*Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.
“Putin’s war of conquest is failing,” U.S. President Joe Biden said during his surprise visit to Ukraine. He let Russia and the world know that America would support Ukraine "as long as it takes." The Russian President has his measure of success, however, and every day this war continues is a victory for Putin. Understanding how autocrats think is crucial to assessing what the war has meant for Russia and how Putin may behave in the future.
Many analyses, including my own, have focused on how the war has backfired on the Kremlin. Putin had undertaken the invasion motivated by a desire to secure his place in history as an imperial conqueror. Instead, his military has been exposed as weak, unmotivated, and plagued by institutionalized lying (when no one dares to tell the truth to the leader, leading to poor decision-making). Russian troops are ill-fed, inadequately clothed, and equipped with dated and inferior weapons. Russia is a kleptocracy, and the military has been ravaged by corruption and theft no less than other state institutions.
Autocrats view their people as assets to exploit, and they don't care how many of their people die on or off the battlefield. That's why hundreds of thousands of young men have fled Russia —they know Putin would send them to their deaths without a second thought. This brutal mentality is partly why Putin can play a long game in this conflict.
Putin also has no interest in shortening the conflict because his war against Ukraine is not just about occupying territory. It is a war of annihilation that is meant to suppress Ukraine's sovereignty, identity, and culture. To the autocrat, every day spent killing the enemy and reducing his cities to rubble furthers the cause.
So does forcing millions to flee. Depopulation does the autocrats' job for him if the goal is to rid the occupied territory of any trace of the enemy. Since the war started, almost six million Ukrainians have been internally displaced and other eight million have gone into exile as refugees. At least 7,100 Ukrainian civilians have been killed, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and as of December 2022, up to 13,000 Ukrainian combatants had perished. All of this is excellent news for Putin; why would he stop his war now?
Finally, waging war abroad has strengthened Putin's position at home. The Kremlin disinformation machine has sold the war as a patriotic vindication of a threat on Russia's border. It builds on well-established narratives that express "grievances, paranoia, and [an] imperialist mind-set" to frame the invasion of Ukraine as continuing the redemptive trajectory opened by the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Putin's personality cult propaganda presents it all as part of a master plan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on screen in Red Square at a rally celebrating the annexation of four Ukrainian regions, Sept. 30, 2022. Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images.
Authoritarians engaged in wartime crackdowns also welcome the departure of domestic critics and “defeatists.” So what if between 500,000 and 1 million Russians have left their country due to the war —an exodus comparable only to the outflows during the 1917 Russian Revolution and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union? Good riddance to them, says the autocrat. Their departure merely speeds up the "self-purification of society" as Putin calls it.
That hygienic action seems to include bumping off Russian elites who have criticized Putin or turned against him. Dozens of important individuals have died in suspicious circumstances in 2022, giving rise to "Sudden Russian Death Syndrome," as Elaine Godfrey terms it. "The longer this war lasts, the more Russian society is cleansing itself from liberalism and the Western poison," said the pro-Putin business magnate Konstantin Malofeyev, articulating the authoritarian logic.
"The collapse of Western hegemony that has begun is irreversible," Russian President Vladimir Putin told his people in September 2022 when he annexed four Ukrainian territories. "And I repeat again —nothing will be the same as before. Fate and history called us onto the battlefield for our people, for great historical Russia!"
We may like to think that Putin may abandon this grandiose mission or "come to his senses” because he is being humiliated every day on the battlefield, but that is not how autocrats operate. Until the United States and its allies give Ukraine the weapons it needs to repel the Russian invader, Putin will consider it worth his while to continue a war he thinks will put him on par with Peter the Great.
Authoritarianism is about having the power to get away with crime. Waging a genocidal war against another country without other nations forcing a cessation of conflict counts as a big win in the autocratic world. Far from standing down, look for Putin to escalate hostilities as this tragic war enters its second year.