Last weekend saw the re-election of the man often thought of as Europe’s proto-Putin: Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister who has attacked his country’s democracy while seeking to weaken the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization from within.
Yet Orban should be careful whom he emulates. If Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent performance is any indication, he has fallen victim to the dictator’s disease — the tendency for absolute power to heighten the propensity for catastrophic miscalculation.
The course of the war in Ukraine has repeatedly demonstrated this malady. The main Russian attack against Kyiv has failed, at a devastating cost in men and materiel. Moscow is scrambling to salvage a victory by pounding Ukraine’s industrial base, murdering its citizens and repositioning for new attacks in the east. As recent reporting confirms, this debacle was the product of multiple misjudgments at the very top.
Putin fatally underestimated Ukraine’s will and capacity to resist. He overestimated the Russian armed forces. He ignored the prospect that a full-scale invasion might elicit the fury of the West. He assumed that military action would produce another low-cost victory, as it earlier had in Georgia, Crimea and Syria.
Putin thus launched his country into an ill-planned endeavor with tremendous risks and little chance of success.
All leaders make mistakes, but history suggests that long-tenured authoritarians are particularly susceptible. These leaders become more isolated from their advisers and less tolerant of dissent. They hollow out state institutions by filling them with acolytes and amateurs. They become intoxicated with myths of their own greatness, with all the numbing of the critical faculties that follows. Putin is hardly the first tyrant to make such mistakes.
The fact that Hitler had repeatedly triumphed over long odds between 1936 and 1940, and in the process stocked his government with sycophants, encouraged him to gamble and lose everything by declaring war with the Soviet Union and the US The cult of personality that Mao Zedong cultivated made it easier to launch China on manmade cataclysms — the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution — that caused untold economic and human carnage.
Saddam Hussein’s penchant for murdering advisers who challenged him helped ensure that his serial miscalculations drove Iraq from disaster to disaster. Putin, who has now spent 20 years making Russia a personalistic dictatorship, is taking his country down the same path.
Russia’s systematic killing and abuse of citizens in occupied areas of Ukraine show how far the process has gone. In the wake of these revelations, Russian state media published an essay echoing Putin’s outlandish branding of the Ukrainian government as a Nazi regime and calling for the use of mass executions and forced labor to “denazify” the country. If an all-powerful leader believes or says something ridiculous, subordinates have little choice but to embrace the delusion — and even make it the ideological basis for large-scale atrocity.
The dictator’s disease is bad news for Russia: The Ukraine war may end in economic and military ruin for Moscow. Yet a powerful state, led by a brutal but bumbling leader, can create no shortage of grief for the rest of the world. And if Putin’s judgment is slipping, there is also cause to worry about his fellow Eurasian autocrat, China’s Xi Jinping.
Xi, like Putin, has spent many years in power. He has purged nearly anyone who might be a threat, let alone a peer. The space for dissent, inside and outside of government, is narrowing, as “Xi Jinping Thought” and other aspects of the personality cult become pervasive.
The consolidation of Xi’s control has accompanied a more aggressive foreign policy, including threats of war, and has resulted in the alienation of many of the world’s advanced democracies. Even Beijing insiders are worrying, sometimes obliquely and sometimes less obliquely, that Xi’s one-man rule and international belligerence are hurting the country’s prospects.
Misjudgment would be most dangerous in the Taiwan Strait. Xi has ordered the People’s Liberation Army to build the capabilities for a possible assault on Taiwan, and the PLA has made remarkable strides. But who knows if the PLA leaders are willing to anger the boss by offering him a candid assessment of the military’s lingering weaknesses and the risks of attacking Taiwan — or if Xi is willing to listen to them?
And what if Xi, who is positioning himself as ruler for life while declaring that Taiwan’s anomalous status cannot persist for another generation, has come to conflate his own perceived greatness with that of the Chinese state?
Bad judgment catches up with countries and rulers eventually, just as it is catching up to Putin today, and perhaps with Xi and Orban next. What happens in the meantime is rarely good for anyone. The specter of the cunning, aggressive strongman has long been haunting American strategists. Yet the autocrat whose judgment has been dulled by his own unchallenged authority is menacing enough.