Ukraine fighting Russian Goliath: Why dictators are so bad at war


It should come as no surprise that Russia is struggling to make headway in its war with Ukraine. 

History is replete with Davids defeating seemingly more powerful Goliaths. In fact, historically, Davids won more than 40 percent of their wars. These cases often share common features. Successful Davids are usually much more motivated and much more democratic than Goliath. 

Analysts gave Ukraine scant chance to hold off Russia’s much larger military, thinking that the war might last as little as four or five days. That commonly held expectation was probably based on Russia’s vastly larger military expenditures, manpower and economy compared to Ukraine — but that is the wrong comparison. It may look like an apples-to-apples comparison but in fact it is not. We need to know what the money is spent on.

An important difference between governments as they become more democratic or more autocratic is the extent to which military budgets promote national security or, instead, provide opportunities for corruption and kleptocracy. In democracies, where essential backers make up a large portion of the adult population, it isn’t possible to rule through bribery and corruption. Good policy is needed. In autocracies, where leaders need far fewer supporters, corruption is the currency of political success.

No one rules alone; not Russia’s Vladimir Putin, not China’s Xi Jinping, not North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and certainly not any freely elected leader. But freely elected leaders need vast numbers of votes while leaders like Putin retain power as long as a small coterie of supporters are loyal. The counters of votes, the people regulating who can run for office, those who control the money and/or the guns are the ones who matter for bringing and sustaining an autocrat in office. Why does that matter for the war in Ukraine? 

The political incentives dictate that Ukraine fights harder than Russia. In the relatively democratic Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky needs support from many people, each of whom can only expect small privileges. If Ukraine loses, then Zelensky is deposed and his relatively numerous backers lose the few privileges and perks they get. Better for them to give up some of their perks now in order to increase Ukraine’s chance of victory. 

The political calculus is much different in Russia because Putin has eroded democracy to the point that his political survival depends on the support of a small group of oligarchs and bureaucrats rather than the people. Putin could increase spending to ensure victory but wisely he is following the age-old advice of the 6th century BCE military adviser, Sun Tzu: He emphasized that it is more important for a dictator (like his king, or Putin) to worry about rivals at home than to repeatedly refill supply wagons. 

Putin spends a lot on Russia’s military. What is he buying with all of that money? Russia’s military budget is a great place to hide true expenditures. Money is readily (mis)directed to enrich loyal generals and defense contractors instead of training and equipping soldiers to be effective in battle. That is why the tires fail on Russian rocket launchers, tanks run out of fuel and commanders have no ability to communicate in secret. A democratic leader’s military spending must emphasize defense if he or she is to survive politically. That is why the equipment Zelensky gets from NATO nations actually works.

Ukraine of course is not the first democratic David to make life tough for Goliath. Many were surprised by Israel’s success in 1967 and 1973 against the Egyptian-led Goliath. Indeed, many were surprised by the American colonies’ victory against the behemoth of their time: Great Britain. The story today may not end as happily for Ukraine as it did for 18th-century America but it is essentially the same tale. Just before the war, Ukraine spent about the same percentage of its GDP on defense as Russia did but, of course, its GDP is only one-eighth the size of Russia’s. Ukraine’s military budget goes to good training, planning and armaments and, as we have seen, that is much less true in Russia. Good fighting abilities go hand-in-hand with democracy, not because their soldiers are inherently superior but because their government leaders suffer electorally if many soldiers are killed. Autocrats, like Putin, stay in office not because they are popular with the masses but because they are popular with their few essential cronies.

Of course, strong motivation combined with the good use of military expenditures are not always sufficient to turn the tide of battle. But the combination of motivation and democracy allow Davids to fight way above their weight class.

China’s Jinping would do well to learn the important lesson of the war in Ukraine. He too spends hugely on the military and runs a highly corrupt, autocratic state. His best path to integrating Taiwan into China lies in democratization and the genuine elimination of autocratic corruption. He, like any Goliath, should be wary of picking on any democratic, motivated David!

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith are professors of politics at NYU and the authors of “The Dictator’s Handbook.”

Tags Alastair Smith Autocracy Bruce Bueno de Mesquita Democracy dictator fighting Kim Jong Un Military National security Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin War

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