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Brown bag seminar | 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". Join the next SITE brown bag seminar to learn more!

Book title: Popular dictatorships: How Putin’s strongman legitimation fuels Russia’s war in Ukraine

By: Aleksandar Matovski

Based on a cross-national analysis of regime transitions and a comparative study of the prototypical case of Russia, I show 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. I demonstrate that in such contexts, incumbents with a reputation for 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, I argue that electoral autocracies must therefore sustain, or even manufacture crises that justify their existence – a dynamic recently exemplified by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Paper title: Russia’s regime-survival realism: How the quest to preserve Putinism drives Russian aggression

By: Aleksandar Matovski


A year since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s aggression has continued to defy the dominant realpolitik and ideological explanations of Russian conduct. Challenging these perspectives, I argue 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. This 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.

Read the paper to learn more >>

About the speaker

Aleksandar Matovski an Assistant Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. (...)

Matovski 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 National Security Advisor in the Government of North Macedonia.

Learn more about the speaker >>

Interested in attending the SITE brown bag seminar online via Zoom?

The link to the seminar will be distributed by invitation only. If you are interested in attending the online seminar – please contact site@hhs.se. Follow the instructions below:

  • Type the subject box with “Brown bag seminar *INSERT SEMINAR TITLE*”
  • Indicate your affiliation and field of interest

For registered applicants, a Zoom link will be provided prior to the event via email with further instructions.

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