Jonah Bennett

Palladium Magazine editor/entrepreneur/graduate student

Jonah Bennett

Autocracies And Counterinsurgency Success


Autocracies have a historical reputation for counterinsurgency (COIN) success over their democratic counterparts, because autocracies are claimed to be less popularly accountable and democracies far less willing to resort to brutal tactics. For example, Russia, an autocratic state, has a shockingly successful COIN record.

So, what are the causal mechanisms generating this posited COIN superiority of autocracies? I think the basic framing of the question isn’t quite right. In particular, I don’t think that regime type is not the most salient variable in determining Russian COIN success in the two most recent Chechen Wars for three reasons. First, the empirical work on counterinsurgency and regime type is too mixed to come to any firm conclusions. Second, autocracies are not as unaccountable as commonly held. Third, democracies are not as violence-constrained as assumed. Instead of being a function of regime type, COIN success seems much more contingent on the use of a regime-agnostic “coercive” COIN toolkit. In other words, both autocracies and democracies can be successful at COIN, so long as they meet basic thresholds of state and military capabilities and use the right toolkit. I chose the First Chechen War because it notably failed to achieve stability or a lasting settlement and so requires explanation: did Russia make effective use of the coercive COIN toolkit? Did that even matter one way or another? And I chose the Second Chechen War because Russia’s COIN efforts succeeded through the use of the coercive COIN toolkit, particularly via media control, extreme force, and local elite cooptation.

Before addressing Russian COIN performance in these two wars, it’s important to briefly establish some more general, theoretic points about the relationship between regime type and COIN success. Despite numerous empirical attempts at solving the question, there does not seem to be a strong relationship between regime type and counterinsurgency success. As Jason Lyall puts it, “democracies do struggle to defeat insurgents—but not because they are democracies. Rather, a new model forwarded by Jacqueline Hazelton suggests that COIN success is largely a function of the actions and satisfaction of elites, in addition to a liberal use of force against both insurgents and civilians. Hazelton refers to this model as the coercive conception of COIN, as opposed to the good governance conception, which focuses on government reform along liberal democratic lines, satisfying the population, and very limited use of force. In contrast, elements like repression, intelligence penetration and information operations, population transfers and ethnic cleansing, mass indoctrination and limiting war weariness, limited reforms, and cooptation are key elements of the coercive toolkit. Both autocracies and democracies have made use of the coercive toolkit historically, though autocracies much more so and democracies much less so in recent years, which confounds the analysis when looking at regime type as a variable—not to mention other variables involved in COIN success, such as strength of the counterinsurgent state, foreign insurgent support, and troop levels, etc.

There are two common assumptions in the counterinsurgency literature, namely that (1) autocracies are generally more successful at counterinsurgency because they are less accountable than democracies, and further that (2) democracies are more violence-constrained because of respect for human rights and structural factors. Both points are questionable. First, accountability mechanisms in autocracies are surprisingly robust. Sebastian Rosato found that that autocratic leaders are just as likely as liberal democratic leaders to be removed from power after losing a war (Rosato, 2003, p. 594). Moreover, roughly 30 percent of autocratic leaders were either imprisoned, killed, or exiled upon loss of a war, while liberal democratic leaders experienced no punishment at all (Rosato, 2003, p. 594). More specifically, in costly wars, defined as one fatality per 2,000 people, autocratic leaders lost power in 35 percent of cases and were punished in 27 percent. On the other hand, liberal democratic leaders only lost power 27 percent of the time and were punished at a rate of 7 percent (Rosato, 2003, p. 594). Other research has shown that voters in democratic societies tend to prioritize economic concerns far above other issues like war when punishing or rewarding incumbents (Lewis-Beck & Stegmaier, 2000, p. 211). On the second point, the “hearts and minds” approach currently associated with the good governance toolkit traces its roots back to British counterinsurgency in Malaya from 1948-1960 (Stubbs, 2008, p. 113). But in fact, the British borrowed strongly from the coercive toolkit during the Malaya campaign, and at the time, hearts and minds was understood very differently from its current interpretation. As historian Hew Strachan notes, “When we speak about ‘Hearts and minds’, we are not talking about being nice to the natives, but about giving them the firm smack of government. ‘Hearts and minds’ denoted authority, not appeasement. Of course, political and social reform might accompany firm government” (Strachan, 2007, p. 8) Moreover, Ashley Jackson states that in colonial campaigns, the British “used methods more likely to be found in a police state or feudal monarchy than a liberal democracy” (Jackson, 2006, p. 12). In Malaya, the British engaged in a number of tactics belonging to the coercive toolkit: 500,000 people resettled by force, mass arrests, 10,000 people deported, arson against communist sympathizers, collective punishment, the Batang Kali massacre, and a censorship regime, among other extremely coercive measures (Dixon, 2009, p. 368). That Britain was a democracy did not impede its use of the coercive toolkit. The British in the Boer War and in Kenya also used significant repression, leading Christopher Boer to conclude in his extensive study of 20th century British military practices that minimum force should not be listed as a component of classical British COIN doctrine (Boer, 2013 , p. v). Given that the common stories and mechanisms for autocratic performance and democratic underperformance are not as strong as assumed, regime type as the key variable is less plausible.

Russia’s counterinsurgency track record is strong. According to the Lyall-Wilson dataset, Russia’s counterinsurgency success rate stands at 85.7 percent (Zhukov, 2011, p. 12), with the Soviet-Afghanistan intervention and the First Chechen War as notable exceptions to the trend. While Russia lost the First Chechen War (it concluded in a stalemate and weak peace agreement), it decisively won the second (Matejova, 2013, p. 11). Failure in the First Chechen War came not because of some major defect in the coercive toolkit, but because state capacity was severely weakened and disorganized after the fall of the Soviet Union (Lieven, 1998, p. 2), factors which are upstream of any toolkit. It is not the case that a weak state and limited military capabilities can make use of an effective COIN toolkit and come out on the other end with a win. Once Russia had recovered, however, it won the Second Chechen War, using tactics like media control, extreme force, and cooption.

The North Caucuses, which include regions like Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia, have historically been sources of insurgency and trouble for Russia, exemplified in the first and second Chechen Wars of 1994-96 and 1999-2009 (Cohen, 2014, p. 1). The impetus of the first Chechen War dates back to 1991, when Chechnya declared independence immediately after the Soviet Union dissolved, and as such has been referred to as a “war of communist secession” (King, 2001, p. 164). Russia first deployed its forces to combat Chechen separatism in 1994. In December of that year, the Russian military obliterated Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, with the largest shelling operation seen since World War II (Janeczko, 2012, para. 7). Once Russian troops reached Grozny, Chechen rebels, operating in units of three to five, executed near perfect guerrilla tactics, including laying mines and IEDs, sniper warfare, surface-to-air missiles, and ambushes. The Chechens were also well-armed, having plundered old Soviet weapons stockpiles (Hodgson, 2003, p. 68). Such effective urban warfare and ambush tactics immediately deflated the overconfident boasts of Pavel Grachev, the Minister of Defense, who declared that a regiment of Paratroopers could end the Chechen insurgency in two hours (Siren, 1998, p. 110). Instead, the Russians immediately lost 100 vehicles, and within a month had lost 1,520 soldiers (Miakinkov, 2011, p. 659). After two months, Russia had taken most of Chechnya, at which point Chechen insurgents melted into the mountains, regrouped, and wore down Russian troops with ambushes until they had recaptured Grozny from the Russians by April 1996 (Cohen, 2014, p. 24). Russian soldiers during the campaign suffered from poor training, poor nutrition, old equipment, almost no health care, and long delays in receiving wages, all of which were reflective of limited Russian state capacity at the time (Kramer, 2004/2005, p. 16). Additionally, the Russian military lacked a sufficient number of soldiers in the first place. There was no professional NCO corps, and a majority of Russian troops were highly inexperienced conscripts (Meakins, 2017, para. 15), who had no idea what their mission even was (Renaud, 2010, p. 50). All of these factors led to poor morale and poor performance, according to Russian military commanders, which especially impaired effective fighting in mountainous regions of Chechnya (Kramer, 2004/2005, p. 18). Such lack of support created space for Russian troops to engage in corrupt behavior, namely through accepting bribes from Chechen insurgents to move through checkpoints unmolested and gain access to sensitive facilities (Kramer, 2004/2005, p. 18). As Eugene Miakinkov notes, “The Russian campaign was derailed from its course not necessarily due to the nature of the enemy it encountered, but rather due to the sum product of inherent constraints placed on the conventional army by its internal practices and the impotence of the state” (Miakinkov, 2011, p. 662). Comparatively, Chechen guerillas had a coherent political vision, strong morale, better training, and were well-fed (Miakinkov, 2011, p. 659). They had been training for a Russian invasion for three years (Renaud, 2010, p. 50). Moreover, their morale was boosted even further by Western journalists having unfettered access to the region, resulting in a collapse in public support back in Russia for the war (Oliker, 2001, p. 34). At its conclusion, the war resulted in the deaths of 30,000 Chechens and 4,500 Russian soldiers at absolute minimum (Pain, 2001, p. 7). Much of the country was destroyed, and Russian troops were forced to pull out in 1996. The Khasavyurt ceasefire accord formally signed on May 12, 1997, failed to hold. Ariel Cohen describes the loss in painful detail: “The First Chechen War was a spectacularly demoralizing defeat for the Russian political leadership and the Russian military, which itself was undergoing an identity crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union” (Cohen, 2014, p. 29).

In contrast, the Second Chechen War, which spanned from 1999-2009, was an impressive success, despite Russia’s unpalatable use of the coercive toolkit, which according to a RAND Corporation study included “both collective punishment and escalating repression… and arbitrary personalistic government rule” (RAND, 2016, p. 3). This was accomplished through several means: media control, extreme force, and local elite cooptation. Of those three tactics, the militarily weak Russians opted only for extreme force in the First Chechen War. Moreover, during the first war, the Russian state had little control over domestic media coverage, as the era of post-Soviet media lifted speech restrictions and gave citizens the right to establish private media, which the Chechens took advantage of. That changed in the Second Chechen War. The Russian government focused on regaining control of war messaging by blocking NGOs and journalists from access to unfavorable sources. Russian President Vladimir Putin framed the war as an antiterrorist effort against radical Islam, as opposed to an attempt to block Chechen independence (Cohen, 2014, p. 40). According to Stephen Shulman, this effort succeeded in painting Chechen secessionists as criminals, which had the effect of shoring up domestic support for Russia’s COIN campaign (Shulman, 2001, p. 113). This was crucial. Russian generals felt that in the First Chechen War, the crumbling of national will was an important factor that led to defeat (Ucko, 2016, p. 39). As such, this time around, Russian media outlets were banned from airing defeats or footage of Russian soldiers looting (Renaud, 2010, p. 118-119). Additionally, the Russian government aggressively filtered what information foreign broadcasters were allowed to show the Russian public (Renaud, 2010, p. 118). With control of the media, civilian casualties ceased to matter to the Russian public (Gerber & Mendelson, 2008, p. 66). The media campaign was also directed at Russian soldiers, who were forced to attend propaganda sessions and read anti-Chechen leaflets which boasted of Russian heroism in an effort to increase esprit de corps and general morale (Janeczko, 2012b, para. 2). This public relations campaign was successful.

Although both wars featured extreme use of force, in the Second Chechen War, Russian troop deployments and tactics changed. New orders focused on avoiding direct urban combat and increasing the number of punishing air sorties and artillery strikes, which devastated both Chechen insurgents and civilians. Overwhelming firepower actually had the effect of increasing village cooperation with Russian troops, as elders were desperate to cut ties with insurgents, so as to stop the shelling (Miakinkov, 2011, p. 669). This is borne out by empirical evidence. Jason Lyall determined that villages that were shelled experience a 24% drop in insurgent attacks (Lyall, 2009, p. 357). Moreover, the Russian military sent 100,000 troops to Chechnya, nearly double the figure of the first war. When the Russians took Grozny again, they made sure to send aircraft to cut off insurgents retreating back into the mountains, racking up a large kill count (Renaud, 2010, p. 90). While the Russians still lacked training and proper equipment as they did in the first war, media control, boosted troop levels, and superior tactical execution made up for these deficiencies, along with a successful policy of Chechenization (Renaud, 2010, p. 127).

The Russian policy of Chechenization is a form of cooption by which the Russian state bought off local leaders and largely transferred responsibility for the conflict into the hands of the Kadyrovtsy (Ratelle & Souleimanov, 2016, p. 1287-1288). Cooption has not had a particularly successful history in Chechnya, though Russia’s attempt during the Second Chechen War has paid off in spades: first, Russian troop casualties have plummeted. Second, empowerment of local Chechen forces has allowed Russia to wash its hands of human rights abuses and brutality. Third, Chechen insurgents have remarkably been contained (Dannreuther & March, 2008, p. 98). In March 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared Akhmad Kadyrov head of Chechnya, as part of an attempt to divide and conquer the Chechnyan elite. The attempt worked, despite the fact that Akhmad had bitterly fought Russia during the first war. Akhmad was assassinated in 2004, but his son Ramzan continued the agreement after receiving personal security assurances and significant funds to rebuild the region (Matejova, 2013, p. 12). To cement the legitimacy of the Kadyrovtsy, the Russian government spent $27 billion dollars on redevelopment in Chechnya from 2000 to 2010 (Shaefer, 2011, p. 281). In exchange, Ramzan has elected not to challenge Putin’s authority and instead has pledged full loyalty (Ratelle & Souleimanov, 2016, p. 1304). This personal relationship between Putin and Ramzan has allowed Russian troops over time to be replaced by Kadyrovtsy units, which are much more effective and have better access to intelligence (Ratelle & Souleimanov, 2016, p. 1299), as there are ordinarily language, clan, and religious barriers to Russian troops gathering intelligence. Jason Lyall found that the sweeps by Kadyrovtsy forces of insurgent areas resulted in 40% fewer subsequent insurgent attacks, compared to similar sweeps conducted by Russian troops (Lyall, 2010b, p. 2). The difference between Russian-endorsed leadership in Chechnya, as opposed to other local partners in liberal democratic counterinsurgencies, is that for Russia, Ramzan’s authoritarian methods of rule and repression are a feature, rather than a bug. And indeed, Ramzan has made liberal use of torture and disappearances (Russell, 2008, p. 665-69). Russia’s standard for legitimacy does not mandate liberalism or elections, but stability, control, and effective COIN. With a clear media policy in play, carefully planned and updated tactics of extreme force, and a successful cooptation strategy, the Russian military remarkably controlled most of Chechnya within a year of the campaign (Renaud, 2010, p. i), though a substantial force still had to grapple with the problem of sporadic terror attacks. Russian troops officially withdrew from Chechnya in 2009, leaving behind a fairly stable, though economically underdeveloped, Chechnya (Matejova, 2013, p. 9), with the crucial assistance of the Kadyrov faction, an important element in a religious, clan-based society.

Russia’s largely successful counterinsurgency record is not because of its status as an autocratic regime. As shown, the statistical relationship between regime type and COIN success is indeterminate. This might be due to the fact that although the toolkit is regime-agnostic, it does have a temporal dimension to it, in the sense that democratic powers made use of it in the 19th century and a large part of the 20th century, but progressively dropped it in favor of the good governance toolkit. Moreover, the specific mechanisms posited as responsible for autocratic success and democratic failure are highly questionable. Rather, its success is more directly due to use of the coercive COIN toolkit, which featured prominently in the Chechen Wars, as opposed to the good governance toolkit. Although Russia lost the First Chechen War, it lost because of its disorganization and weakness after the fall of the Soviet Union. It simply was not strong enough to fully pacify Chechnya’s breakaway efforts. In the Second Chechen War, that problem had been solved. A stronger and much more organized Russian state made use of the same coercive toolkit to decisively win, using a strict media policy, updated tactics and extreme force, and local cooptation. Autocracies do not win at COIN because they are autocracies. They win because they possess baseline fundamentals (robust state and military) and employ the coercive toolkit, which democracies have shied away from in recent decades.   


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