Isolated leaders make terrible decisions: lessons from Russia and Myanmar
11 Mar 2022|

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the military coup in Myanmar 12 months earlier are two very different conflicts—one involves a nuclear superpower invading a foreign state, while the other was an internal power grab in a developing country that is no stranger to military rule—but in one respect they are exceedingly similar.

Both actions were calamitous strategic mistakes directed by autocratic leaders who became isolated and surrounded by yes-men while the world around them changed—Ukraine since 1991 and Myanmar since 2011.

Due to a bunker mentality, these leaders—President Vladimir Putin in Russia and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in Myanmar—hadn’t noticed the colossal social changes taking place and therefore became deluded about how military action would play out.

Both men expected an easy victory, followed by the quick consolidation of power and control, but in both cases they discovered that the opposition to their plans was much fiercer, more steadfast and more pervasive than they expected.

In Myanmar, half a century of military rule was followed in 2011 by a decade of political and economic reforms. After many years of oppressive censorship, there was a flourishing of independent media. Trade unions were legalised, a minimum wage was instituted and living standards improved for much of the country.

In September 2014, two private telecommunication companies entered the Myanmar market, reducing the price of a SIM card from around US$1,000 to $1.50 almost overnight. Internet penetration increased almost instantly from around 2% of the population to more than 60%, and Facebook became the dominant platform for media and communication in the country.

Unfortunately, this explosion of social media access was accompanied by a significant campaign of disinformation and hate speech related to the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority. In 2017, a pogrom by the Myanmar military, led by Min Aung Hlaing, resulted in around 740,000 refugees pouring into neighbouring Bangladesh.

This same military, which has been in civil war with various ethnic armed groups for decades, then used spurious claims of election fraud to remove the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021, after it was re-elected in a landslide in November 2020.

The Myanmar military lives in an isolated and paranoid world, rarely mixing with civilians and often with little outside information to counter the propaganda it is fed. Min Aung Hlaing and the rest of the military leadership have accumulated enormous wealth from military-owned businesses and live palatial but isolated lives in an enclave at the base of a mountain on the edge of the bizarre capital, Naypyitaw, which is itself insulated from the rest of the country.

A military junta had ruled Myanmar until 2011 and Min Aung Hlaing, surrounded by compliant and subservient subordinates, clearly anticipated that the population, having long suffered under military rule, would be placidly resigned to returning to that state.

Unfortunately for him, the people of Myanmar had tasted freedoms that much of the rest of the world enjoyed and demonstrated that they were in no mood for acquiescing.

Young people had spent a decade experiencing liberties that their parents could only have dreamed of. The prospect of losing those freedoms, as well as dreams of future education and opportunities, resulted in a white-hot anger and fury directed at the military junta that won’t be easily extinguished.

Further complicating matters is that the people from these groups form the most likely candidates for military opposition to the junta. As a result, ‘people’s defence forces’ have formed, often with training from ethnic armed groups. Ongoing assassinations and ambushes against the military mean it has little effective control over much of the country.

In Russia, Putin has been similarly isolated from changes in society. He is clearly incredibly rich, but it’s impossible to know with any certainty what assets he owns or controls. Nevertheless, through this wealth and his increasing paranoia, demonstrated in part by the oversized tables at which he now conducts meetings, he has little insight into the societal changes that have taken place in recent years in Russia and, more importantly, in Ukraine.

He and his inner circle of security advisers are largely the products of Soviet-era politics and society who pine for a return to ‘traditional’ social and political values. They have clearly followed a revanchist policy towards Ukraine, harking back to both the Soviet and Russian imperial eras, most obviously through the annexation of Crimea but also with the current invasion, the goal of which is to return Ukraine to little more than a vassal state.

Even within this inner circle, however, Putin feels the need to chasten some of his closest allies. The televised display of fealty and humiliation during a recent security council meeting was clearly designed to demonstrate that he is more than first among equals.

Unfortunately for Putin, his isolation and a clear lack of dissenting advisers have led him to make a massive strategic error. Ukraine has changed since 1991. Twice in the past two decades—in 2005 and 2014—popular movements have removed Russian-backed leaders who tried to steal elections.

In 2019, the election of Volodymyr Zelensky as president brought the curtain down on a succession of largely kleptocratic and autocratic presidents. He is now demonstrating his mettle as a wartime leader, which is providing courage and unity of purpose across much of Ukraine.

Regardless of the trajectory of the war—which in the north at least is not going anywhere near close to plan for Russia—Putin cannot win.

Putin and Russia may partially win militarily, by grinding down the resistance and inflicting huge civilian casualties, but they will lose, ruinously, both politically and economically.

For both Min Aung Hlaing and Putin, there are now no good options. Both leaders have blundered into conflicts with oppositions they neither respected nor understood. Both are now paying the price of their huge miscalculations, although as always it is the citizens who will bear most of the costs.

The lesson for political leaders across the world is clear: suppressing dissenting advice may have short-term benefits, but in the long term it can lead to catastrophic errors.