Why Democracies Defeat Aggressive Autocracies

Aggressive Autocracies
Vladimir Putin and Sergei Shoigu at Navy Parade. Saint Petersburg, 30 July 2017.

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Why Democracies Defeat Aggressive Autocracies

Over the weekend the Ukrainian army turned the tide of the war with a successful counteroffensive. They secured about 1,000 square miles of territory. The successful attack has reshaped the fronts of the war. Of course, Russia still occupies significant territory in the East and South of the country. However, it raises new questions for how the war will unfold. Some now anticipate Ukraine will eventually expel Russian forces from its territory, while others believe Russia will regroup and secure its hold at least on the Donbas if not the Southern port cities.

According to some social scientists, Ukraine has a secret advantage. International relations theory has long argued democracies are less likely to fight one another. However, further research has examined wars between different regime types. Democracies do well in wars. They rarely initiate wars, but typically win the ones they do begin. Moreover, they also do well in wars when aggressive autocracies attack them. Indeed, it’s also more common for autocracies to attack democracies. Still, many autocratic nations do not attack democracies. The Soviet Union, for example, rarely entered wars directly and never openly attacked a democracy.

Jessica Weeks argues personalist regimes are the most aggressive regime type. Unlike democracies and even other autocratic regimes, rulers do not have any checks on their power. Moreover, they overestimate their capacity to initiate wars and underestimate the willingness of democracies to respond. She is not alone in her conclusions. Her research builds on past social science research with similar findings. So far the war between Russia and Ukraine has almost perfectly followed the literature on conflict between regime types. It’s likely this war will continue to follow social science theory to its ultimate conclusion. Russia overestimated its willingness to fight and Ukraine’s willingness to defend. Russia is destined to lose.

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