The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There’s a reason Putin can be so aggressive: Oil.

Putin’s personalist rule leaves few domestic checks on his power.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Opening Ceremonies of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing on Feb. 4. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)
6 min

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has set off a flood of speculation about his motives. Myriad factors — including perceptions of Russia’s historical ties to Ukraine and regional security concerns — probably drive his ambitions. But Russia’s personalist domestic politics and its oil and gas wealth also contributed to this aggression.

Putin the personalist

Putin’s Russia is no democracy, but autocracies come in many flavors. Our research has found that when it comes to decisions about military conflict, a key question is how much power is concentrated in the hands of a single leader.

Some non-democracies feature a form of collective rule in which elites share power. Examples include the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev, China in the decades between Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping, and some military juntas. In this scenario, the leader is surrounded by other powerful elites who can mete out political punishment for unsuccessful or overly risky foreign policy decisions.

Putin is breaking 70 years of norms by invading Ukraine. What comes next?

In contrast, in “personalistregimes like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union or North Korea under the Kim dynasty, individuals hold enormous power. These leaders exert personal control over internal and external security forces. When it comes to using force, there are few — if any — inside the regime who can hold the leader accountable.

Over the two decades of Putin’s rule, power in Russia has become increasingly concentrated in his hands. Today, Russia has no powerful, independent institutions with the ability to check him. For that reason social scientists have concluded that Putin is a personalist dictator, even if he lacks the iron grip on power of some of his counterparts.

Personalism and aggression

Why do personalist regimes engage in conflict? First, personalist rulers face relatively low domestic costs for taking military risks. They can usually hang on to power even in the aftermath of military defeat, unless they are forcibly removed by a victorious foreign nation — a fate that seems unlikely for Putin. On average, therefore, personalist leaders initiate military conflict more frequently than autocrats facing greater domestic constraints.

Second, the kinds of individuals who become personalist dictators tend to believe that force is highly effective after all, it is often their willingness to use violence that helped them to rise to power, and stay there. As Putin declared as he ordered the invasion of Ukraine, “it is our strength and our readiness to fight that are the bedrock of independence and sovereignty and provide the necessary foundation for building a reliable future for your home, your family, and your Motherland.” Personalist leaders often have similarly bold international aspirations: They don’t just want to run their country; they want to rule the entire neighborhood.

Personalists are also more likely to have a troubling tendency to cut themselves off from high-quality information. They’re likely to surround themselves with sycophants who have incentives to tell them what they want to hear, rather than deliver criticism or bad news. Hussein, for example, famously overestimated his weapons of mass destruction program because subordinates were frightened to share information about setbacks. It’s therefore not surprising that Angela Merkel, then the German chancellor, concluded in 2014 that Putin is living “in another world.”

This cocoon can contribute to foreign policy mistakes. Historically, personalists have been less likely to win the conflicts they get involved in than other kinds of governments, though their decision-making bureaucracies can help shield them from such mistakes. While Putin has made some shrewd strategic moves in the past, it could be that rising domestic repression has made it even less likely that he is receiving the information or advice he needs to make well-informed decisions.

Putin is gambling his future — and Russia’s

How does Russian oil fit into Putin’s calculations?

Russia’s oil wealth intensifies the problem of personalist rule and aggressive foreign policy. One of us coined the term “petro-aggression,” indicating the link between oil and war. It turns out that major oil-exporting countries like Russia, known as petrostates, are about 50 percent more conflict prone than non-petrostates, on average, and oil has played a role in 25 to 50 percent of recent wars.

Other petrostates with aggressive pasts include Iraq, Libya and Iran. Not every petrostate is conflict-prone, of course. Much depends on the leader’s preferences. When a leader is not interested in revising the status quo, there is nothing about oil that inherently leads to conflict.

In the hands of an aggressive or revisionist leader like Putin, however, oil can further reduce domestic political constraints. Oil money allows an autocrat to buy off domestic opposition, build a military machine and create a war chest to ward off sanctions. In that sense, Putin is following in the footsteps of other petrostate dictators like Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi. Oil and energy also helped set the 2014 political context for Putin’s invasion of Crimea.

Don't miss any of TMC's smart analysis! Sign up for our newsletter.

Making costs personal

The U.S. and its European allies have announced sanctions involving the SWIFT banking system — and some sanctions against Putin himself. It remains to be seen whether even these relatively strong sanctions will work on a personalist, petrostate regime.

In general, these kinds of leaders are unlikely to abandon the fight unless the costs of using force become personal. For example, research suggests sanctions work best against personalist regimes when they affect the leader’s welfare directly.

In the long run, potential sanctions that hurt Russia’s oil and gas sector could prove effective, for two reasons. First, such sanctions would undercut Putin’s ability to buy off opposition and fund his war machine, though declining oil revenue brings its own political risks. Second, this approach would gradually increase Europe’s energy security, as would much-needed investments in Europe’s energy infrastructure. Reducing harm to the global climate would be a side benefit of acting against Russia’s petroleum sector.

Of course, sanctions that are strong enough to change the mind of a leader like Putin are likely to hurt pocketbooks in the U.S. and Europe, as well — as President Biden warned the American public last week. Time will tell whether the West thinks that stopping a personalistic, oil-rich dictator from destabilizing Europe is worth those costs.

Professors: check out TMC’s classroom topic guides.

Jessica L.P. Weeks is professor of political science and H. Douglas Weaver chair in diplomacy and international relations at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She tweets at @jessicalpweeks.

Jeff D. Colgan is the Richard Holbrooke associate professor of political science at Brown University. He tweets at @JeffDColgan.