Authoritarian Military Power
The day that Russia invaded Ukraine, my first-year seminar "Dictator 101" was scheduled to discuss authoritarian military effectiveness. The Russian invasion has shown this topic to be more grimly relevant than ever.
Among the many questions observers are grappling with is how should we expect this war to go? Commentary at the start of the invasion emphasized Russian military superiority, but history shows significant variation in how well countries "convert resources to fighting power." A large multidisciplinary literature on military effectiveness tries to explain this variation.
One school in this literature focuses on civil-military relations. "Coup-proofing" activities, scholars argue, reduce threats to authoritarian leaders from internal rivals, but also reduce military effectiveness. For example, promoting officers based on political loyalty undermines the quality of military leadership. Withholding training—to make soldiers less capable of carrying out a coup—reduces their skills. "Stove-piping" information flows foils plotters, but it impedes communication between military units, reducing their ability to coordinate and conduct combined-arms operations. Furthermore, dictators often buy loyalty by providing their supporters opportunities for corruption. Such corruption drains resources from military budgets, undermining morale when soldiers don't receive basic necessities and equipment.
The early days of fighting in Ukraine have revealed major deficiencies in the Russian military including logistical problems and low morale. Most surprising are innumerable examples of poor force integration: unsupported small units of Russian forces operating alone, being ambushed and killed; columns of Russian vehicles –apparently with no air defenses – destroyed by Ukrainian UAVs. Brave Ukrainians deserve the credit for their successes. But the war's surprising direction may also partly explained by the enervating effects of coup-proofing and corruption. To be clear, Russia may still win the war. But these shocking failures remind us that authoritarian militaries may be less formidable than they appear.
In the near future, another authoritarian state wielding a grievance narrative, China, may decide to use force against Taiwan. For decades the People's Republican Army suffered from many of the pathologies of the quintessential coup-proofed, corrupt military. Have Xi Jinping's 2015 reforms changed things (as we were told Putin's military modernization did)? What are the implications for China's military performance? As the United States and its partners manage relations with revisionist authoritarian great powers, understanding their military effectiveness is more important than ever.