Why is the Russian bureaucracy failing in the face of war?

Vladimir Dubrovskiy[1]

Many observers wonder: why is Russia losing its war of aggression against a much smaller, poorer, and also patronal, Ukraine?

The matter is not only that the strictly vertically commanded Russian army is losing to the more decentralized army of Ukraine. The Russian state based on the same principle of a “vertical of power” also appears inept, especially when it comes to intelligence and now conscription.

Is this a systemic fault or rather a deviation from the norm in an otherwise capable vertical of power, a series of unforeseeable mistakes committed by the military command? There are at least two arguments in favor of viewing these problems as systemic and, as I shall argue below, their implications are gloomy when it comes to the question of regime radicalization.

The first one concerns general deficiencies of decision making in all kinds of hierarchical and authoritarian structures. It might be easier to make decisions in the absence of checks-and-balances, but efficiency comes at the expense of quality. Such verticals often lack reliable feedback mechanisms: information normally flows downwards relatively well, but not in the opposite direction, because reporting problems to an authoritarian boss can often be risky.

This is one of the possible explanations for the irrational Russian strategy at the beginning of Ukraine’s enhanced invasion. It may have happened that the intelligence services brought to Putin just the kind of information he had hoped for. As a result, the decision-maker could not imagine the real level of public support for Ukraine’s government and sovereignty, its army’s strength, and so forth. Besides, the decision-making time often increases with centralization due to subordination because the information should pass longer way to a decision-maker, and the decisions come through the same way back to their immediate addresses. In a more centralized system fewer people and intellectual resources are involved in decision-making, and those involved anticipate some resolution by the upper and, ultimately, the highest authority – all of which negatively affects the quality of decisions.

For these reasons, vertical systems often underperform and are disposed to lose when it comes to complex situations with high levels of uncertainty.

Although they tend to be effective in the implementation of decisions, they also make more mistakes, some of which can prove fatal. Betting his regime’s stability on success in a “small, victorious war” is probably no lesser a “mistake” of Putin than the fiasco of Nikolay the Second’s decision to instigate a war with Japan in 1905.

As many prominent military experts suggest, Ukraine army’s superiority on the battlefield is at least partly due to its less centralized structure and culture.

What we have observed, however, is that the Russian system appeared inept not only in its decision-making but, more surprisingly, in the implementation phase as well – exactly where a centralized bureaucracy should be expected to outperform any other forms of organization.

What has been wrong with it? A hint to the answer is that economically relatively successful autocracies can be found only in countries with already well-established, highly disciplined, and sufficiently meritocratic bureaucracy, such as Singapore or Chile. This has to do with the need to reliably transmit an autocrat’s power. If an effective chain of command is already in place for some historical reason, then such vertical bureaucracy can implement the ruler’s decisions in a sufficiently effective way – and do so just as well or even better than in the advanced liberal democracies. Only this kind of ruling elite could be successful in waging the wars, which used to be the most critical task of the state throughout most of mankind’s history.

From Chinese emperors of the 3rd century BC to Stalin, all the rulers preparing to wage large-scale wars had the main task of building such a bureaucracy, both civic and military. Conflict of interest was one of the main problems they had to overcome. They did so, not least by such “barbarian” methods as barring the officials from marriage or even employing only eunuchs in key positions of inspectors, etc., drafting the children out of their families and inculcating in them full obedience (as in the Ottoman Empire) or launching extremely cruel purges. Such processes took decades or more and succeeded only in some countries, perhaps due to the discipline already formed by previous centuries of historical paths.

In contrast, a patronal system is organized as an adopted political family, as dubbed by Bálint Magyar and Bálint Madlovics in their path-breaking book The Anatomy of Post-communist Regimes. Such a political family is an informal structure based on personal kinship and common material interest. It closely resembles a mafia and it can be rather successful in a certain set of activities beneficial to its members. When it comes to state governance, a selfish patronal elite will enthusiastically implement the policies necessary for the enrichment of its members at all levels, and lukewarmly implement some supportive ones that legitimize the rule of such a clan. Ideologies work as disposable tools for such regimes that may abandon all sorts of features, but not their greed.

Magyar and Madlovics called the respective autocracies “patronal” to distinguish them from ideology-based “conservative” ones. The main difference they identify is that a patronal elite, including its executive power, is by definition “hedonistic”, based on selfishness and self-interests, whereas a conservative autocracy is ideologically motivated. The people and, first, the elites are supposed to sacrifice for the sake of some “higher values”, which could actually be much worse than corruption from the humanistic perspective – like Nazi or Communist ones.

The structure of an executive in patronal regimes is still hierarchical, but it gets staffed and motivated according to different principles than under other types of political regimes.

Instead of selection by meritocratic and democratic procedures, or even by ideological devotion, all key positions are filled with the cadres that are personally loyal and obedient to their bosses, up to the most senior one. This does not necessarily mean that these cadres are incapable, unskilled, or greedy, but that is often the case. They are sometimes motivated with salaries. However, starting from a certain level in the hierarchy, the privilege they use most of all is invulnerability to normal criminal prosecution, and (in the case of law enforcement officers) the ability to protect from one. This allows such elites to be engaged in all kinds of corruption without punishment, so long as they obey the informal orders and do not cross implicit red lines in their criminal affairs.

Uncorrupt persons are, as a rule, not promoted to high positions because they are harder to control. As the British analyst John Lough put it, “the system is not corrupt, it runs on corruption.”

This explains why even a benevolent autocrat is doomed to failure in a country with a patronal system of state governance. He/she has no choice but to employ patronal mechanisms in the executive; they cannot effectively implement a truly sound economic program, because the latter necessarily includes measures undermining patronalism. How could such measures be implemented by officials whose first question after hearing a proposal will often be “what is my own interest in this?”

For these reasons, there cannot be a “Russian Lee Kuan Yew” or a “Ukrainian Pinochet.” There is no ready-to-use operational bureaucracy at the disposal of these countries’ rules, and its creation would require decades, if not centuries.

Not only a “benevolent autocrat”, but any ideology-based regime tasks its executive with orders on which they cannot make any money.

What happens if such orders are issued to the above-described patronal vertical, whose main motive remains material, as it is composed of characters selected or self-selected by greed? They, of course, can be motivated by a stick, which may work to a certain extent. What is even more likely is that they will either still find some ways of making money (like attempting to draft primarily wealthy men in anticipation of a bribe), which can create a mess; or they shall rebel, most likely, by an “Italian strike”. Their overall poor capabilities in performing a real job will add a lot to this. We thus see an inept and awkward state unable to fulfill its goals.

Transformation of a patronal autocracy into a conservative one, therefore, requires complete change in the elite’s composition. There is no way to make the elites, who came to power for mostly material reasons, refrain from hedonism.

The entire vertical should be overhauled with ideologically motivated ascetics and, at the same time, disciplined and well-trained bureaucrats, which is simply impossible, at least in a short run.

Thus, if a leader suddenly tries to change the nature of his regime and an attempt is made to replace it by an ideologically motivated one, the result will often be sour for the country. Quick collapse may follow.

This seems to be the case with Russian Federation, which used to be an iconic patronal autocracy led by a multi-billionaire, relying on highly corrupt elites composed mostly of oligarchs (some of whom are just his “wallets”), top managers of giant state-owned companies, such as GazProm, and so called siloviki – top officials of different state agencies endowed with “real force”, such as the police, army, secret service, and so forth. This regime was not without some ideological components, but they were mostly verbal, and in no sense required the elites to make actual sacrifices. For example, the anti-Western rhetoric and post-Soviet imperial resentment were in use for a long time. At the same time, elite children have been studying and living mostly in Western countries, including Putin’s own daughters. Their money was laundered and stored in Western banks, and their luxury yachts were parked in foreign waters too. Characteristically, even the staunchest anti-Western propagandists like Vladimir Solovyov or Dmitry Kiselyov had luxury villas in the most despised West.

With the beginning of military aggression against Ukraine in 2014 and especially since the start of an all-out war on Feb 24, 2022, Putin and his inner circle de facto started turning their regime into an ideological one. Russian elites were forced to sacrifice for the sake of ideology.

With the first wave of the invasion of Ukraine back in 2014, Putin “self-sanctioned” the most important categories of elites with bans imposed on placing the assets abroad, trade restrictions and, in some cases, even travel and the import of certain luxury goods. At the same time, as described by Russian liberal economist Andrei Yakovlev,[2] Putin started to scapegoat some elite members who were accused of (excessive) corruption. This probably resulted in some self-restraint when it comes to corruption at the middle level (but hardly closer to the top). Some elements of meritocracy, which were already present to a certain extent, especially in area of economic policy, were somewhat strengthened and expanded. At the regional level, a couple of the most impudent governors were scapegoated, the cadres reshuffled in a way that detached them from incumbent local elites, and the new performance indicators set to stimulate them to speed up growth.

The main question is to what end could these measures have de-patronalized the elites. It seems that they were hardly sufficient for changing their basic character simply because such overhauls work only top-down, starting from the famous “three imprisoned friends” mentioned by Lee Kuan Yew. “Imposing an ordnung” at the lower level without curbing corruption closer to the top tends to mostly create tension. (Note that previous attempts of applying the East Asian blueprint in economic policy failed miserably. The Russian economy failed to ride on the wave of growth that the global economy experienced between 2010 and 2020, and Putin’s approval ratings eventually started dropping even despite the short-term positive effect of the seizure of Crimea.)

In the first few months of the all-out invasion of Ukraine, Russian elites had to renounce even more. They lost access to their assets abroad and are very likely to lose those assets entirely; they find many components of their lifestyle embargoed; and can sense the coming of further purges. Many of them see their sources of rent shrinking either directly due to the sanctions, or because of the budget cuts stipulated for the upcoming years.

Moreover, to discipline his patronal network Putin has effectively stripped a few oligarchs (Oleg Tin’kov and Vagith Alekperov) of the main assets they had to sell for peanuts to designated buyers. Meanwhile, Novatec’s owner and a few top officials of GazProm-related companies were found cruelly murdered along with their families (unseen before) after being tortured – perhaps as a demonstrative punishment for disobedience.

Mobilization further exacerbated their losses. Now they can be drafted into the army and sent to the front. Of course, conscription can be waived for a bribe or favor, but this is still a sacrifice that members of the selfish patronage elite will not be willing to make. All of this adds a lot to the abovementioned intra-elite tensions and further deteriorates the incentive structure for the vertical’s members. The situation can change, however, if they start perceiving a threat as existential, just as it largely happened in Ukraine.  But unlike the latter, for which the full-scale war has come from aside, for Russia it was a matter of its leadership’s conscious choice that is to be blamed for it (and all respective sacrifices thereof), especially in case of failure.

It can be predicted that further “screw tightening” performed by either Putin or an even more radical, imperial chauvinist who might replace him would likely have the opposite effect of “stripping the thread.” Figuratively speaking, a screw press made of soft iron on the surface may look very similar to the one made of hard steel – a huge fearsome all-crashing tool. The difference, however, reveals itself when it comes to the crushing of some tough stuff: soft iron fails or even gets destroyed. As long as the material it is made of is unreliable, one should be very cautious in using such a tool, because the fiercer the effort applied, the higher the probability of a crash.

This fear might be the reason why Putin has resisted the idea of the draft for so long – he probably realizes the quality of his vertical. He eventually had to succumb to the radicals, and this may bring the end of his regime closer – not unlike Gorbachov’s “uskoreniye” (speeding up) of an already rotten planned economy that only made its days shorter. His eventual replacement by a more radical leader, or even an attempt at such a replacement, could produce an effect not unlike the failed military coup of August 19, 1991, in the USSR. The consequence could be further decay.

The outcome eventually depends on the actual success of the abovementioned policies aimed at strengthening of the bureaucracy. There are, conversely, several further questions to answer in this regard. To what extent has the RF evolved from patronal to ideologically motivated autocracy in the recent decade? More particularly, to what extent are key officials now motivated by their official salaries and ideology as opposed to personal enrichment made possible by the exercise of power? Where is the upper limit of sacrifice they can still tolerate for the sake of the ideology that they are indoctrinated with? For how long can they endure this sacrifice? And, last but not least, do they have a choice?

[1] The Author is a senior economist at CASE Ukraine.

[2] Andrei Yakovlev (2021): Composition of the ruling elite, incentives for productive usage of rents, and prospects for Russia’s limited access order, Post-Soviet Affairs, DOI: 10.1080/1060586X.2021.1966988

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