Russia’ wasted years under Vladimir Putin’s leadership – from the Kursk disaster to Prigozhin’s march on Moscow

4 minutes reading time (792 words)

University of Birmingham op-ed

Unfortunately, for the Russian people, Vladimir Putin is a fundamentally flawed leader.

  • John R. Bryson, Professor of Enterprise and Economic Geography - University of Birmingham

There are many different leadership styles including democratic versus autocratic approaches, leadership based around coaching or leadership based on the construction and projection of charismatic authority or authoritarian leadership. The best leaders, however, lead from the front, the back, and the side. They need to be highly visible - managing out surprise and uncertainty and trying to increase certainty.

Unfortunately, for the Russian people, Vladimir Putin is a fundamentally flawed leader. One indication of Putin’s flaws is his inability to manage certainty or to avoid surprise. Prigozhin’s match on Moscow, and his short-lived mutiny, is an excellent example of Putin’s being surprised by events that could have been avoided. It is perhaps ironic that other people knew what was planned, but Putin failed to read the situation. This failure to read situations and predict outcomes has been a recurring feature of Putin’s leadership.

In August 2000, for example, a torpedo explored in its hatch on the nuclear submarine Kursk killing most of the 118 crew and the submarine sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea. The Russian Navy did not acknowledge this disaster. Putin was just three months into his first term at the Kremlin. A good leader would have rushed to the site and been highly visible. Putin’s reaction was to continue his holiday on the Black Sea, and he made no statement about the Kursk for over a week - a major leadership failing.

Putin never takes the blame for anything. Everts are always explained by people letting Putin down, by other people failing Russia, or by interventions by the West. In fact, Putin uses the West as a bogey, or as a monstrous imaginary figure used normally to threaten children. Putin’s poor leadership led to Prigozhin’s match on Moscow. No one else is accountable for this event – only Putin. No one other than Putin permitted the Wagner Group to form in 2014 and to operate in Russia. No sensible leader would have permitted such a group to form. The Wagner Group provided Putin with an arm’s length military resource, but the possibility always existed that this group would turn against Putin. Putin failed to control this situation and to transform uncertainty into certainty - another failure to read a situation.

There are different types of political leadership. In a democracy, authority is vested in the institutions of government, and it is these institutions that provide legitimacy. In Russia, power and authority is conflated in Putin as he tries to keep hold of as much power and authority as possible. There is a tension here in that Putin’s future is based on his continued ability to maintain power with authority. Putin’s successful annexation of Crimea enhanced Putin’s power and authority, but to the detriment of the Russian people. This is an important point as Russia’s economic decline can be traced back to the annexation of Crimea and the imposition of sanctions.

Russia’s failed invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is another example of Putin’s failure to read a situation. There are multiple Putin failures here. These include failing to adjust his strategy to save face and to avoid humiliation. He could have withdrawn Russian troops from Ukraine in early March 2022 and stated that Russia’s objectives had been met. Instead, his failure to read a situation has reinvigorated NATO and simultaneously enhanced Ukraine’s military capabilities and weakened Russia’s. In this process, Putin has lost authority.  

During the weekend of Prigozhin’s march on Moscow, Putin seemed to panic and fled from the Kremlin. This action highlights another failure to read a situation, but also to maintain and control his authority through the projection and practice of effective leadership. Putin’s absence from last weekend’s events was noticed by all and highlighted his weakness. A better leader would have projected leadership from the front, back and sides. All Putin did was hide and then blame everyone else for his own failings.

One needs to step back from recent events in Russia and Ukraine and reflect on the last quarter of a century. For the Russian people, Putin’s time in office should be considered as the lost or wasted years. During this time, Putin has failed to invest in Russia and the Russian people. A better leader would have transformed Russia resulting in better outcomes for all Russian citizens. It really is time for the Russian people to have a competent leader who cares about the Russian people, rather than one who is driven by a concern with hierarchy, territory, a distorted perspective on Russian history, and his own personal status.    

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