05.04.23 Review

Neverending horror: An authoritarian leader might compensate for the failure of a ‘small victorious war’ by carrying out a protracted, deadlocked conflict

As Putin's failures during the first stage of the war have weakened his authority and the perception of his strategic competence, he is being pushed towards a protracted conflict scenario. According to scholars of authoritarian regimes Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erika Franz, a protracted conflict may be a means for personalist leaders to consolidate their power by increasing repression and internal political control, which isolates the leader from elites and compensates for any damage inflicted on his image. However, in order to do this, the leader must avoid a conspicuous defeat, as it greatly increases his risk of losing power. Therefore, a protracted, deadlocked conflict may result in a deterioration of Russia's economic potential and political influence on the world stage, as well as a worsening of the situation faced by citizens and elites. However, such a scenario would help Putin to maintain his power.

As the Russian-Ukrainian war drags on and the likelihood that either side will achieve a decisive military victory diminishes, political scientists are increasingly exploring the different domestic political scenarios for a protracted conflict. To do this, they are examining historical and comparative material in great depth.

In most cases, wars tend to be short-lived and typically last only a few months. However, if they continue for a longer period, they are likely to persist for several years or even last as long as a decade. According to experts of authoritarian regime Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erika Frantz, a protracted war may seem like a favourable scenario for a personalist authoritarian leader. Even if the leader has demonstrated inefficiency and incompetence, the war reduces the ability of the population, military, and security forces to challenge him. Further, the dictator's control over the elites increases during times of war, and the elites themselves are either hesitant or unable to consolidate their resources against the dictator.

In other words, the political logic underpinning this view  is that the initial stage of the war in Ukraine has significantly diminished Putin's authority and strategic competence. As a result, he is now being pushed to prolong the war and use it as a tool for his domestic policy. The increased level of control domestically that the war provides Putin should offset the damage inflicted on his image at home due to the failures of the ‘small victorious war.’

A study conducted by political scientists Varun Piplani and Caitlin Talmadge from George Washington University suggests that the risk of a coup d’etat decreases as conflicts persist. This is because wars tend to isolate leaders, restrict access to them, and create a ‘rally around the flag’ effect. ‘As long as the Russian military is involved in a protracted conflict in Ukraine, they most likely will not have the opportunity, time and resources necessary to plan a coup,’ write Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erika Frantz. They also believe that the likelihood of an anti-dictatorial plot being carried out among the military is also reduced by the high number of casualties among senior and mid-ranking officers.

Nonetheless, according to Kendall-Taylor and Frantz, this does not hold true for dictators who are defeated in wars. In such cases, they become more vulnerable to being overthrown. Political regimes, in which power is heavily concentrated in the hands of a single individual, have the greatest likelihood of ending violently among all types of political regimes.This probability increases significantly if the personalist dictatorship loses the war.

A lost war or armed conflict poses a greater threat to the authority of a dictator than the deterioration of citizens' economic conditions. According to American political scientists Giacomo Chiozza and Hein Goemans, approximately 80% of leaders who were in power when a military conflict ended remained in power after said conflict. However, those who experienced a military defeat were more likely to be ousted from their position. According to this logic, a protracted conflict would also ensure that a declining economic situation is unable to undermine the power of a dictator, as it would be perceived as an inevitable outcome of the war and attributed to the ‘enemy’.

Thus, it is uncertain when and how the Russian-Ukrainian conflict will end, but it will unquestionably result in a decline in the living standards of both the Russian general population and the country’s elites. Nevertheless, a prolonged conflict may serve as a means of maintaining Vladimir Putin's authority, even as Russia's economic potential and political influence in the world decline.