My research focuses on the field of comparative authoritarianism and democratization. Why has democracy emerged in some places and not others? Why have some dictatorships proven so remarkably resilient? How successful are powerful states in supporting their client rulers? What explains variation in the capacity of incumbents to secure the loyalty of the armed forces? 

Book Project: Foreign Support and Authoritarian Survival

I am in the process of turning my dissertation into a book project. This research set out to answer a surprisingly neglected question: what is the effect of foreign support on the survival of authoritarian regimes? It has generally been assumed that great power patrons prop up client dictatorships. Yet despite many excellent case studies, we have no analyses of the overall relationship between foreign sponsorship and regime survival.

In order to answer this question I identified all authoritarian client regimes since 1945. Using over 500 primary and secondary sources in English and Russian, I coded every autocracy and generated a time-varying measurement of foreign support. With this dataset I was able to conduct a series of statistical analyses to assess the effect of foreign support on the survival of autocratic regimes in the postwar period.

The results of this analysis are counterintuitive. Patronage from Western powers – the United States, France, and the United Kingdom – is not associated with client regime survival. Instead, only Soviet sponsorship reduced the risk of regime collapse. I explain this variation by considering the divergent effects of foreign regime support strategies on the problems of military loyalty. I demonstrate that the Soviet Union directly aided its clients in imposing a variety of highly effective coup prevention strategies. In contrast, the United States and its allies did not directly aid their clients in coup prevention. This, coupled with a tendency to accept the outcome of a successful coup in a client regime, accounts for the relatively shorter tenures.

Not a single Soviet-backed regime ever lost power to a military coup. This remarkable invulnerability was to a great extent the result of Soviet support. The Soviet Union facilitated the creation or expansion of coup prevention institutions which limited the capacity of military to oust incumbent regimes. Most importantly, Moscow aided in the creation of civilian control mechanisms such as political commissars and internally-directed intelligence services that were embedded directly in the armed forces. As members of the party apparatus, commissars and secret police officers were not beholden to their military counterparts and could report officer misbehavior up the party chain of command. These institutions prevented coups by providing intelligence on plots emerging from the officer corps and deterring others. Furthermore, when these organizations (especially the secret police) maintained their own operational units, these organizations had the incentives and capacity to resist coup attempts. As a result, these practices both increased the coordination dilemma inherent in launching a successful military coup as well as empowered new organizations with incentives to defeat an attempted coup. Once imposed, these institutions really did prove effective in preventing attempted coups, and functioned independently of the Soviet Union after their establishment.

In contrast, Western ambivalence toward the rule of its particular autocratic allies and a primary focus on preventing communist and Islamist takeover rendered their clients vulnerable to military coups. Washington and its European allies accepted a successful coup in a client as a fait accompli so long as the subsequent regime maintained alignment and anticommunism or anti-Islamism. However, such support did indirectly facilitate coup prevention strategies. Sponsorship provided clients the opportunity to ‘coup proof’ their military forces by reducing the threat posed by external forces such as leftist insurgents or opposition groups. Confident of foreign support if seriously challenged from outside the regime, it was safe for clients to focus on coup prevention strategies even if it reduced their battlefield effectiveness. On the other hand, such ‘coup proofing’ behavior frequently stimulates reactive or preemptive coups which were accepted by Western patrons. Without a foreign patron willing to defend the regime from a backlash from the officer corps, clients thus remained vulnerable to military coups. This resulted in in regime survival rates that closely resembled their non-client counterparts.

These findings are supported by a range of evidence. Not only do a series of statistical analyses help rule out alternative explanations and provide support for my hypotheses, but a wide range of careful case studies incorporating secondary and archival sources provide plausible evidence that foreign sponsorship affected regime survival through the causal processes offered here.

Comparative Democratization

In addition to my work on foreign support and authoritarian regime survival, I have written on comparative democratization and contemporary threats to democracies. Along with my supervisor and collaborator, Professor Lucan Ahmad Way, I wrote a peer-reviewed article in Post-Soviet Affairs. This article sought to explain variation in regime trajectories across the postcommunist world after the collapse of communism.

We argued that two variables explain much of the variation in regime trajectories across the postcommunist world: the possibility for European Union membership and the salience of anti-Soviet nationalism. In Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, anti-Soviet nationalism and the prospect of EU membership contributed to the rise of a non-communist elite that faced considerable internal and external pressure to democratize. In the non-Baltic former Soviet Union, weaker anti-Soviet nationalism and the absence of EU conditionality allowed for the persistence of communist elites who faced relatively weak external constraints on authoritarianism. This work has been cited in The Economist and reviewed on

Russian Interference in Foreign Elections

I have also worked on several projects concerning the contemporary challenge posed by Russian intervention in elections across North America and Europe. In these projects I identified all publicly known instances of Russian interference in foreign elections since 1991. This work, also with Lucan Way, has been presented to the U.S. State Department and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. We have also written about this work in the Washington Post and for PONARS Eurasia.

Civil-Military Relations in Authoritarian Regimes

I am involved in the early stages of a collaborative project as a principal investigator along with Lucan Way at the University of Toronto, Dan Slater at the University of Michigan, Steven Levitsky at Harvard University, and Jean Lachapelle at the University of Gothenburg. This project seeks to identify the origins and trajectory of all military organizations in autocracies since 1945.