TURES COLUMN: Could Putin lose more than just Ukraine in this invasion?

Published 9:30 am Tuesday, March 1, 2022

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No one was seriously thinking Vladimir Putin had any chance of being deposed any time soon before his invasion of Ukraine. He may well take Kyiv and assassinate those who disagree with him. But analysis from political science could show that such a risky move could come back to haunt him, especially if this bogs down into a long, brutal occupation resembling the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

“Governments are likely to be held accountable for success or failure of their foreign policies,” write Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Randolph M. Siverson and Gary Woller. “Consequently, we claim that international wars can, under specified conditions, have domestically instigated consequences for violent regime change in the political systems of the participants.”

These authors wrote this article in the American Political Science Review around the time Vladimir Putin was just finishing up his lengthy service in the KGB. Their research covers cases from 1816 through 1975, though the findings still have lessons for today.

The three authors look at more than 30 countries with leaders which initiated conflicts, from WWI and WWII to Latin America, South Asia and the Middle East, that sewed the seeds of their own doom. Far from being innocent victims, these countries featured are often “cases where leaders generally thought the foreign policy action would turn out well from the perspective of their regime. They thought the potential benefits outweighed the associated risks to the regime.”

More often than not, I have found these cases, and more recent examples, to have an authoritarian leadership. You’ll find the hubris of the Argentine military junta, which looked invincible, killing domestic opponents with ease. Their ill-fated Falkland Islands invasion and defeat at the hands of the British ousted them from power, never to return, as democracy has ruled since then in Argentina. Fascist leaders were pretty confident of their blitzkrieg strategies going into WWII. And when the Soviets pounced on Afghanistan and killed their leader, it looked like an easy occupation at first, didn’t it? Thankfully, it was the beginning of the end of the USSR that Putin once served.

The ousting of such dictators though a rapid sequence of events tends to catch pundits off-guard. That’s because those media personalities may well be buying into the autocrat’s propaganda, which always claims everything is fine. Such authoritarians surround themselves with “Yes Men,” too afraid to reveal the truth, even when it’s pretty obvious that the game is up. And some of those leaders have a massive God complex as well, talking more than listening.

Subsequent research by de Mesquita and Siverson find this connection between undemocratic leaders and war risk. “Democratic leaders select wars to participate in that have a lower risk of defeat than is true for their authoritarian counterparts.”

As Putin finds Ukraine doesn’t want to be ruled by Russians like him, experiences the harsh bite of international sanctions, and sees other countries becoming less reliant on the energy he dominates in favor of renewables that he doesn’t have a corner on the market, it’s going to be harder for him to justify the soaring costs of war, from body bags to taxes to rationing. Fewer will believe the propaganda machines that promise it’s all going well.

If he persists, the Russian leader may well share the same fate that he frequently deals out to his neighbors.