By Paul Goble
Despite what many believe, there was nothing inevitable about Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch his expanded war in Ukraine, Grigory Golosov argues. Personalist dictatorships like his often survive without doing so for a long time, especially if they use elections to legitimize themselves and don’t want to rock the boat.
But the political scientist at St. Petersburg’s European University says, there is always the danger that this constraint will become less significant in the eyes of such rulers especially if elections are so easily managed or other factors intervene that cause them to decide that war may serve their interests (holod.media/2022/12/28/golosov-2022-itog/).
If a personalist ruler’s isolation increases, Golosov argues, there is an ever greater chance that he will think about ideas from his past. And that is exactly what occurred with Putin in 2020 and 2021. During those years, he was in covid pandemic isolation and clearly thought a lot about geopolitics and especially the geopolitical model he had learned in Soviet times.
According to the political scientist, “it is certainly possible that these happy reflects led him to the conclusion that a rapid success on the Ukrainian front would not permit him not only to strengthen his power in Russia” as the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 did “but allow him to go down in history as the worthy continuer of the goals of Russian tsars.”
Such calculations, Golosov suggests, would have given Putin “psychological comfort,” but they would not have allowed for input by others that might have given him a more objective picture of reality and the risks involved of launching a major war, risks that many of his senior officials were certainly aware of.
Personalist dictatorships are especially “error prone for the simple reason that they remove the control mechanisms that reduce the possibility for making wrong decisions,” Golosov says. The covid pandemic only intensified that and “in this sense, Russia has been simply unlucky.”
But this lack of luck, just like the lack of luck which kept both tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union from surviving far longer than they did, has far broader consequences, most seriously for those in countries ruled by such people but also for others who are forced to respond.