In the next class we will discuss how domestic political institutions (democracy/dictatorship) affect the propensity for war. The two papers on the syllabus try to explain why democratic countries rarely fight one another: Bueno de Mesquita et al (1999): An Institutional Explanation of Democratic Peace and Debs and Goemans (2010): Regime Type, the Fate of Leaders, and War. But what do these papers say about Putin’s military intervention in Crimea?
Bueno de Mesquita et al argue that dictators often start wars because they risk little if defeated. A dictator’s ability to stay in power depends more on his ability to provide private goods to key supporters than his/her ability to provide public goods. The authors argue that victory in war is a public good – it benefits the entire population. In this case, dictators’ survival in office depends little on whether they fight and win a war. So dictators put less effort into fighting war than their democratic counterparts because they have no big incentives to win. As a result, dictators rarely start conflicts against democracies. So why did Putin intervene in Ukraine, risking conflict with the democratic Western backers of the new regime in Kiev?
Putin’s actions are even more puzzling in light of Debs and Goemans’ research. In contrast to the previous paper, Debs and Goemans find empirically that defeat in a conflict is punitive for dictators: it makes dictators less likely to stay in power; furthermore almost half of ousted dictators face significant punishment (exile, jail or death). In this context, dictators tend to only gamble on war if peace would result in concessions which would diminish their ability to stay in power. But this theory does not fit Putin’s actions entirely. Putin was not facing a choice between costly concessions and war: he could have stayed out of Crimea and maintained peace without any concessions.
Together the two papers imply that Putin must have been confident of being successful in Crimea despite the likely opposition from democratic countries, and/or perceived a large benefit in terms of domestic survival from controlling Crimea. What is this benefit? Will his gamble pay off?