The Destructive Strongman Dynamics Behind Putin's War on Ukraine
Last June, President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin held a summit in Geneva. The goal of the American side, according to Biden, was to encourage "a stable and predictable relationship" with Russia. The goal of the Russians was to put the world on notice. As Putin proclaimed, the U.S. had “declared Russia as its enemy and adversary.”
I thought this summit was a bad idea, and I forecast on NBC and in this newsletter that it could end up with Putin becoming more unstable and unpredictable. "Energized by chaos and risk-taking, he may act more, rather than less, aggressively post-summit," I wrote.
One reason for my concern has become evident. Putin wants to destroy the whole international order that Biden represents and re-establish a Russian imperial state. After 22 years in power, Putin also suffers from fantasies of grandeur. He invaded Georgia in 2008 and annexed Crimea in 2014, obtaining a nationalist high and soaring approval ratings. He likely believed his master plan was succeeding. Time, then, to raise the stakes by occupying democratic Ukraine.
My knowledge of how strongmen think and operate also led me to fear that the summit might backfire. Just as autocrats don't really negotiate —they create crises and try and use those situations of turmoil to extract concessions— so do they resist democratic notions of diplomacy.
Being brought into an arena as an "equal" (the official summit photo depicts Biden and Putin in a relation of parity, the globe between them) can spark a reaction in the autocrat to show dominance --especially over an American president who has made the struggle against autocracy a prominent part of his profile.
The war and the domestic crackdown that has accompanied it have brought Putin's repression and mindset to the world's attention. Yet the specific authoritarian dynamics and framework that allowed Putin to develop such a dangerous level of power remain too little explored.
Most autocrats, Putin included, practice some form of personalist rule, which organizes governance around the self-preservation of a leader whose private interests prevail over national ones in shaping domestic and foreign policy. The kind of influence wielded by Putin, who built a power vertical that, at least before his invasion of Ukraine, left him practically untouchable and has reportedly made him the richest individual in the world, is one example.
The leader's personal legal and economic situation has outsized importance as government, party, and media resources are diverted to defend him from investigations. And anyone who can expose his wrongdoing, like prosecutors and journalists, becomes an enemy.
The behaviors and governance cultures associated with personalist rule have repeated around the world for a century. Loyalty, not expertise, is the requirement to succeed as a government official in a personalist government. Keeping the leader's secrets, participating in or turning a blind eye to his corruption, and telling his lies are the priorities.
Personalist style of rule gives rise to a particular structure of governance that, over time, compromises the head of state's decision-making: the inner sanctum, composed of family, flatterers, and sycophants. Surrounding himself with people who only tell him what he wants to hear magnifies the strongman's personality flaws, like hubris, impulsiveness, and suspicion.
The photographs of Putin at enormous tables, absurdly distant not just from foreign heads of state but from members of his own security council, suggest a state of isolation common among leaders who have exercised too much power for too long
Over time, exerting this kind of authority and discarding (or not even hearing) wise counsel can lead an autocrat to believe his own propaganda and act on his worst instincts, leading to counter-productive policies and actions. That might mean overreaching by embarking on ill-conceived wars (Benito Mussolini and Putin) stealing until there is mass poverty (Mobutu Sese Seko), or expelling groups important for the economy (Idi Amin banished South Asians in Uganda and then had to invite them back).
These dynamics become particularly pernicious if a personalist leader feels his power is threatened or secretly feels he has reached his peak. Because their goal is not public welfare but preserving their position, the prospect of decline or ouster can inspire desperate acts, such as continuing an unsuccessful war or starting a new armed conflict. Political scientists call this phenomenon “gambling for resurrection.” Most autocrats lose the wager.
With typical strongman hubris and paranoia, Putin reportedly consulted very few people before starting this invasion. He did not adequately game out the conflict with his military leadership (which, with at least seven generals dead, is now paying the price, as are ordinary Russian soldiers --up to 15,000 of them have been lost so far).
If the history of personalist leaders is any indication, Putin may face severe political difficulties at home going forward. This brand of authoritarian often meets with a bad end. More than 80% of the personalist leaders who left office between 1946 and 2010 did so only under some form of coercion. Their personalization of power becomes a liability when they make grave miscalculations, as Putin has done with this war, and they take the blame.