How Putin's Debacle in Ukraine Echoes Other Ruinous Autocrat-Military Alliances
I am publishing a series of posts on how Putin's ill-fated war on Ukraine has exposed the dysfunctions of autocracy as a political system. The first one (read or listen to it here) examined how the low-input, high-paranoia environment of the "inner sanctums" autocrats like Putin create contributes to ill-considered decisions—the war on Ukraine being a spectacular example.
In this post I place the poor performance of Russia's military in Ukraine within the history of armed forces-autocrat alliances. What is happening within the Russian military is less shocking if you know the devastation leaders like Putin cause to all areas of society after decades in power. A momentous move, like a foreign invasion, becomes a stress test for those damaged institutions, with the disastrous outcomes displayed to the world.
A month after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, two US military officials met with a few Russian counterparts, including the Russian General Yevgeny Ilyin, deputy chief of the Directorate of International Cooperation. General Ilyin is originally from Ukraine, and when a US defense attaché inquired after his family there, his “stoic demeanor suddenly became flushed and agitated.” Declaring the situation in Ukraine “tragic,” he walked out without shaking hands, leaving the U.S. officials astonished. Neither of them had ever witnessed "such an outburst by Russian counterparts at an official meeting.”
But these are not normal times for the Russian military. At the time of the meeting, Russia was already sustaining devastating losses at every rank and in almost every unit, including elite corps such as the 331st Guards Parachute Regiment. In subsequent months, Russia lost an astounding number of generals.
We have all seen the visuals of this debacle, from military equipment abandoned by Russian soldiers to airports and other exit points crowded with Russian men attempting to flee Putin's partial conscription.
The tenacity and creativity of the Ukrainian military, and the strength of the Ukrainian civil resistance, are big factors here. Both were severely underestimated by Russians and foreigners.
Yet the stories of badly trained, unmotivated and undisciplined soldiers (which is one reason those generals and other high-ranking officers were at the front in such numbers) and their inferior equipment are familiar to those who study autocracies.
Add Russia to the list of countries whose armed forces have been hollowed out and weakened by years of illiberal rule.
Militaries that serve strongmen are efficient at repression, in part because the constraints of humanitarianism and prevailing international codes of conduct are removed. Mass killings, genocides, and the use of counter-insurgency tactics on domestic populations are standard outcomes of armed forces-autocrat alliances. The deployment of chemical weapons and the perpetration of war crimes have been part of the Kremlin's model of warfare since Putin first came to power.
Strongman may motivate militaries to engage in extraordinary repression through ideology and indoctrination to fanaticism (as the Führer Adolf Hitler did in Germany) and through material rewards. Ugandan dictator Idi Amin made sure the officers who oversaw his murders of more than 300,000 people lived rent-free and received regular gifts of whisky and luxury goods flown in from London.
What if the ruler's ability to buy off the military declines, or his authority becomes unstable due to battlefield setbacks that harm his cult of infallibility? Then decreased morale and fighting fervor among the rank and file, and increased discontent among commanders, are not far behind. We are seeing all of this right now among members of the Russian military.
Coups against the leader by military forces or military in conjunction with civilians are another possible outcome of such situations. As the sense grows that the despot is jeopardizing the country through a badly conceived military campaign, elites may decide to act. These individuals are normally not interested in democratization, but in excising the source of incompetency and salvaging what they can.
Mussolini's removal as head of state by his own Fascist Grand Council in July 1943, after the Allies landed in Sicily, is a famous instance of a "palace coup." Less known is how Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi's war on Chad (1978-1987), which ended in Libyan defeat, translated into up to ten coup attempts per year in the 1980s, many of them instigated by military officials.
Such upheavals within militaries that serve strongmen also show the toll of a military's colonization over time by authoritarian ideology and practice. Loyalty valued over expertise, and violence celebrated as an end in itself, debase codes of conduct and professional ethics.
In Chile, a 1973 military coup that led to the repression and torture of thousands of Chileans required a sharp turn away from an existing military culture rooted in upholding the rule of law and the constitution. Military tribunals were now used to judge political crimes by civilians, and 6,000 Chileans were tried between 1973-1976 for treason —meaning they were guilty of opposing the dictatorship.
Those nostalgic today for Pinochet's military dictatorship, like José Antonio Kast, who lost to Gabriel Boric in the 2021 Chilean presidential election, won’t admit that the dictatorship left the military in disgrace. Dozens of Chilean generals and 1300 other officials were prosecuted for corruption and human rights violations in the 2000s.
When a country has depended on its reputation as a military power, the exposure of compromised militaries and the shock of defeat can be devastating.
Many extremists and neo-Nazis today still revere the German armed forces under Adolf Hitler, but never mention the suicides of German military that accompanied defeat in 1945. These were part of a larger civilian wave of suicides that year, which included many civil servants, with 7000 documented in Berlin alone.
Shame and military honor codes sparked some of these suicides. Yet the emotional impact of learning that Hitler had abandoned Germans --including the military-- to their own fates, by closing himself in his bunker when the Red Army reached Germany, cannot be discounted.
All dictators despise their people, which is why they murder them, steal from them, and lie to them. They also inevitably blame their own people for catastrophes that their own actions cause.
Hitler was no exception. “Let it perish and be annihilated by some stronger power…I shall shed no tears for the German nation,” the Führer had stated in 1941, speaking of the eventuality of defeat. His March 1945 Nero Decree mandated the destruction of vital military and transport infrastructure, orders that his architect Albert Speer, then his Minister of Armaments and War Production, worked to countermand.
All of the dynamics described here are at play now in Russia, including the sense that Putin has declared war on his own people and has dealt a huge blow to Russia's international standing.
Where this will lead is still unknown, but the history of military-autocrat alliances suggest that Putin’s war on Ukraine, which was supposed to bring him more prestige and control of territory, will hasten his decline and leave his military in shambles.
“I am still trying to understand what happened to our institution, how officials I knew and respected came to commit the acts they did,” said a Chilean Army officer who retired just before the coup, speaking for many military elites around the world whose peers collaborated with autocrats. Russian commanders like General Ilyin may be asking themselves the same question years from now.