For Vladimir Putin, Russia’s future is North Korea-lite

The occupied Luhansk and Donetsk regions offer the president a template of brute, military-style governance

Right now, with the Kremlin’s annexation of the occupied territories in southern and eastern Ukraine imminent, public focus is naturally on the implications for Russia’s war against Ukraine and on the prospect of escalation by Russia.

But as an anthropologist working on Russian politics and society, I’m interested in how the administration and governance in places like the so-called ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ reflect a possible future for the whole of Russia – a future that looks like ‘North Korea-lite’.

First, some quick caveats: Russia is not currently, nor is it likely to become, a full-blown dictatorship. There’s a lot of debate about how constrained Russian president Vladimir Putin is in his actions – both in how Russia is conducting the war, and on the ‘home front’ inside the country. There’s also, understandably, anger among supporters of Ukraine, who rightly question why there is no uprising in Russia against mobilisation.

But if you are surprised by Russians’ inability or unwillingness to resist, you do not have a realistic picture of just how effective Putin’s punitive state is.

Over the past decade, the Russian state’s apparatus to monitor, prohibit, disrupt, intimidate, punish, incarcerate, dissuade, distract and mislead has been built to perfection. And it was effective even before then. I will concede to critics of Russians on one point: it is true that many people in Russia have been ‘bought off’. Even now, Russians in large urban centres enjoy a high quality of life on the condition that they are strictly apolitical.

So, to come back to Putin himself, while there’s some value in armchair psychology about his impact on the war (largely incompetent and escalatory), the ‘dictator or not?’ debate misses the point.

By now, the Russian securitised state is a machine that largely runs on automatic. The leader can issue commands, and some of them are important, but most have so many layers of execution to work through that inevitably the original orders get distorted. Witness the recent immediate backtracking around drafting soldiers, for example – some regions in Russia have undermined the military enlisters, rebuking them strongly, while others claimed they’d already drafted enough men. Putin himself yesterday had to make all kinds of qualifications, including a ridiculous and embarrassing statement about how even highly qualified medics might well have to serve as front-line infantry soldiers.

An automatic machine can have many lines of command, and its functioning can be compromised by too much input, even if broadly the commands work to the same purpose. That Russia will likely not look like North Korea, or even China, is down to the high degree of competition and conflict between factions in the regime. The emergence of new security players (like Evgeny Prigozhin, head of the private security firm Wagner), and the lack of clear agreements on ‘territories’ in the Russian economy where there is high-level corruption are also relevant. These destabilising elements were always present in Russia; the war is accelerating and exacerbating them. We can add to the mix failing social provisions, which were previously a key source of regime legitimacy and part of the ‘fair bargain’ for regular Russians’ agreement to be apolitical.

So why and how might Russia nonetheless come to resemble a state like North Korea? The answer is in the even more extreme model of coercion and personalised rule that the territories in southern and eastern Ukraine represent. Even if they are completely incorporated as ‘normal’ Russian territories, the occupied Luhansk and Donetsk regions offer a template of brute, military-style governance that Putin surely feels comfortable with.

Since 2014, the Luhansk and Donetsk ‘republics’ have differed from Russia in the sense that the rule of law – which was still meaningful in Russia – does not apply there. Even now, people in Russia can resist the state – even the mobilisation – using legal means as well as social pressure. They might not ultimately be successful, but they can still resist.

But in these territories, and future Russia, emergency rule and military concerns will overrule due process and the trappings of legal order. This would be a logical conclusion to Putin’s slippery slope towards a ‘barracks state’, where power and brute force are the principal forms of regulation. Except it will still be state capitalism, where the Russian elites will continue to taste the fruits of corrupt rent-seeking and enjoy an opulent lifestyle; subjects (no longer citizens) will be divided into quasi-feudal estates; and Russian state security personnel will get more rations and nicer bunks than the rest.

In eastern Ukraine, Russia took giant steps towards emulating the situation in the occupied territories in February, at the start of the invasion. The Kremlin implemented strict censorship punishable by long jail time, often including remanding people in custody indefinitely and without access to lawyers, as well as making a large part of state business officially secret. Other important elements are public intimidation of ordinary people (the police state became normalised and highly visible, and includes torture); the militarisation of society; and disagreements between elites being solved via extra-judicial, even violent means.

As a result, the process of rent-seeking assets ‘trickling up’ to the most powerful and connected people is accelerated. Ordinary people are more immiserated and impoverished, relying on literal handouts from their feudal lords.

Not all these elements are fully in place nor are they likely to be given Russia’s vast territory and wealth. But given Putin’s isolation, and his background, it’s not hard to believe he looks at the territories in eastern Ukraine and sees a ‘simpler life’, where his inputs to the system are less likely to be frustrated.

For 20 years, he has been used to thinking of himself as the ultimate arbiter of personalised deals, dividing resources and their allocation in Russia. However, the same period showed how often his commands resulted in inefficiency, more corruption and what I’ve called an ‘incoherent’ state.

It’s a mark of Putin’s continuing hubris that he might believe that making the whole of Russia into a ‘People’s Republic’, like in Donbas, would see him retain control as the ‘warlord’ king. More likely this process will just accelerate the disintegration of the Russian state into lawless misery – a situation that is already true for residents of occupied eastern Ukraine.