countryside to their impoverished and entrenched motherland and realize that great profits can be reaped by reintegrating it into the capitalist world economy. Or else they might do it for the laurels awaiting those who will bring Russia back into the light of the world. 

In the meantime, it seems hardly possible that Russia’s bellicose behavior will change while the nature of its political establishment remains unchanged. Given that Russian-sponsored advances in southeastern Ukraine are not likely to be arrested by cease-fires negotiated in Minsk, and that Ukrainians are not about to give up defending their country, more bloodshed is inevitable. A festering military conflict will drain Ukraine’s energies and treasure, undermining all efforts to rescue its economy. A perennially weak Ukraine may not be able to contain the conflict with Putin’s regime within its borders. If the whimsical narrative of the West as the enemy feeds the Russian garrison state, so do real successes, like the blitz in Crimea and tactical victories in Donbas.

If Russia’s tactical wins are to be prevented from translating into strategic ones, there is no alternative to Western military assistance to Ukraine. The next Russian-backed offensive, which is likely to target the strategic port of Mariupol, must dispel any remaining Western doubts. Ukraine’s military needs training, expertise, and intelligence, as well as defensive arms, which can be obtained from neutral suppliers, provided the funding is in place. Military assistance to Ukraine must become a broad-based multilateral endeavor: Europe must step up, as should other Western allies. Polish and British announcements to this effect are encouraging, but more nations must join in. All this will be for naught if Ukraine’s leadership fails to implement institutional reform and root out corruption. To this end, no Western cajolement and funds should be spared.

“The friend of democracy,” Lasswell wrote, “views the emergence of the garrison state with repugnance and apprehension. He will do whatever is within his power to defer it.” The West can do little to thwart Putin’s designs on his own country, but it can and should do more to thwart his designs on Ukraine. 

Mariana Budjeryn is a Ph.D. candidate at the Doctoral School of Political Science, Public Policy, and International Relations at the Central European University, in Budapest, Hungary. Her research investigates politics of nuclear disarmament of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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