The Christian Science Monitor Daily March 21, 2022
President Joe Biden has often said that the fight of our time is democracy against authoritarianism. If so, in Russia’s cruel war against Ukraine, it is the autocrats who have so far been undermined and discredited.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s gross underestimation of Ukraine’s ability to fight, NATO’s will to resist and its own army’s unpreparedness are obvious examples. But China also seemed unprepared for the geopolitical turmoil that followed the Russian invasion. Western far-right populist politicians with ties to Russia, such as France‘s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini, are rushing to distance themselves from Mr Putin and his Ukrainian adventure.
This dynamic could change. The war in Ukraine is only three weeks old. But in that brief time, the sense that at this historic time authoritarians are on the march — that they have more energy, vision and vitality than their Democratic counterparts — may have been defeated, says Larry Diamond, a democracy scholar and professor at Stanford University.
“If so, it won’t just be Putin’s Waterloo, it could also turn out to be the Waterloo of global authoritarianism to some degree,” says Professor Diamond.
A debacle visible to the world
One of the reasons the war in Ukraine seems to undermine the autocratic style of leadership is that it clearly did not go as Mr. Putin and other Russian leaders expected. The troops had no food, gas or ammunition for weeks of fierce fighting. Russia has yet to establish full air dominance over Ukraine, Pentagon officials say. Casualties were high. Russian units are pinned down outside kyiv and a few other towns, bombarding them from afar with missiles and shells, devastating civilians.
So far, there is little reason to think that these failures are loosening Mr. Putin’s grip on power. State-sponsored media ensures that most Russians don’t know the real history of Ukraine. After about two decades at the top of the state, Putin has a vast repressive apparatus at his disposal, says Brian Taylor, professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
“I don’t think we should see this as a diet that immediately peels off,” says Professor Taylor.
But apart from the Russian information bubble, the rest of the world can see in Mr. Putin’s situation why decision-making in personalist autocracies is often highly problematic. Actions can be taken quickly and decisively, but they can also be rash and poorly thought out. Debate and exposure to other viewpoints is limited.
“With authoritarian regimes, the risk is that power becomes so centralized on one person or a small group that they end up hearing only the information they want to hear,” says Michael Beckley, professor of political science at Tufts University and co. – author of a Foreign Affairs analysis on how Ukraine strengthens democracies.
War and other armed belligerences can expose these autocratic flaws in a catastrophic way. This pushes things beyond the limits that autocrats know well and raises the stakes. Foreign opponents push back.
“Dictators, just because they’re so used to being able to wield power by fiat at home, suddenly have a rude awakening when they try to push overseas,” says Professor Beckley.
Meanwhile, democracies across the United States, Europe, and the Pacific — stereotypically stuck, unresponsive, self-referential, and just plain slow — came together in a united response to Ukraine with astonishing speed.
The economic sanctions already in place against Russia are probably the toughest ever enacted against an economy the size of Russia. The coalition behind them stretches from South Korea to Switzerland and includes most of the world’s successful democracies. Hundreds of Western companies are ending or suspending their activities in Russia.
This may in part be due to the efforts of President Biden and NATO allies to rally what was called during the Cold War era “the free world”. But much of it is likely the result of the shock of Russia’s actions and the moral clarity of the situation.
“This has been a wake-up call for democracies and like-minded countries and nations that yes, there is a real challenge here for all that we stand for,” said Paula Dobriansky, senior fellow at the Belfer Center of Harvard University and former undersecretary. of state for world affairs.
In recent years, authoritarianism has sometimes emerged as the rising form of national government. China has built a huge economy, lifting millions out of poverty, with circumscribed autocratic leadership. Russia has recovered from the chaos and poverty that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union when Mr. Putin took power, becoming something close to an autocrat, if not a dictator.
But for now, democratic governance seems to be revived. The open debate on the options by many voices has not weakened the coherence of the response to Russian aggression. If anything, it made him stronger.
“The West’s unified response somewhat undermines arguments heard not too long ago that the West was too divided within and between countries to resist the rise of ‘authoritarian states like Russia and China,’ says Professor Taylor.
“A very high human price”
It is far too early to say that an apparent era of autocratic rise is over. Stuck in the opening phase of its invasion, Russia seems certain to redouble its military efforts. More Ukrainian civilians will suffer. What part of Ukraine will remain after the war, and who will win it, will have a huge impact on the challenges of reconstruction and refugee resettlement that lie ahead.
“If it is to be historically true that a birth of freedom has happened right now, it is happening at a very high human cost,” says Professor Diamond of Stanford University.
Meanwhile, the world’s largest autocracy, China, may see the current struggle between Russia and the West as an opportunity for itself to gain relative strength by staying out of the fight.
Chinese leaders appeared surprised by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Yun Sun, senior fellow at the Stimson Center, wrote shortly after it happened. Since then, Beijing has struggled to strike a rhetorical balance between supporting an autocracy with which it enjoys friendly relations and maintaining deep economic ties with the West while expressing sympathy for Ukrainian civilians.
US officials believe China’s strategy may be to profess neutrality in public while helping Russia behind the scenes. Beijing and Moscow share a major strategic interest: to weaken the United States and the Western alliance.
That’s why President Biden, in a two-hour video call on Friday, warned Chinese leader Xi Jinping against asking for Russian military aid.
Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China had a responsibility to use its influence with Russia to uphold the international rules “which it claims to support”.
“Instead, it appears China is moving in the opposite direction by refusing to condemn this aggression while seeking to portray itself as a neutral arbiter,” Secretary Blinken said.
Challenges for far-right populists
Far-right populists in the West have had a harder time dealing with their problems with Putin.
For years they have praised Mr. Putin and his policy of closing borders, his ethno-nationalist rhetoric and his belligerence towards Western alliances. Today, the Italian Matteo Salvini, the Hungarian Viktor Orbán, the French Marine Le Pen and others are trying to backtrack without completely reversing previous positions.
Mr Salvini, Italy’s leading right-wing politician, once wore a T-shirt with Mr Putin’s face in the European Parliament. Now he walks the dividing line condemning the violence in Ukraine while avoiding personal criticism of Mr. Putin.
Mr Orbán, who critics say he has rolled back democracy in a NATO country, has had a close relationship with Putin. Now, despite appearing to be on the verge of winning the April election, he has backed sanctions against Russia and taken in Ukrainian refugees.
Ms. Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party borrowed money from a Russian bank. In the past, she declared Russia’s annexation of Crimea legal in 2014. But now, a presidential candidate and far behind incumbent President Emmanuel Macron in the polls, she has denounced Mr. Putin’s actions in Ukraine as “totally reprehensible”.
“It changes, in part, the opinion I had of him,” she said.
The war could also hurt former President Donald Trump’s chances in 2024, but to what extent remains to be seen. Mr. Trump has spoken with admiration of Mr. Putin in the past. In February, just days before the invasion, the former president called Mr Putin’s declaration of pre-invasion of parts of Ukraine as independent states “conscious” and “genius”.
A galvanizing moment for the West?
Mr. Putin’s global image will no longer be one of intelligent cruelty, akin to a movie villain, say these democracy experts. Instead, to the Western world, he seems to have turned into a reckless authoritarian who rants at rallies on ethno-nationalist themes and talks openly about the possibility of resorting to the use of nuclear weapons.
The West’s comfortable assumptions that its “soft power” of prosperity and freedom was more important than the hard power of armies, and that autocracies like Russia bluffed when they threatened military action, have been exposed as too optimistic, says Professor Beckley of Tufts.
Democracies tend to do the wrong things until they are somehow pulled by events, he says. Now they are crafting a response based on sanctions and unity that could serve as a framework for action against future authoritarian aggression.
“A lot is in the hands of the top leaders of the top democracies right now,” Professor Beckley says. “They could … turn this into an effective new democratic order.”