23.06.23 Future Review

Paths for the Future: Possible scenarios for to a long-ruling autocrat who unleashes war

Analysing the history of authoritarian regimes reveals that the longer an autocrat remains in power, the less likely they are to be overthrown from within the regime or leave their post before their death. However, even if an autocrat dies in office or loses power for other reasons, they are usually succeeded by another autocrat, and the regime retains its fundamental characteristics. Therefore, even after Putin, Russia is likely to remain an authoritarian country with an anti-Western tilt to its foreign policy. Nevertheless, the country still has a chance, albeit a small one, for liberal reform. For that to happen, Russia must lose the war.

Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine has undoubtedly disrupted his regime's long-term equilibrium. Sanctions, failures on the battlefield, and the need to resist the Western coalition backing Ukraine have forced him to make decisions under circumstances, the consequences of which he has little time to deliberate carefully. Experts may attempt to forecast potential developments, but in reality, comparative political science lacks sufficient predictive capabilities. However, studying the experiences of authoritarian regimes allows us to outline a rough schematic of possible scenarios and assess their likelihood. Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, who have spent many years studying autocracies and their transitions, attempt to outline the 'paths’ for Russia's future in a recent article in Foreign Affairs.

After the end of the Cold War, a typical autocrat who ruled a country for more than 20 years (a quarter of all autocrats) and reached the age of 65 (Putin is 70) would have ruled for a total of about 30 years. If the autocrat led a personalist autocracy, where power is concentrated in the hands of the leader rather than a party, junta, or royal family, the average duration of their tenure was 36 years. The authors note that the political longevity of such an autocrat (of which Putin is one) is based on a system of entrenched dependencies: Russian officials, political elites, and the economic elite are fully dependent on Putin and the preservation of the status quo. The longer such an autocrat remains in power, the less likely it is for them to be overthrown from within the regime. It is highly likely that they will not leave their post until they die. However, in this context, a high probability is just 40% of long-ruling autocrats.

Kendall-Taylor and Frantz's data also suggests that the Putin regime is unlikely to be replaced by an internal coup. Among long-ruling authoritarian leaders (those in power for 20 or more years), only 10% were overthrown by a coup, and among autocrats over the age of 65, none were overthrown.

There are several possible options for the scenario of 'death in office'. In a condition of entrenched dependency and elite consolidation, the probability of Russia remaining an authoritarian country (at least in the initial period) after the departure of the long-ruling autocrat is extremely high. 89% of authoritarian regimes operating since the end of the Cold War outlived their founders, who died 'in office.' Among personalist autocracies, where the issue of succession is most acute, the regime's survival rate after the leader's death is slightly lower at 83%.

High probability does not guarantee automatic implementation. The death of an autocrat does not always lead to a shift in the political landscape towards liberalisation, as was the case after the deaths of Lansana Conté in Guinea or Francisco Franco in Spain. However, more often than not, the passing of an authoritarian leader 'in office' turns out to be an unremarkable event that does not bring significant changes to the regime. For example, in the post-Soviet space, authoritarian regimes in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were able to easily survive the deaths of their incumbent leaders. Successors who deviate from the status quo face fierce resistance from the 'old guard,' which retains significant control over the levers of power.

Putin’s successor is likely to continue his predecessor's aggressive foreign policy. Political scientist Sarah Crocco has found that successors to autocrats tend to continue the wars and conflicts they inherited. Even if Putin's successor does not share the same goals, they will be concerned that any resolution may look like defeat, marking the end of their presidency. However, another study has shown that in half of cases (50%), dictators who lose wars eventually lose power. A defeat in a war undermines the aura of invincibility that surrounds an autocrat and may mobilise dissatisfied citizens who previously refrained from protesting for fear of the regime.

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that there is no guarantee that an autocrat's tenure will last until their death. Notably, one-third of autocrats who held their position for over 20 years were overthrown as a result of mass protests and unrest. On the one hand, war reduces the likelihood of such a scenario through the effects of 'patriotic mobilisation,' but on the other hand, it creates a considerable number of additional tensions, challenges, and causes for discontent.

However, the fragmentation of elites that follows the departure of a long-serving autocrat and societal divisions that arise from mass dissatisfaction and uncertainty can lead to instability escalating into internal armed conflict. 13% of all long-serving autocrats who left power as a result of protests ended their careers in civil war. However, in this scenario, there is a high probability that such a conflict will result in the establishment of a new dictatorship.

Another 20% of long-serving autocrats left their positions as a result of peaceful protests. This scenario is less likely in the conditions of a highly repressive regime, and even if peaceful protests do occur, their success is not guaranteed. Moreover, even if a leader steps down as a result of protests, a transition to a more democratic regime occurs infrequently, although it does occasionally happen. It should be noted that, in the event of successful mass protests and the defeat of the old regime, the inflated and well-fed security apparatus is highly likely to attempt to regain power at some point.

However, even in the highly probable scenario of a long-serving autocrat dying in office or an attempt to transfer power to a successor, the transition may not necessarily be successful. Such autocrats, seeking to prevent their overthrow, fracture the power structures and pit elite groups against each other. This situation is characteristic of Putin's authoritarianism as well, and the war and failures on the frontlines have only heightened internal rivalries within the Russian elites.

Most likely, after a period of transitional turbulence, the fractured elites, if they manage to avoid direct confrontation, will bet on a technocrat — someone in the vein of Mishustin, Sobyanin, or another weak consensus candidate who, in their opinion, can be controlled and will not be able to consolidate power quickly. Therefore, the power struggle will not be over at this stage. It can be added that such a 'compromise' candidate will have a short period of time in which to secure their electoral victory , gaining control not only over the central apparatus but also over regional elites. And factional infighting within the new 'collective leadership' increases the likelihood of liberalisation if one of the factions tries to increase its popularity among the population at the expense of 'internal de-escalation' measures. This scenario has been observed twice in recent Russian history: after Stalin's death and after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power.

However, Kendall-Taylor and Frantz do not take into consideration possible 'second cycle' scenarios of power struggle; they focus on the fact that Russia still has a chance for profound change, with a catalyst potentially being a defeat in Ukraine. In a closed information environment, propaganda creates an image of overwhelming regime support, which forces opposition-minded citizens to conceal their views. A triggering event, such as a military defeat, has the potential to break the 'wall of silence,' ultimately leading to a cascading effect where more and more citizens and elite groups demand change. According to the authors, mass protests appear to be the most promising path toward a more liberal Russia, but this path relies on the success of Ukraine and the military defeat of the Putin regime.

In any case, it should be remembered that a protracted war poses a significant challenge for an authoritarian regime, and the low probability of a particular scenario for the country’s future does not mean that it will be impossible.