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Popular Dictatorships: How Putin’s Strongman Legitimation Fuels Russia’s War in Ukraine

On 17 April, prof. Aleksandar Matovski will discuss his book “Popular dictatorships: How Putin’s strongman legitimation fuels Russia’s war in Ukraine” along with his paper “Russia’s regime-survival realism: How the quest to preserve Putinism drives Russian aggression”.

In his book, Aleksandar Matovski shows that electoral autocracies – the most widespread type of non-democracy today – are largely the product of distinct opinion currents that emerge in the wake of profound political, economic and security crises. He also demonstrates that in such contexts, incumbents with a reputation for an effective, strong-armed rule, gain decisive advantages in popular appeal over their competitors. This allows them to establish and sustain authoritarian rule through the ballot box and with minimal resort to coercion, thus conferring a veneer of electoral legitimacy. Fear of renewed instability, in turn, deters voters from challenging the regime through voting and public protest, enabling even poorly performing autocracies to survive. This legitimation strategy has a key limitation, however: electoral authoritarianism becomes unnecessary both when it succeeds and when it fails in its mission of stabilization. To maintain popular consent to their rule, the author argues that electoral autocracies must therefore sustain, or even manufacture crises that justify their existence – a dynamic recently exemplified by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In his paper, he argues that the kleptocratic, personalist Putin regime lacks genuine programmatic convictions, and is too preoccupied with domestic survival to launch wars for ideological or geopolitical reasons. His research article claims that instead, the main purpose of Russia’s aggression has been to justify Vladimir Putin’s brand of authoritarianism at home. Drawing on insider accounts of Kremlin decision-making and studies of Russian popular opinion over the past 23 years, the article shows that the Putin regime has become increasingly dependent on conflict to defuse internal dissatisfaction with its rule. This dependence has worsened after the 2022 Ukraine invasion fiasco, making the Kremlin more desperate and prone to escalate. To contain the Russian aggression, the article argues that Western responses must be calibrated to target its regime preservation purpose – particularly ahead of Russia’s high-stakes presidential election in 2024.

About the Speaker

Aleksandar Matovski is an Assistant Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is also an Associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. Matovski holds a PhD and MA in Government from Cornell University, MA in War Studies from King’s College London and BA in Law from Saints Cyril and Methodius University, Skopje. Prior to his academic career, he was the National Security Advisor in the Government of North Macedonia.

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