Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia.

AuthorRiley, Chuck

Frey, Timothy. Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022, xxi + 271 pages. Paperback, $21.95.

With Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia, political scientist Timothy Frey makes a significant, if imperfect, contribution to the study of Russian politics. As the title suggests, the work rejects the all-too-common depiction of Russian president Vladimir Putin as an omnipotent ruler, choosing, instead, to portray the Russian despot as a personalist autocrat--one of many around the globe--who is able to maintain his tenuous grip on power only by placating elites while not needlessly alienating the populace. To buttress this argument, Frey cites cross-national studies and the recent scholarly literature on Russia.

Not surprisingly, the author also has much to say about such subjects as the Russian economy and Putin's popularity. Regarding the former topic, Frey performs the reader a valuable service by dispelling popular misconceptions about the economy, ably arguing it is neither as robust as Putin maintains nor as anemic as his detractors would have one believe. Similarly, the author makes a persuasive case that the prevailing skepticism about the accuracy and political significance of Putin's exceptionally high public approval ratings is largely unfounded.

It bears mention, at this point, that the book's discussion of Russian foreign relations offers some especially compelling reading. Pointing to several factors--including a sizable possession of nuclear weapons--that distinguish Russia from other countries sharing a similar type of governing regime, Frey notes, at the outset, that foreign policy is the aspect of Russian politics to which the findings of the cross-national literature on personal autocracies are least applicable. It is here, rather than in the domestic sphere, that he argues, that great power-ambitions and the values and beliefs of Putin and his advisers have relevance. He then proceeds to apply this analysis to a number of developments in the international arena, most notably, NATO expansion, the Russian annexation of Crimea...

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