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In democratic countries, there tends to be great aversion to loss of life from military operations, and there are checks and balances that ensure a displeased populace has some capacity to vote in other candidates.

Former Australian Army General, Mick Ryan, says:

(Putin)'s certainly going to come under increased domestic pressure. He didn't level with the Russian people before this war and is still trying to hide many aspects of it from his own people.
But he will not be able to hide the increasing number of coffins from the young soldiers that will be coming home in their hundreds or thousands; that will put huge pressure on Putin.
Every autocrat has to look over his shoulder ... the pressure he will get from the Russian people, and indeed, from people in senior military and government positions, he will have to respond to that in some way.

From my limited historical knowledge of Putin and other autocrats, they do not seem to be affected by vast maltreatment of their citizenry, including causing high rates of unjustified deaths.

It therefore raises the question: do high human losses in war actually affect the job security of the head of state of an autocracy like Russia?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – CDJB
    Mar 17 at 11:03

7 Answers 7

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Almost all governments, both autocratic and democratic, rely on the non-resistance of the vast majority of the population. Even in a democracy, you will find a significant number of people who are neither for the government nor against it, they simply go along with the powers that be. The same kind of people go along with autocracies. Both a democracy and an autocracy will topple if those masses "wake up" and demand change. Compelling non-resistance out of the barrel of a gun takes more secret policemen than a state can afford for long. Compelling it out of fear of the secret police takes slightly fewer people, but it still takes significant resources.

In Russia's specific case, there is the Union of the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia, which the Russian government does not like in particular. But it contains too many peoples' mothers and grandmothers to lock them all up quietly. The Soldiers' Mothers remind contemporary Russians of the Afghanistan quagmire, which contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union.

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    I in principle agree but there seem to be historical counter-examples in Eastern Europe where uprisings were basically suppressed with military force (Czechoslovakia, Hungary, perhaps GDR). There is also Romania where people just killed their leader when they had the chance. Now you can argue that the opposition just wasn't adamant enough and people got too complacent again after a revolt, and that would be true. But there seems to be a spectrum of opposition on one side and a spectrum of how ruthless a government is willing to be, and a spectrum of corresponding outcomes. Mar 16 at 10:04
  • @Peter-ReinstateMonica, when the Soviet Union and the rest of the Warsaw Pacts suppressed those uprisings, it was a fraction of the power of a superpower against the people of a small power. Difference force ratios. There are more or less plausible estimates how much troops one needs for a counterinsurgency, they are all considerably higher than what most states spend on police.
    – o.m.
    Mar 16 at 17:34
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They can. However, historically, this pressure has almost never been significant enough to bring an immediate change of the government's course even in democracies.

The Vietnam War committed 3,000,000 Americans, left 60,000 of them dead, and killed ~2 million in total. The losses were obvious and highly publicized. The US is generally considered a democracy. Vietnam wasn't of any special significance to the American people.

The anti-war protests started in 1964. By 1967, the war was highly unpopular. In 1968, the president changed, but still didn't end the war. Overall, it took 12 years of warfare and 9 years of protests, with 6 of them widespread, to get someone to run on an anti-war platform again, win on it, and actually end the war in 1973.

For a war that is fought over something important, like a country that is of particular cultural or defensive significance to the belligerent, the threshold in losses that would turn the public opinion against the war is likely to be higher.

For an autocratic regime to step down, the threshold in both losses and protests is likely to be higher than for a democratic election to tilt towards the anti-war candidate.

The cost of a forceful takedown of an autocratic regime - a revolution - is extreme. The Russian Revolution took about 10 million lives. A new revolution might be less bloody. However, even the bloodless 1991 revolution in Russia resulted in a population reduction of 2 million over the next decade, and 5 million if time lag is accounted for.

From a strictly practical standpoint, this means that a revolution is only justified for the population if the expected losses from continuing the foreign war are even higher. World War I, largely responsible for the Russian Revolution, hit the Russian Empire with 2 million casualties, but was feared to cause a lot more. In strategic terms, the revolution ended up causing more harm than it prevented, including in territorial losses.

Some of the 1990s effect will happen in Russia either way due to the sanctions and corresponding economic downturn. Estimating this loss at 2 million, versus 5 million for a repeat of the 1991 revolution, would arrive at a threshold of ~3 million as intolerable.

//P.S. Cold math aside, I would hope it doesn't come to that. For modern wars, civilian casualties tend to exceed military ones, so you'd be looking at 8-figure total deaths in that scenario.

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  • Counter-example to "almost never any impact even in democracies": the botched US Iran embassy rescue mission. Mar 15 at 16:02
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica "Almost". And it's very unclear if Carter wouldn't have lost anyway. It was also more of a PR disaster than actual pressure caused by losses.
    – HK-51
    Mar 15 at 16:08
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    And Nixon campaigned on ending the war 3 year after the start of US combat involvement: Nixon continued with campaigning and discussion of the issues. He pledged to end the war in Vietnam, but would not go into detail, drawing some criticism. LBJ didn't even run. Mar 15 at 16:42
  • "In strategic terms, the revolution ended up causing more harm than it prevented, including in territorial losses." Saving lives or territory is not the reason for or purpose of a revolution. As you can see in Vietnam or now Ukraine it is also not (always) the reason or purpose of staging a "grass root" military defense. Both are at their core aiming to achieve or preserve a certain way of life, cultural, political, social. Mar 16 at 10:11
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    "The losses were obvious and highly publicized" The losses were highly publicized to distract the attention from the massacres of Vietnamese civilians. Something similar happened in Iraq.
    – FluidCode
    Mar 16 at 11:55
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Sometimes human losses put pressure on autocrats (see other answers), but sometimes not so much. As a school child I lived in USSR and can testify that George Orwell's 1984 is almost a documentary, as far as human behavior in a totalitarian regime goes.

In particular, I have doubts that Russia would rise en masse, for it has a history of epic suffering that led to only increased obedience, almost in a Stockholm Syndrome fashion. All Russian autocrats needed to do was to convince the population that the war they war waging was righteous, or that the hunger they were suffering was unavoidable, or that the millions being persecuted were traitor, something like that. When the autocrat has a complete control over information and perspective he directs human minds sufficiently well to ensure 90% support.

Putin's propaganda machine is well aligned with what his predecessors were doing. He has full control of the domestic media, he brands foreign media as "foreign agents" (read "provocateurs out to get us Russians"), he persecutes anyone who as much as doubts the official line, etc. For crying out loud, they just denounced Facebook as a terrorist organization! Most relevantly, the relentless propaganda machines brands Ukrainians as Nazis, including their Jewish president, and parallels the invasion of Ukraine with the righteous WWII against Nazis. There is no need for truth or logic or consistency in propaganda: if that's the only thing you are allowed to believe that's what 90% will believe, and the others will shut up out of fear, for the most part.

And, if Russians were to believe the propaganda, the body count is not that bad. USSR lost over 20 million in WWII. Brainwashing the population into accepting that this is the same would make losses in tens of thousands rather mild. So it is quite possible for a totalitarian autocrat to maintain support despite heavy losses. The analogy is not quite on point, for WWII was defensive and the war on Ukraine was an aggression, but recall that Soviet invasions of, say, Finland didn't produce any dissent, despite the unexpected heavy losses, which were even higher than in Ukraine today.

The hope here is that today's Russia, despite the autocracy, is not quite as totalitarian as USSR was. There is certain amount of information coming in; many people have travelled; many have relatives oversees they can talk to. Putin would have more difficulty dismissing the body count than Stalin did with Finland or Brezhnev did with Afghanistan. Nevertheless, with the relentless brainwashing by Russian media the body count alone won't be sufficient to topple him.

On the other hand, a defeat in Ukraine is likely to end his rule: that would demonstrate to his people that he is not as omnipotent and infallible as the Russian media claims he is. IMHO that's the reason he won't withdraw very easily, not without sufficient concessions from Ukraine that would allow him to declare victory domestically. Tens of thousands dead Russian soldier are less dangerous to his rule than a publicly acknowledged defeat.

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    Great answer. Worth noting that domestic independent press and individuals that have shown any degree of dissent have also been labeled as "foreign agents" and persecuted for quite a while here as well. A foreign donation of any amount of money or association with someone who has received any amount of money from abroad will do the trick as well. You don't have to be a foreign entity to be a foreign agent. All you gotta do is avoid dancing to putin's tunes and there you go, you're a "foreign agent" and you have the police sniffing out on your every step. It's a morbid farce.
    – William K
    Mar 16 at 2:19
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    Tens of thousands dead Russian soldier are less dangerous to his rule than a publicly acknowledged defeat. Probably the closest to the answer we'll get to. Mar 16 at 6:01
  • Totally agree. In particular, I agree that he will not stop until he gets enough results to feel victorious...
    – gbon
    Mar 16 at 16:14
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Yes.

Two examples that come to mind are the Falklands War, which was launched by Argentina's then military junta. They were gone soon after losing it.

Another is the USSR's long quagmire in Afghanistan. While it is certainly not the only thing that started the regime on the road to collapse, the timing, ending in 1989, after 30k deaths, coincides very neatly with the USSR's end.

In neither case were those governments directly threatened or impacted from the outside as a result of losing their wars - this was purely internal repercussions.

These regimes often tie their image down to strength and national honor which reduces their appeal when they lose, including to the armed forces who they depend on for power. Yes, a democratic government might very well lose an election after military setbacks, but a change of government is an integral part of democracies and the antithesis of totalitarian regimes.

Khrushchev was also ousted 2 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Wikipedia doesn't list as a factor for his removal but it "can't have helped": Soviet Premiers served for a long time, normally. This is a case of a loss-of-face rather than loss-of-lives, but the idea remains that botched foreign adventures can be costly.

Last, in the case of Putin, unlike the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, some/many of these deaths are going to be draftees. Whatever you think of America's foreign wars, the people fighting them had chosen soldiering as a profession (which was not true in Vietnam which also had more political cost).

p.s. Maybe I'm giving the impression that it's always a problem. It isn't: China took massive losses in the Korean War and Mao did just fine. Let's say instead that it can fragilize an already tipsy leader. In Mao: The Unknown Story, Chang and Halliday, Mao-haters extraordinaire, claim that the war was an opportunity to send dissidents and opponents to the front lines and get them killed.

Cuba also had some foreign interventions during the Cold War. Castro lived it out.

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  • It seems there are examples for and against the hypothesis of the question. I wonder how statistical significance these examples are then. Should basically every war be investigated to correlate the civilian deaths with the fate of the attacking government?
    – Trilarion
    Mar 15 at 21:53
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    @Trilarion Oh, yes, there are cases "for" and "against". But make no mistake "statistical" is an inherently fallible approach when the data set is so small (less than 20) and there are so many variables influencing a given outcome. It gives the appearance of thorough, scientific, investigation when the causes and effects are largely a matter of hypothesis. Which is why our oft-used "opinion-based" is sometimes overused - there is very little in politics that is not opinion based. Mar 15 at 22:00
  • Note that these are mostly examples of government stability being shaken by losing a war, rather than the number of lives lost. A dictatorship can cover up casualty rates, or portray them as a necessary sacrifice, but if they lose, they look weak and incompetent. Mar 16 at 7:38
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    @user3153372 Yes and no. Afghanistan was mostly a resource and men drain, not so much the final result, I think. Putin's current war is sustainable, short term. However a years-long insurrection a la Taliban with an occupying army taking constant losses would not necessarily be. And I did upvote Michael's remark for just that reason: many deaths are preferable, for an autocrat, than a straight out loss. Still, none of this is working out all that well for poor Vlad The Genius. Mar 16 at 9:08
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Usually the only thing that puts pressure on autocrats is men with guns, not the general public. Taking Russia's own history since the early 20th century:

  • The War of 1905 against Japan resulted in a humiliating victory with massive losses but it wasn't enough to dislodge Alexander II from power
  • World War I was extremely costly to Russia as well but this alone wasn't enough to cause the downfall of the czar
  • The Russian Revolution took several years and resulted in millions dead. It was driven by men with guns, not by common folk peacefully opposing the regime.
  • World War II resulted in 20+ million Russians dead but Stalin still remained in power until his death
  • The War in Afghanistan was another humiliation for Russia but the dissolution of the Soviet Union ended up primarily driven by low oil prices and Gorbachev's unwillingness to use the armed forces to brutally suppress the breakaway republics. If someone like Putin was in charge back in 1989 instead of Gorbachov, things might've ended up completely differently for the Baltic countries and in turn other republics would have a much harder time leaving the Union.
  • The First Chechen War resulted in Russia losing 5,000+ soldiers and Chechnya becoming defacto independent but Boris Yeltsin still won the 1996 elections. Note that Yeltsin wasn't planning to give up power peacefully - his backup plan was to declare a state of emergency and cancel the elections, so its quite possible that Zyuganov would've simply been jailed and denied the Presidency if the election went against Yeltsin.
  • The Second Chechen War resulted in 16,000+ casualties for the Russians but Putin still won the next elections easily.

Would the war in Ukraine be any different? This will be decided by men willing to take up arms against Putin, not the general populace. If his generals or closest advisors decide to arrest Putin, he is likely to lose power. If a violent enough protest emerges in Russia that the armed forces cannot stop, he will likewise be removed from the top. But other than that public opinion is irrelevant to Putin's hold on power and no amount of casualties in Ukraine could possibly change that.

Power is derived from monopoly on violence and only those holding the means to conduct violence can thus take up power. In rare cases in human history the power transfer was relatively peaceful (see the Velvet Revolution) but these are exceptional situations rather than the norm.

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    The Zar during the Russo-Japanese war was Nicholas II, and its loss was the major catalyst for the 1905 revolution (which did have profound consequences for the Russian Empire, and the attempt by the zar to ignore them was one of the catalysts of the 1917 February revolution, together with WWI which also caused the October revolution). So that's not a great example Mar 16 at 10:03
  • Even in countries without the Second Amendment no amount of power is able to withstand a wide-spread and sustained uprising of the populace. Sure: The people's determination must match the ruthlessness of the government. This is why the East German regime change wasn't bloody (the government, including the Soviets then, wasn't ruthless). But you simply cannot govern a people that is determined not to let you. Any government needs some level of cooperation. Mar 16 at 10:18
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    Another way to phrase that is to say that the ultimate power lies in the people -- not only in democracies. It's a bit like a school class that rebels or children in a family that stop cooperating: Both make their respective institutions come to a grinding halt. The governed have more power than they are typically aware of (thank goodness in the case of pupils or offspring!). That they aren't aware, or that the price they would have to pay for exercising it is too high, is the reason unpopular regimes, schools or families continue to work. Mar 16 at 10:21
  • @Peter the 1905 revolution failed to remove the czar from power precisely because it wasn’t bloody enough. The 1917 revolution did manage it but it took millions of lives. If the Russian people are willing to die by the millions in shoot outs against the army, Putin is done for. If his generals decide to use their power to arrest him, he’s done for. But those who are unwilling to take up arms or don’t control men who already have arms, are not a threat to Putin. Mar 16 at 15:48
  • @Denis “catalyst” or not, the czar and his supporters didn’t give up power easily. It took millions of Russian lives to fully end the monarchy. It would’ve never worked if the Russian people merely started a peaceful protest. This is also why the protest in Belarus was a failure - the people didn’t realize posters are useless when the other side is willing to shoot. Mar 16 at 15:50
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Of course human losses put a pressure on an autocratic regime. This is just an example.

However in an autocratic regime since most of the information is strictly controlled , it is very difficult to know how strong is the impact on the stability of the regime, and what is their capacity to withstand the impact.

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    I do not think the Mother of the Plaza de Mayo is a good example. Those were not protesting loses against a foreign power, but the victims of the repression by its own government.
    – SJuan76
    Mar 15 at 20:55
  • @SJuan76 Actually you are right, I didn't think a lot about it because I thought that some kind of pressure is always there, the difficulty to understand the strength of a regime is another issue that deserves a lot more attention.
    – FluidCode
    Mar 16 at 11:45
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No monarch rules alone. There is a group behind V.Putin whom he represents. Groups usually have less fixation and sticking to beliefs than individuals do.

Unfortunately, the interests of the group in power may not be perfectly aligned with the interests of soldiers dying in the battlefield or the interests of ordinary citizens who will suffer from the sanctions first. Still they likely do not want to weaken Russia, they started the war with the intention to make Russia more powerful.

As soon as they realize that friendly Russia is actually more powerful, they may think about stopping that nonsense. Without all economic sanctions that are now placed, with memberships now lost, with the respect from the world that lasted for 77 years and is now gone, with multiple international companies investing into they business there, could it be so that it was actually stronger, more powerful, more respected? Trying to imagine myself as a Russian nationalist that thinks about Russian safety and power, only Russian safety and power, nothing else that about Russian safety and power, I would still think now seriously that are the most optimal ways to achieve this.

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  • By friendly Russia do you mean friendly to the West?
    – convert
    Mar 16 at 22:43
  • Yes, with both Nord Stream gas pipes working
    – Stančikas
    Mar 17 at 9:15
  • In the 90s Russia was much more friendly to the West, but Russia was exact the oposite of powerful at that time.
    – convert
    Mar 17 at 12:17
  • Yes, the Perestroijka did not bring the expected economic growth. But it was the beginning, and I think the situation kept improving all the time since then. Canada wells were closed while USA kept importing Russian oil. German nuclear power stations were stopped while building gas pipelines under Baltic sea. Soyuz served as the only spacecraft for ISS. I assume, as this was for money? If this is not a wealth, respect and power, who is? Japan did not earn its current status in a year or two either.
    – Stančikas
    Mar 17 at 12:32
  • Perestroijka was in the 80s. In the 90s there was a huge deindustrialisation and even a dffault.
    – convert
    Mar 17 at 12:40

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