How Autocracies Unravel
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Strategy Policy Aug 10, 2023

How Autocracies Unravel

Over time, leaders grow more repressive and cling to yes-men—a cycle that’s playing out today in Putin’s Russia.

autocrat leaning over battle map surrounded by yes-men.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Georgy Egorov

Konstantin Sonin

When Russia launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the move was widely seen as both a humanitarian tragedy and a strategic blunder. Not only did the war alienate Russia from the international community, it also revealed serious weaknesses within Vladimir Putin’s government and the country’s underprepared and undersupplied military.

“It was obvious by March that the war was a colossal mistake—and that there had been voices that warned about the great dangers and difficulties of the invasion,” says Georgy Egorov, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at the Kellogg School. “At the end of the day, the decision-making process collapsed to just a few people close to Putin who acted like yes-men.”

In the long view of history, this failure to seek out wise counsel is more the rule than the exception. From Emperor Nicholas II’s decision to enter World War I to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, autocratic leaders have a track record of entering into needless conflicts that ultimately weaken or bring down their own regimes.

So why does the same story keep repeating itself? In a new working paper, Egorov and Konstantin Sonin of the University of Chicago use game theory to help answer that question. They argue that institutional autocracies like Russia, which have complex bureaucracies surrounding authoritarian rulers, gradually degenerate as leaders repress opponents and shun candid advisors. As the downward spiral continues, autocrats are left only with the questionable guidance of sycophants.

Putin is a perfect illustration of this path from relative competence to folly. “In his first term, his policies, at least on the economic side, were relatively sound. He did not squander the oil windfall at the time, despite calls to do just that. Had he stepped down after two terms, there would be memorials to him in his lifetime,” Egorov says.

But the longer Putin remained in office, “grasping to power became more and more important to him, and this ultimately led to the corruption of institutions from the top down and the colossal mistake we now see.”

How authoritarian regimes degenerate

Egorov and Sonin’s model of autocratic devolution has two elements. The first involves the despot’s fight to remain in power. Each time he is challenged by an opponent, the leader faces a decision: he can spare his former rival, or he can engage in repression by, for example, arresting, exiling, or executing her. If the opponent successfully ousts the incumbent, she becomes the new leader and faces the same choice between repression and mercy.

Repressing opponents is advantageous to the leader because then those rivals are unlikely or unable to challenge him again. But it also raises the stakes: if the leader is ever toppled, he is more likely to be repressed himself. Clinging to power becomes, sometimes literally, a matter of life or death. As a result, repression begets repression.

As this struggle plays out, the leader is also selecting advisors to help him run the country—a process that makes up the second element of the model. The leader has two options: he can appoint people who are not the smartest but are fully loyal, or he can choose those who are highly competent but potentially dangerous to him. By virtue of their savvy (and perhaps cunning), these advisors can see which opponents are most likely to topple the leader, so they may seize the opportunity to switch sides and betray the leader.

For a leader who has never engaged in repression, an adept underling could be worth the risk. But for a leader who has repressed his opponents, a competent-yet-possibly-disloyal advisor would be too perilous. After all, betrayal could lead to his own death or imprisonment. For this reason, he will instead opt to surround himself with only the most loyal people, even though they aren’t particularly fit for their jobs.

“In some sense, it becomes a mutually reinforcing process,” Egorov explains. The bad advice of the leader’s yes-men creates problems and “makes him more paranoid, and more repressive of the people who surround him, even when there is no particular threat.” As these repressions accelerate, the circle tightens until only the most loyal cronies are making the most important decisions, and the regime begins to collapse.

“It’s an important lesson that in autocracies, things tend to go downhill.”

Georgy Egorov

The model suggests that a descent into ineptitude is a natural outcome of autocracies. The cycle begins with the decision to repress opponents—a temptation to which nearly all authoritarian rulers succumb if they reign long enough, even if they exercise leniency early on. As time goes on, the leader begins to realize that “as I get rid of more opponents, they become more dangerous to me,” Egorov explains. “In this way, I basically seal my own fate—if somebody takes over for me, I’m too dangerous to be kept around.”

Understanding autocrats

Building a model of autocrats’ actions allows for “a unified picture of why people make big mistakes chasing arguably small prizes,” Egorov says. The model also shows that the initial success of an autocratic regime says little about what to expect in the future: “The maturity of the regime does not mean better decision-making—if anything, the opposite.”

Authoritarian countries that do manage to sustain long periods of stable rule are usually those that have ensured power does not rest with one individual for too long. In China, for example, the previous three presidents ruled for only a decade each, which prevented the repression spiral from getting too out of hand and “basically resetting the clock for the autocratic regime,” Egorov argues.

That may be changing with the removal of presidential term limits under Xi Jinping, Egorov says: “There is no reason to believe that in the second decade of Xi Jinping’s rule, China is not heading exactly the same way, perhaps slowly but steadily.”

When it comes to the Russian president’s fate, Egorov has no crystal ball. Putin may manage to hang on to power a little longer by “making the regime even more miserable and more repressive.” Alternatively, there could be a coup initiated by leaders and part of the populace “who are just fed up and who are not afraid of the consequences because they have already lost so much.”

Either way, the research makes one thing clear: “It’s an important lesson that in autocracies, things tend to go downhill.”

Featured Faculty

James Farley/Booz, Allen & Hamilton Research Professor; Professor of Managerial Economics & Decision Sciences

About the Writer

Susie Allen is the senior research editor of Kellogg Insight.

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