The Autocrat’s Achilles' Heel

Could Putin and Xi Undermine Their Own Rule?

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, China, September 5, 2017. Tyrone Siu / Reuters

Great power competition is back. Russia and China—two great powers with autocrats at their helms—are actively testing the durability of the international order as the West seemingly retreats. Russian President Vladimir Putin, unfazed by Western sanctions, not only led a disinformation campaign in Western democracies to disrupt major elections, but continues to maintain Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. Chinese President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, is projecting China’s military power into the South China Sea and its economic might across Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Both countries also seek to influence democratic states through the use of “sharp power.” Aware of Russia and China’s growing reach, the Trump administration made the right decision to identify the two nations as U.S. competitors in its recently released National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. For the first time since September 11, 2001, great power competition, rather than global terrorism, is considered the number one priority for U.S. national security.

There seem to be no effective checks to Putin and Xi’s growing ambitions. Both leaders, however, could be making a strategic error. They are staking their countries’ futures, and international trajectories, on one thing: themselves. Throughout their respective reigns, Putin and Xi have taken steps to consolidate their personal control on power. This may work as a stabilizing mechanism in the short term, but in the long term, can exacerbate inherent domestic tensions that could eventually undermine their rule. Putin and Xi face two similar dilemmas as long-time autocrats of large countries: managing brutal elite competition for loyalty and succession, and balancing international ambitions with deepening tensions between the central government and restive regions. As both leaders seek more “wins” to justify their personal control at home, they may increasingly pursue riskier and bolder foreign policies. 

As the United States weighs its approach to this new era of great power politics, U.S. policymakers will need to take into account how the internal domestic

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