Shortly before he invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini stated, “I follow my instincts, and I am never wrong.” That war bankrupted the state, but it made him popular with Italians as the restorer of the Italian empire. It also further inflated his ego. In 1940, against the advice of many of his generals, Il Duce entered World War II alongside Adolf Hitler. He counted on a quick win and lasting glory, but instead dragged Italy through a disastrous war that ended with his own execution by anti-fascist partisans in 1945.
Over time, exerting this kind of power can lead an autocrat to believe his own propaganda and act on his worst impulses.
These dramatic events, and the terrible toll of strongman leadership, come to mind as Russian President Vladimir Putin embarks on a risky war against Ukraine. He is motivated by a desire to secure his place in history as the leader who revived a version of the Soviet empire. It could backfire on him in multiple ways.
After 22 years in power, Putin's governance style and structures resemble those that have led past autocrats to make bad decisions. The recent photographs of him at enormous tables, absurdly distant not just from foreign heads of state but from members of his own security council, suggest a state of isolation common among leaders who have exercised too much power for too long.
All strongmen build "inner sanctums" to manage day-to-day governance. Composed of flatterers, family members and cronies, all of them chosen for their loyalty rather than their expertise, they shield him from any unpleasant counsel — and share handsomely in the profits from his thievery. This is certainly the case in Russia, a fully realized kleptocracy: In 2018, 3 percent of Russians held about 90 percent of the country’s assets, with Putin's oligarchs owning the lion's share of those.
Over time, exerting this kind of power can lead an autocrat to believe his own propaganda and act on his worst impulses, leading not just to the destruction of his foreign enemies, but to destabilizing situations at home that can jeopardize his rule. We saw, for example, the thousands of Russians participating in anti-war protests over the past days. A Russian platoon allegedly surrendered to Ukrainian troops when they realized they were sent there to “kill Ukrainians.”
As is typical with strongmen, the present international crisis reflects Putin's private preoccupations — what haunts him, as well as what he takes for granted due to his arrogance.
Putin has long been inordinately fearful of Ukrainian democracy, seeing it as a threat on his border to his autocratic brand of power. What author Peter Pomerantsev called the Kremlin's "obsessive stalking of Kyiv" reflects this focus. Putin will only feel safe if he annihilates Ukraine as a sovereign entity, which he did, at the rhetorical level, in his Monday speech.
In 2018, 3 percent of Russians held about 90 percent of the country’s assets, with Putin's oligarchs owning the lion's share of those.
At the same time, Putin suffers from fantasies of grandeur. He obtained a nationalist high, and soaring approval ratings, following his 2014 annexation of Crimea. Perhaps he believes he can repeat the experience.
Yet Russia is a different place in 2022, both in terms of foreign preparedness to act against his kleptocracy and the degree of domestic disaffection with Putin's corruption and repression that have accelerated over the past few years.
In fact, the Russian president's formal lock on power, secured by his 2020 amendment of the constitution, has been accompanied by more, not less, violence against those who expose his corruption. This is a sign of insecurity, not of confidence.
His jailing of anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, whose foundation released a video of what it called "Putin's Palace," a Black Sea mansion that reportedly cost $1.3 billion to build, is a case in point. At his February 2021 Moscow sentencing, Navalny denounced the "thieving little man in his bunker" who is too cowardly to face his opponents in free elections. While Putin's support held steady with older Russians, a Levada Center poll that month indicated disaffection with his brand of governance among younger people: 48 percent of respondents ages 18 to 24 felt that the country was going in the wrong direction.
A rogue attack against Ukraine will likely only bring more disillusionment and further expose the president's total lack of regard for his own people. The new international resolve to levy sanctions against the country and its elites will impact the Russian economy, as will the costs of the conflict. Now that Germany is on board to table the certification of Putin's cherished Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a collective will to finally find alternatives to dependence on Russian energy may also emerge.
With typical strongman hubris, Putin has clearly underestimated the willingness of Ukrainians to fight against him. The war will create numerous Russian casualties, which even reported mobile crematoria, which could hide evidence of Russian dead, won't be able to mask.
All of this is why former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sees the invasion of Ukraine as potentially "a historic mistake" on Putin's part.
Certainly, the echoes of past autocrats' failures resound when Russia expert Fiona Hill observes that Putin is not just driven by a view of himself "as a protagonist of Russian history" but may also be acting without good intelligence due to associates "spinning to him that he's done a great job."
As the tragedy in Ukraine unfolds, Putin will show his hand ever more as an individual who is motivated by personal glory and megalomania. If the history of strongmen is any indication, it may be downhill for the Russian leader from here.