Introducing: the ambition-to-competence ratio in kleptocracies

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has inspired me to come up with an interesting theoretical concept. I'll lay it out first, and then try to explain the reasoning behind it and how it can be used to explain potential outcomes of Russia's Ukraine invasion. 
The ambition-to-competence ratio of government officials is an exponential function of the kleptocracy level of a country. It is best defined as ambition plus loyalty divided by one’s intrinsic level of competence: 

A-C ratio = (ambition + loyalty ) / intrinsic competence 

In high-level kleptocracies, where the government is completely subdued to a ruling elite looking to expropriate wealth of the country they govern (e.g. the dictator and his cronies, oligarchs, or the military), government officials rise in rank based on their ambition and their loyalty. Their competence is inversely related to their rank in government. 

This means that in kleptocracies it is possible (and even desirable) to move up the hierarchy purely based on ambition and loyalty. In fact, if your competence grows, you decrease your chances of rising to the top. You must either conceal your competence or have high enough loyalty to offset it. 

In countries with low kleptocracy levels, your competence has to be high enough to work as a public official, meaning that the ambition-to-competence ratio in non-kleptocracies is low. This doesn't necessarily imply that public officials in non-kleptocracies are all of high competence. It only means competence plays a more important role when they rise through the ranks. 

Why the convex relationship? Because high ambition combined with a lack of competence is ideal for kleptocratic environments. Incompetent individuals cannot reach the top in just societies, regardless of their ambition or loyalty. They can hope to get, at best, to the middle of a hierarchy, but not the top. In kleptocracies there is no limit to how high you can go. Putin is a prime example. A government official with enough ambition and loyalty to get close to high office, seizing his opportunity to take full power. He is not an incompetent individual, so he hides his competence enough or has to compensate with enough ambition and/or loyalty to offset the effect of the denominator.

How Putin’s golden cage of power is closing in on him

Ok, got it. But what's this got to do with Ukraine? I have no intention of going into geopolitics, or doing a psychological deconstruction of Putin. I purely wish to examine the power relations behind Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.

Based on the massive news coverage of the invasion, I can’t help at noticing a pattern emerging behind the reasons as to why it happened. A pattern that tries to rationalize the reasons behind the invasion.

People are seeking answers, obviously. But in that quest for answers amidst a cacophony of explanations, judgments get easily clouded by bias. The first response by many - taken aback by the decision to invade - was that Putin had lost his mind, that he is in the late stages of Hitleresque madness, albeit more dangerous given his access to nuclear weapons. Then came the ex-post rationalizations with the benefit of hindsight. A dictator turned himself into a monster. He was always aiming for Ukraine, it was obvious. Putin’s KGB-induced Cold-War-driven hatred and resentment towards the West aims to revive the glory of the Soviet Union, and Ukraine is only the first step towards further military expansion. Putin is doing all this to send a message to NATO that any expansion into the Ukraine is unacceptable to Moscow. And so on. All these narratives are viable, perhaps even true, but not for the obvious reasons one might think.

Allow me to present my own biased judgment.

The propaganda machine

Putin has no inherent ideology. He deals with two currencies - money and power, where power to him is the crucial mechanism for obtaining money. Putin’s power and wealth are not absolute - as there is no such thing - they are relative to his presidency. If he ever leaves office, he will either be killed, imprisoned, or killed while in prison. There’s no retirement for him.

Therefore, his number one priority is, and always was: stay in power for the rest of your life. Everything he does is subjected to that one goal.

However, there is a misconception as to how powerful Putin really is. We cannot see anything that happens behind the curtain in the Kremlin. All we see coming out is pure propaganda. Like that recent video of Putin talking to the head of his intelligence agency. The man is clearly fearful of Putin who comes out as very authoritative and quite scary. An immediate reaction of people watching is: that man should be afraid for his life. But remember, this is a video that the Kremlin put out. It is exactly what Putin wants the world to see. I’m not saying that the emotion there wasn’t genuine. It most certainly is. But it is also staged to showcase Putin from only one very specific angle. Just like every single one of his public appearances, shirt-on or shirt-off, horseback or karate-chopping people into submission. Or that one time, a decade ago, when he called off a strike in a factory forcing an oligarch to sign the negotiation papers, and then demanding his pen back. The emotion there is surely real. But the scene is misleading. It is set up perfectly to present the leader in the best possible way to the public. Who then goes on and formulates a personality cult, where Putin is exactly what each voter wants him to be - a strong leader that can unite Russia and bring back its former glory, stolen from them by the evil Western powers.

An empire of corruption

The truth, however, is quite different. Putin is a kleptocrat, running an empire of corruption.

This is not the type of corruption most people in the West are used to seeing - bribery, fraud, kickbacks in exchange for public services. No. This is a state that is run like a well-oiled mafia organization, where the legitimate force of the state is misused to serve the private interests of the ruling elite, on top of which is Putin himself. The don.

As soon as he came to power he used the threat of violence - a crucial pillar of power - to force the ruling oligarchs into submission. He turned them into his caporegimes (high-ranking officers in the mafia), and through them has controlling interest in almost the entire Russian economy, from oil and gas to banking. Through his oligarch proxies he holds hundreds of billions of dollars all around the world. For the oligarchs, loyalty to the don is all that matters.

Any attempt on his hold on power is swiftly shot down. Enemies get exiled, poisoned, or killed. Violence is used generously to protect his position. Because if he loses power, access to money is lost, and the threat of violence is gone. That’s when oligarchs replace their loyalty.

A prisoner of power

His position of power is literally his prison. A golden cage constantly closing in on him.

Keeping that golden cage from collapsing requires tremendous effort. That’s why there is that persistent need to signal strength, power, dominance over others. It’s all a deceptive facade of a weak man fearing for his position of power.

That, of course, makes him very dangerous. As he is ready to use every tool at his disposal to prove to those around him they should still fear him. An unexpected, irrational move, like the invasion, might be just the type of move that confuses his enemies.

Recall another dictator in a similar situation. When Kim Jong-un took power in North Korea after his father’s death, many in the domestic hierarchy thought he was weak. He was never meant to become Supreme Leader; it was his brother who was lined up. There were even speculations that the generals (or other elites) might overthrow him quickly.

What did he do to showcase his power? Started threatening the US with nuclear assault. He kept doing that repeatedly since 2012 to solidify his power domestically. There was even a brief stand-off between him and Trump in 2017. It was all one big bluff. It was Jong-un’s way of showing to domestic elites that he is indeed strong enough. If he could have started a war to showcase strength, he would have. North Korea doesn’t have the muscle or the backing of China to do that, so all he can do is bluff.

Putin on the other hand can and does start wars. He does it for the exact same reason - to prove his strength and solidify his power.

He started four of them.

In 1999, while still Russia’s PM, he organized the war in Chechnya, as a reaction to the terrorist attack in the Moscow theater. Many claimed he used this opportunity as a show of strength to seize power in the first place. In 2008 he invaded Georgia under the same pretenses as with Ukraine today. In 2014 he annexed Crimea and opened up his conflict with Ukraine. In 2022 he finally invaded Ukraine, presenting the biggest threat thus far to global security.

Some might blame insanity for this latest invasion, stating the obvious: it was a huge mistake, he overplayed his hand. Others are suggesting a geopolitical endgame and a reemergence of the Cold War era. Many are fearing nuclear war. But in essence this looks more like an internal power struggle, where Putin is signaling his strength not to the West, but to his own subordinates. Ukraine is a collateral victim, picked out carefully to mask the true intentions.

People are rightfully fearful that if Putin is cornered, he might do something irrational like a nuclear missile strike. What if he already is cornered and the invasion was this irrational move?

Again, we cannot observe what is happening within Kremlin. We can only see the outcomes. The invasion of Ukraine is a either a desperate move by a man who must reestablish his dominance, or an irrational act of a madman.

Ambition-competence ratio in kleptocracies

Which is it? Remember, Putin’s only goal is self-preservation. He can use the sanctions to galvanize the nation behind him. The Russian media is already downplaying the war, giving very limited info on it.

Starting a nuclear war is unlikely given his internal constraints. Even if he’s pushed into a corner with no way out, and acting out of pure vengeance, the military is unlikely to oblige. Everyone can sense when someone’s time is up.

Particularly those who want to replace him. This is the key. And it brings us back to the ambition-competence ratio. Among the officials surrounding Putin, there are certainly many with ambition to take over. They would never admit to this ambition, even privately, but it is there. As we've already concluded, the worst the kleptocracy, the stronger the ambition-to-competence ratio among the ruling elites. What we're looking for now is another individual similar to Putin 23 years ago, carefully assessing and waiting for his opportunity from the shadows. The iron law of oligarchy at full show (from Acemoglu & Robinson's Why Nations Fail). 

Putin is well aware of this. He know's his limitations and his weaknesses, but he does not know from where the backstabbing will come. This makes him paranoid, and it could have pushed him over the edge to initiate the invasion in the first place. Make up a threat against an external enemy (US and NATO), pick a collateral victim who will act as a proxy enemy (Ukraine), rally the troops, rally the domestic sentiment through strong propaganda, and act quickly to prevent any such scenario. It worked before, why shouldn't it work now?

The only thing he miscalculated was the push-back from the Ukrainians. The push-back wasn't there in 2014 for Crimea, so Putin expected an easy victory once again. Just like in Georgia or Chechnya. Do it quickly, declare victory, and disable your internal opponents from advancing. The West? They stood by before, they'll do it again. Sanctions? Don't be ridiculous. Europe is too dependent of Russia, they won't go that far. Well, the situation escalated beyond his control. 

Two scenarios

Having this in mind, there are two scenarios that might play out, neither of which includes a nuclear assault.

Putin either (1) digs up a scenario where he presents himself domestically as a clear winner, thus strengthening his position. The invasion is justified by gaining international recognition of Crimea as Russian, by pushing NATO away from Ukraine and making them neutral (i.e. adjacent back to the Kremlin), or by recognizing the two new separatist regions as autonomous states. He might, to that end, use one of the following narratives: “I protected our people in the separatist regions, they remain independent”, “We showed Americans and the NATO not to mess with us”, “Ukraine is now ‘de-Nazified’” or whatever. This was most likely his goal in the first place: to achieve such victory vis-a-vis the West, so as to present himself triumphant domestically.

Or (2) the troops start losing ground, he gets cornered, disobeyed, & thrown out of power, leading to his demise. He is removed from his golden cage, which will now be occupied by someone else (iron law of oligarchy). Scenario (2) is less likely for now, but don't underestimate the ambition of those in his shadow. Particularly if the financial sanctions make them more and more nervous.


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