Putin's War on Ukraine Reveals the Dysfunctions of Authoritarian Rule
Part 1 of 2
From the 1920s, when Mussolini’s propagandists spread the idea that he made the trains run on time, authoritarianism has been reputed to be an efficient and productive political system.
While some categories of people prosper financially --collaborating elites, party bosses, the leader's family-- authoritarian states often end up creating states of terror, loneliness, and conformism that impoverish societies. Generations of talent are squandered through repression and mass movements into exile. Profitable businesses are often seized by the state, and corruption robs the public sector of professionalism and energy.
Vladimir Putin's Russian regime is no exception. This is the first of two essays that look at how Putin’s ill-fated war with Ukraine is revealing the many dysfunctions of autocratic rule.
Kremlin propaganda has always presented Putin as an efficient and, in his early years, technocrat leader who would solve Russia’s problems and defend Russia against internal and foreign enemies. As Putin built up his kleptocracy, wasting national resources by plundering state institutions like Gazprom for personal profit, his propaganda apparatus compensated by emphasizing his competency.
His physical body became the emblem of Russian strength and the fitness of its institutions and governing structures --including the supposedly robust and unbeatable Russian military. Both the man and the military are now diminished in the eyes of millions.
Too Much is Never Enough
The dysfunctions of strongman rule start with the particularities of their personalities: they have an insatiable need to dominate and exploit everything and everyone. They need absolute loyalty at all times, and their private obsessions --say, with destroying the Jews --can take over national policy.
A paradox of strongman rule is that the more power and money they accumulate, the more paranoid, insecure, and grasping they become. Behind the apparent strength of the autocrat is the fear of losing control and the prospect of a time when they will not be all-powerful.
This is the case with Putin, who, as Margaret MacMillan observes, "already had it all, down to the gold toilet seats in his absurd palace in Crimea" when he made his reckless move on Ukraine. He had eliminated rivals, jailed dissenters, created a network of foreign leaders and political parties loyal to his causes, and was a main energy supplier to much of Europe. He paid no significant price internationally for his previous imperialist aggressions in Georgia (2008) and Crimea (2014), the latter boosting his popularity and giving him a nationalist high.
Yet in subsequent years Putin became more, not less, fearful of Ukrainian democracy. As his ambitions for territorial dominion and his own legacy increased, Ukraine became an unbearable threat on his own border. Thus his "obsessive stalking of Kyiv," as Peter Pomerantsev calls it, grew into a need to annihilate Ukraine as a sovereign entity.
In fact, Putin had become more vulnerable. The pandemic had weakened the Russian economy, his popularity was decreasing, and his need to jail his critics and deceive his people was increasing. While Putin's support held steady with older Russians, a Levada poll in Feb. 2021 indicated disaffection with his brand of governance among younger people. 48% of respondents aged 18-24 felt that the country was going in the wrong direction.
Feeling he had reached his peak may have sparked fears in Putin of a future decline or loss of status. This is when strongmen sometimes act rashly to secure their authority and their place in history. They start wars, or double down on ongoing ruinous military or domestic initiatives, acting without proper input from experts because they think they have all the answers and have expunged any critics from their inner circle.
The Inner Sanctum: A Recipe for Disaster
Good leadership is a product of good information channels. The inner sanctums all strongmen build to manage day-to-day governance block that flow. Composed of flatterers, family members, and cronies, all of them chosen for their loyalty rather than their expertise, these inner circles shield the leader from any unpleasant counsel--and share handsomely in the profits from his thievery. This is certainly the case in Russia: in 2019 the richest 3% held 90% of the assets, with Putin's oligarchs owning the lion's share of those.
Inner sanctums embody the particular culture of fear and servility that autocracy fosters and how it prevents leaders from hearing the truth of a situation. No one wants to fall out of a window, or be demoted or fired.
Over time this can lead an autocrat to believe his own propaganda and act on his worst impulses, resulting in military, economic, or diplomatic setbacks that can eventually destabilize his authority at home.
This is not a new problem. “For God’s sake, don’t upset the Führer – which means do not tell him bad news – do not mention things which are not as he conceives them to be,” wrote the German journalist Karl H. von Wiegand in 1939, after he went into exile. He wanted to warn the world that Hitler was not likely to act in a rational manner. His essay, "Hitler Foresees His End," appeared four months before Hitler invaded Poland.
We know that Putin did not consult with most of his military command before invading Ukraine. Nor did he game out the consequences of possible sanctions with his economic advisors. The pandemic had reduced Putin’s inner sanctum to just a few loyalists, and increased his wariness.
As Fiona Hill observes, Putin's gamble, which was driven by a grandiose view of himself "as a protagonist of Russian history," was made even riskier by a lack of good intelligence. Courtiers possibly "spinning to him that he's done a great job" of neutralizing Ukraine could have led him to misread "the mood” of that country and project a quick and easy victory.
Once the war started, and the losses and strategic errors became evident, that same culture of spin and self-preservation reportedly led some military advisors to hold back or distort the truth about Russian battlefield performance when reporting to Putin, setting him up for further bad decisions. Fear and the absence of transparency autocrats engender do not serve them well in the end.
This, too, has a precedent. When things went south for the Italian military during World War Two, Italian commanders did not always inform Il Duce of gravity of the situation, in part because it was known that he did not really want to hear such news.
Some of the most fateful decisions Mussolini made in that period, such as volunteering to send Italian troops to the Russian front, went against his generals' counsel. His own Fascist Grand Council voted to remove him from power in 1943 after the Allies landed in Sicily, judging him incompetent to govern.
Institutionalized lying by military officials costs troops' lives and is a symptom of the larger corruption of militaries in autocracies. Militaries that serve strongmen for years can become hollowed out and lose their professional ethics. That will be explored in Part 2.
We’ll also see how the loss of Russia's prestige as a military power has affected the attitudes of Russian elites toward Putin (elites being a group that makes and breaks strongmen) and has challenged Putin's relations with other despots.
Putin is making history, but not in the way he intended.
Reference: Karl H. von Weigand, “Hitler Foresees His End,” Cosmopolitan, April 1939.