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The Russian Mutiny and the Inherent Instability of Autocracies
No dictatorship—whether it's Russia, China or any other—can escape its own fundamental weakness.
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In light of the Russian mutiny challenging Putin’s rule, it’s worth remembering that all autocracies, by definition, are inherently unstable. There is no such thing as a "stable" authoritarian regime.
This is hard lesson to take on. Debates on how to deal with autocracies are often marred by status quo bias; today they seem durable, with little risk of major instability or mass protests. But this is precisely the problem with dictatorships: they seem stable—until they’re not. And then it’s too late, as we saw during the early days of the Arab Spring. On the first day of Egypt’s protests on January 25, 2011, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “Our assessment is that the Egyptian regime is stable.” Two weeks later, the assessment would have been the opposite. That’s rather quick.
The apparent longevity of certain autocrats is deceiving, which means that policymakers must consciously correct for any status quo bias.captures this confusing dynamic well, when he says “the longer a democratic regime survives, the less likely it will collapse… The longer an autocracy survives, the more likely it will collapse.” To the extent that autocracies survive, they do so through coercion. Even “popular” autocracies rely on repression, suggesting that they, too, realize the brittleness at their core. In this, they are not wrong.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine something similar to the Russian mutiny happening in, say, the United States. But of course this is an absurd comparison. The United States, after all, is a democracy.
What do we mean “unstable”? The Guardian’s David Shariatmadari replied to me:
If "unstable" = "they may break down at some point and without much warning" then that's not particularly meaningful. There are many examples of long-lasting autocracies where comparatively little changes from decade to decade.
He has a point, up to a point. I would argue that “they may break down at some point without much warning" is meaningful because this description has, to my knowledge, never applied to a consolidated democracy, excepting cases of war and occupation.
Another problem with autocracies is that they struggle with self-defense. Their militaries are not designed to be the best fighting force. Instead, they are meant to serve the ultimate goal of any self-respecting dictatorship: preserving and protecting the regime at any cost.
An indication of this can be found in the Russian rebels’ rapid advance.
Prigozhin, whose private army fought the bloodiest battles in Ukraine even as he feuded for months with the top brass, said he had captured the headquarters of Russia's Southern Military District in Rostov without firing a shot.
This is not to say that the rebels had any real chance of seizing Moscow. There’s a danger in projecting our own desires onto this latest Russian conflict and seeing Putin as a paper tiger. But the broader point still applies: because autocracies are fundamentally transactional regimes—depending as they do on “performance legitimacy” rather than consent—they face an uphill battle when it comes to extracting the ultimate loyalty from their own citizens, the willingness to fight and die for one’s country. In this case, Russians wouldn’t be fighting and dying for Russia. They would be fighting and dying for Putin. That’s an altogether different proposition.
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