Putin has consistently oversold his regime’s effectiveness at protecting individual Russian citizens, and his contention that he is fighting for Russia’s future. Especially in authoritarian regimes that are led by former counter-intelligence practionners, such as the USSR’s Joseph Stalin and Yuri Andropov, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and Russia’s Putin, there is an obsessive prioritization of regime security over that of the state. Putin’s rule is personalistic, as evinced by the absence of an appointed successor, so he has a small inner circle of sycophantically loyal advisors, an intermediate circle he rules through common interest or fear, and a propagandized persona for the general population. They are consequently ineffectual at delegation and information sharing outside of their closed entourage, which is shrunk by paranoia-induced eliminations and aging. This is why domestic economic development and foreign policies appear so reactive, ad hoc, and poorly conceived.

Putin’s regimes is instrumentally contractual with Russian citizens, offering explicit material payoffs and promises of stability, in exchange for acquiescence, rendering their support for the regime far more fragile than in democracies. Their suffering from economic sanctions and burden of reserve mobilization has violated that social pact. A Ukrainian bombing attack deep within Russia would profoundly shatter that sense of invulnerability brought about by decades of strategic nuclear deterrence. Putin also bases his support on being recognized as the lynchpin of Russian domestic stability, by averting ethnic conflict and territorial disintegration. The erosion of Putin’s popularity is manifest in the apparent paradox of Russian citizens willing to mobilize for war, yet vocally dissatisfied by the government’s negligent failure to prepare for and prosecute it diligently.

Authoritarian regimes are easily provoked into engaging in symbolic military acts, because these governments become entrapped by their own propaganda, upon which they base their legitimacy.

Even in the conditions of wartime censorship, democratic governments are less susceptible to this distortion. Despite extreme privation and losses of 1.4 million young men and women, France prevailed over Wilhelmine Germany during the First World War. France even suffered a widespread army mutiny in 1917, which affected sixty percent of its divisions, but their demands were for reforms to better prosecute the war, not to end it. In contrast, in 1918, Germany’s authoritarian military administration led by Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich von Ludendorff, collapsed, because they persistently misled the German legislature about the prospects of victory, until they were no longer credible.

A Ukrainian airstrike that successfully penetrates Russian air defenses, would be a direct challenge to Putin’s naïve assumption of security against air raids. The shock would, first, provoke Russia to misdirect resources and at best marginally intensify retaliation against civilian targets in Ukraine, and second, would cause a significant diversion of resources into air defense.

It is well known that aerial bombardment of a civilian population has never independently led to the capitulation of an opponent, and that it is much more wasteful than an equivalent air warfare effort concentrated toward helping the army and navy achieve a battlefield victory. Iran ended its conflicts with Iraq in 1988, not because of the over million residents who fled Tehran to escape the barrage of Iraqi SCUD missiles, but because of Iraq’s battlefield victory at the Al Faw Peninsula.

Authoritarian regimes, because of their poor handling of information, often mirror-image their opponents, meaning that they believe their adversaries suffer from the same fatal weakness of fickle public support. Adolf Hitler, for example, feared the low resolve of the German people, which he blamed for the defeat of Germany in the First World War, so he only authorized full mobilization after the July 20th 1944 assassination attempt on his life. Authoritarian governments usually believe that smaller countries can be compelled to cooperate through intimidation, because they conduct their foreign policy like their domestic politics: through coercion. Despite severe damage to Ukraine’s electrical and water purification infrastructure, Russia expended the majority of its non-strategic missiles and inflicted less than 1,000 Ukrainian fatalities, all the while failing to stop Ukraine’s advances on the ground. Kyiv’s exposure of its civilian population to loss and suffering is tragic, but aiming to achieve military victory is the strategy that will ultimately save the most lives.

Authoritarian leaders are particularly wary of the capriciousness of their people when they are displaced by bombing. During the Second World War, the Nazi Party estimated as early as the summer of 1940 that the humiliation of British bombing, though marginally damaging to industry, was affecting its legitimacy by its demonstration of Berlin’s impotence. As the war progressed, the Anglo-American bombing campaign’s principal contribution to victory was not only in destroyed factories, but in the critically bad decision by Berlin to concentrate its air force to defend the skies over Germany, rather than assist German armies on the battlefield. This same exploitable vulnerability of authoritarian regimes informed the U.S. decision to conduct its Doolittle bomber raid on Imperial Japan in April 1942. In response, the Japanese Navy retaliated with a wasteful Japanese attack on the Alaskan Islands of Attu and Kiska, diverting two aircraft carriers (Junyo and Ryujo) that could have averted the decisive Japanese defeat at Midway in June of 1942. This same diversionary benefit was exploited by the Israeli air force in the 1973 October War against Syria. Unable to strike at Syria’s ports, the Israelis conducted an extensive series of strikes on political and economic targets within Damascus, provoking Syrian President Hafez Assad to concentrate air defenses in his capital, thereby exposing military targets and ports in the rest of Syria, to attack.

Kyiv can subtly exploit the critical weakness of Moscow’s obsession with regime survival and its inherent scepticism of the strength of Russian support, with carefully considered airstrikes within Russia’s interior. Even a few raids by Ukraine’s handful of Su-24 bombers and drones, would oblige Putin to keep in reserve his 8,000 S-300 air defense rockets, rather than have them repurposed to strike civilian and military targets in Ukraine.

Despite being subject to aggressive invasion and depraved war crimes, Kyiv has wisely resisted the political temptation of vengefully retaliating against non-combatants in Russia. The liberalization of Russia is less than a generation away, as it was for Ukraine before 2014. When the war ends, as they all do, Kyiv will still have Russia as a neighbor, Russians as its citizens, and it will inherit a political conscience which will define its new identity. Kyiv must portray the conflict as one against the Putin regime, even if the Russian people are complicit, as a way to open up political space for a Russian opposition or peace party.

Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is an associate professor of international relations at Concordia University (Montreal), former army engineer officer, and has written extensively on Pakistan, where he conducted field research for over ten years. This first appeared in RealClearDefense.