Autocracies provide an efficient and highly functional model of government, but only if led by capable men whose outlook and values are in harmony with the spirit, cultural heritage, and geostrategic interests of their people.
Successful autocrats often rule for a long time and get a magnificent state funeral. Those who fail (militarily and economically, above all) tend to meet a sticky end. This fact of life is reminiscent of the Chinese notion of the Heavenly Mandate: Success in making the nation strong, prosperous, and secure is the source of the ruler’s legitimacy. Failure legitimizes conspiracies to remove him.
To understand why Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has proven an unsuccessful autocrat, it is necessary to compare him to his historical counterparts in Portugal, Spain, and Italy.
During his 36 years in power, Dr. António de Oliveira Salazar established Portugal’s “new state” and gave it decades of much-needed stability and steady prosperity under the motto Deus, Pátria e Família. He kept Portugal out of World War II while almost openly helping the Allies. Maligned by the left as a “fascist dictator,” Salazar was a pious patriot who shunned populist rhetoric, lived modestly, and did his job very well.
Francisco Franco Bahamonde faced greater challenges than his soft-spoken neighbor in Lisbon, took greater risks, and left a deeper mark. At a terrible cost and aware that there was no alternative, the future Spanish Caudillo tried to save his country from devastating leftist violence that Spain’s leftist government would not control. He avoided being drawn into World War II on Hitler’s side with skill and led the country from ruin to prosperous modernity, from his victory over the Rojos in 1939 to his death in 1975. A devout patriot and a traditionalist devoid of ideological obsessions, Franco was arguably the most successful statesman in modern European history.
Benito Mussolini’s power grab in 1922 was approved by millions of Italians not because of his ideology, which was but vaguely articulated at the time, but because it appeared to them that he could provide concrete solutions to the dual challenge of the “red menace” at home and “mutilated victory” abroad. He was successful on both fronts for years but starting in the late 1930s, his failure to comprehend the repercussions of his Faustian pact with Hitler ultimately cost him his life and reputation. The method of his removal in July 1943—the vote in the Grand Council of Fascism and the intervention of the King—indicated that, unlike his brutal German partner and unlike Stalin, Mussolini was an autocrat in the Iberian mold rather than a totalitarian dictator.
Putin is also an autocrat whose power, far from being absolute, depends on an intricate consensus of Russia’s elites and on the maintenance of popular support. Putin’s main shortcoming is that (unlike Franco or Salazar) he does not have a rock-solid inner compass of key principles which are nonnegotiable, which motivate his decisions, and which guide him through life. In this, he is more akin to Mussolini: both were opportunists rather than strategists, both rose to power unexpectedly, and—most importantly—both used it to create an illusion of strength in a system ridden with institutionalized graft, inefficiency, and cronyism.
Putin’s failure, as manifested on Ukraine’s battlefields and in Russia’s macroeconomic indicators, is far greater for two reasons. He has presided over Russia for longer than Il Duce was in power (his final two years under German tutelage don’t count), and the Russian Federation has far greater resources, human and especially material, than the Kingdom of Italy could ever dream of.
We do not know what will be the Russian equivalent of that fateful meeting of the Fascist Grand Council on July 25, 1943, which spelled Mussolini’s doom. It is reasonable to assume that it is in the making, however. There are many signs that the system of informal checks and balances within the Russian power structure is under acute strain.
If the first anniversary of the “Special Military Operation” comes next February without a major improvement on the ground, the fragile consensus keeping Putin in power may collapse. Its key players are neither blindly devoted to the leader, jawohl mein Führer-style, nor mortally fearful of him as Stalin’s nomenklatura had been. No old crony like Dmitry Peskov, no silovik (strongman) like Sergei Shoigu, and certainly no oligarch like Roman Abramovich, is willing to die for Putin. They are cynical people who care about their power and money first and foremost. They are also pragmatists, by now well aware of Putin’s lack of anything resembling a grand strategy.
It is unlikely that Putin can pull off a winter surprise in Ukraine. The Russian army could not hold the suburbs of Kiev in April and Kharkov in September, which were but an hour’s drive from the borders of Belarus or Russia. It abandoned the city of Kherson just five weeks after formally welcoming it into Russia, even though keeping its garrison supplied and reinforcing it was well within its logistic capability. Its capacity for major combined-arms operations is uncertain. The onset of winter will present many problems for Ukraine’s civilians behind the lines, but that in itself cannot decide the outcome—just as the ordeal of millions of German civilians killed or bombed out of their homes in 1943–1945 had not appreciably shortened the war.
Putin is running out of options, but he dares not test the nation’s resilience by calling a general mobilization, and he dares not fight a real war. Suffice it to say that Russian gas is still flowing to the West through Ukraine, that railway lines from Poland to Kiev and the bridges across the Dnieper that provide the lifeline to Ukrainian forces in the Donbas remain intact.
Putin is a failed manager, a security bureaucrat who had never had the capacity to become a statesman. He must go if Russia is to recover from the current impasse created by him, if she is to avoid becoming China’s supplicant, or a brutally carved-up Western colony. The sooner it happens, the better for Russia, Europe, and the world. Putin’s continued hold on power can only serve the interests of those “benevolent global hegemonists” in the U.S. who want to fight Russia militarily to the last Ukrainian and economically to the last European.