The more determined democracies are to avoid war, the greater the risk that autocracies will wage it.
Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine, and the West’s response to it, have demonstrated to Vladimir Putin that the state of democracy in Europe, and to a large extent the world, is stronger than he believed. I never shared the pessimistic assessments of Western democracy born of democracy’s failure to take root in Russia after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and reanimated by recent attacks from inside some democracies. Yet important lessons must be drawn from the recent past, and this moment, to protect the future prospects of democracy everywhere.
Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine constitutes a real and present danger to world peace and a rules-based order in Europe. But even more ominous than Russian war crimes are the neo-Stalinist ideas that the Kremlin is using to justify them. Putin’s regime is implementing these designs inside Russia and is offering them for export to the outside world in hopes of helming a new global Comintern. That new International—the Antidemocracy International—while detached from Soviet communism would still share similar aims, use similar tools to seize power, and be similarly fueled by anti-Western fury.
According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, German chancellor Angela Merkel (2005–21) realized at the November 2014 G-20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, that Russian president Vladimir Putin would never be open to a rapprochement with the West. During what was to have been a discussion about Ukraine—Russia had annexed Crimea earlier that year—Putin decried the decadence of democracies, citing the “spread of ‘gay culture’” as evidence. That assertion should sound painfully familiar to people in Russia and Germany, where in the 1930s such claims were used to justify the establishment of murderous dictatorships. Astoundingly, some right-wing media commentators—rather than finding such views alarming, as anyone who had lived under Stalinism or fascism would have—have defended Putin and repeated his lies to their audiences.
Even more ominous was Putin’s statement in the same conversation with Merkel that “Russia’s values were superior and diametrically opposed to Western decadence.” It was Nazi Germany’s claim of racial superiority and the Stalinist Soviet Union’s claim of ideological superiority that underpinned their attacks on other nations. Poland, viewed as inferior by both, was invaded and carved up by the two powers during the Second World War in accordance with the infamous 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, named for the Russian and German foreign ministers. The claim of superiority—of values and of national heritage (the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union)—is a key to understanding the war crimes and genocidal nature of Russia’s war on Ukraine today. To Putin, all means are justified in dealing with inferior people, who should be either forced into submission or eliminated. The appeasers in Europe, such Hungary’s Premier Viktor Orbán and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić, should take note of Russia’s history and of the fact that Putin views Russia as superior not only to Ukraine but to the entire West.
At that same 2014 meeting, Putin, following Stalin, also made it clear that his contempt for the West extended beyond the cultural to the political. Leaders in democracies, in Putin’s view, will always be weak, hamstrung as they are by the need to win votes. Sergey Karaganov, a former top advisor to Putin and now honorary chair of the Moscow Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, like many Kremlin mouthpieces has stated Putin’s antidemocratic views even more plainly. In an April 2022 interview, Karaganov said that Russia must win its war against Ukraine, but also made it clear that the real adversary in this war is the West, whose “moral foundation” is in question. Explaining the Kremlin’s strategic calculus, Karaganov said that “democracy in its present form in most European countries will not survive, because under circumstances of great tension [such as the covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine], democracies always wither away or become autocratic. These changes are inevitable.” One has only to remember the British resistance to the German Blitz (1940–41) during World War II to see the obvious lie buried in his words.
Russia’s Never-Ending Battle
While Kremlin policies are no longer focused on achieving a communist victory over capitalism, they are still aimed at destroying Western democracy. A look back at the history of Russian-Western tensions shows how they escalated into political, cultural, and economic confrontation at the start of 2022, and why democracy has emerged as the key issue in that conflict.
The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 raised hope that democracies could be established in Russia and Ukraine, along with other newly independent states. The West declared the end of the Cold War and welcomed those developments, but offered little practical support, particularly economic, to Russia’s reformers. (This must not be repeated with Ukraine today.) In the end, the old guard in Moscow allowed democratic and rebel nationalist forces to sweep away ascetic communism rather easily but were afraid of democracy. To preserve their dominance, the corrupt civil and military-security bureaucracies led by the KGB counterattacked the reformers. Most of all, the old guard worked to retain control of key natural-resource–based industries, especially oil. These holdovers were—and are—after power and money. They spent their spoils on luxuries in the democratic West and on propaganda machines and police to keep the population in check at home. This type of Russian state capitalism developed its hypocritical creed both as a cover for the corruption and plunder and as a message to the people not to protest.
I remember debating with old-guard front men during my time in government. Their line of argument sounded like an amalgam of primitive nationalism and religious and cultural clichés. The Bolsheviks, they argued, first created the Soviet Union, a superpower, and then built the Cheka (the KGB’s predecessor) to guard the USSR from internal and external challenges. But the communists failed to recognize the flaw in their ideology: If you force people to make sacrifices to achieve the unattainable—paradise on earth—sooner or later, they will become frustrated and revolt. That is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union. Since the fall of communism, the Kremlin, my opponents insisted, should preach pravoslavie (orthodoxy), which promises paradise in heaven but requires sacrifices in the name of the Russian state—the fortress, defended by the Federal Security Bureau (the KGB’s successor) and army, that stands against the infidels of the decadent West, led by the United States. And now came their ace card: Whatever one thinks about friendship between the two, Russia simply cannot afford to lose the United States as a clear enemy in the eyes of the people, the army, and the government. It needs a common enemy to unite them.
This eclectic and false blend of religion and patriotism became the postcommunist surrogate for a state ideology. It is called Pravoslavny Chekism, as odd as that might sound given that the Cheka from its inception repressed the church and religion. Pravoslavny Chekism and its proponents gradually found their way to President Boris Yeltsin (1991–99), who had played a key role in the demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the new Russian state in the early 1990s. A former provincial Communist Party apparatchik, he denounced communism and raised the banner of democracy in his fight for power. Yet he was hardly genuinely devoted to its implementation and, meeting resistance, began sliding back into more traditional ways of governance. Yeltsin’s choice of Vladimir Putin, a little-known St. Petersburg politician and former KGB officer, as his successor in 1999 was not accidental.
By that time, the reform process had slowed to a crawl, with the emerging free-market system leaving the Russian people with a huge bill and no means to pay it. The promised benefits of capitalism and democracy seemed nowhere in sight. At the same time, bureaucrats and crony entrepreneurs became millionaire oligarchs almost overnight. The prodemocracy forces lost credibility by continuing to support Yeltsin unconditionally and failing to act as an independent counterweight. As a result, democrats lost two free and fair parliamentary elections (in 1994 and 1995) to ultranationalists and neocommunists, who capitalized on the hardships wrought by the half-hearted reforms. None of the parties in parliament managed to provide an attractive alternative to the political and economic course—Pravoslavny Chekism and crony capitalism—ordained by Yeltsin and his bureaucracy.
Once in power, Putin and his team of former-KGB troopers doubled down on that course, solidifying control of the main industries and media. Parliament was eventually reduced to a stage show and rubber stamp for Putin’s policies, a sign that democracy was in danger. For Putin’s circle, the Cold War has never ended. The collapse of the Soviet Union was just one lost battle in an ongoing war with the West, which was to blame for Russia’s domestic failures both before and after the fall. While the prodemocracy press began withering from lack of financing under Yeltsin and especially Putin, ex-Soviet journalists at home and abroad were receiving KGB-arranged sponsorships from crony capitalists and quickly resumed churning out their traditional blame-the-West, fear-NATO headlines.
Once Putin had consolidated his grip on power in Russia, the Kremlin followed the Soviet example and went on provoking the West with daring statements, local hot wars, and disinformation and subversion campaigns. The feeble international response to their actions, especially in Crimea, the Donbas, and Syria, convinced the Kremlin that the United States and the West had, since declaring the arrival of the post–Cold War era, relaxed to the point of having lost the will to resist. Russia even tested the effectiveness of threatening nuclear war. Apparently, it does still work in deterring stronger Western support for Ukraine’s fight for freedom. The past seventy years of the nuclear era, however, had already proven that the only effective strategy for preventing such a war was to make unleashing it a suicidal act. Yet bowing to nuclear blackmail is also suicidal, as it opens the door for blackmailers to make endless demands.
Authoritarian Aggression Must Be Checked
The more determined democracies are to avoid war, the greater the risk that autocracies will wage it. The claim of military success helps autocrats to seize and hold power. Thus, the war in Ukraine will likely be a defining moment for Russia that will also have repercussions all over the world. If the West allows Putin to claim victory in Ukraine, antidemocracy populists everywhere will celebrate, believing that they can do whatever they want, and Putin will cement his dictatorship in Russia. Not only his acolytes in government but also a large part of the Russian populace will believe the Kremlin propaganda telling them that Putin’s leadership is amassing victories. If Russia wins this war, his agents of influence and useful idiots in the West will be singing his praises while police repression in Russia is ratcheted up even more—just to be on the safe side.
A few weeks after the beginning of the invasion, Putin pushed several laws through his puppet parliament and signed executive orders basically criminalizing all forms of dissent and the remnants of independent media. These moves, as Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the now-shuttered Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote, resemble the Nazification of German society (a process known as Gleichschaltung) after the Nazi’s seized power in 1933. Hitler sought to “coordinate” and control all political, social, cultural, and educational institutions in the name of national unity.
But Russia does not need the example of Nazi Germany, however striking the parallels may be, to serve as a roadmap. Russia has its own totalitarian legacy—Josef Stalin’s ruthless dictatorship, which Putin’s Russia is increasingly coming to resemble. For example, a new law passed in March makes public statements that contradict the Kremlin on the war in Ukraine punishable by up to fifteen years in prison. “The history of mass execution and political imprisonment in the Soviet era, and the denunciation of fellow citizens encouraged by the state . . . now looms over Russia’s deepening . . . repression,” writes Anton Troianovski. As in Soviet times, the more that ordinary people fear being suspected of disloyalty to the Kremlin, the more likely they will be to turn on each other. Repression and intimidation are key pillars of a totalitarian state that reduces citizens to an obedient population. In the words of Bertrand Russell, “collective fear stimulates herd instinct and tends to produce ferocity towards those who are not regarded as members of the herd.”
The collective fear of repression is a fierce enemy of democracy, but it is not the only driver of the herd mentality so necessary to totalitarianism. Fear of changing social dynamics—such as cultural pluralism, rapid technical development, and globalization—which many find especially hard to keep up with, also builds the herd. Putin’s base resides predominantly outside of Moscow and other major urban centers, is notably less educated, and comprises a mass of angry, struggling people. The older ones are nostalgic for the days when they were young and the grass was green, forgetting of course that they had frequently suffered under the old order. The younger ones are a mob of poorly educated malcontents looking for a strongman to transform them from the losers of modern society into its winners.
People who are afraid of change seek solace in scapegoating an “enemy,” simply defined as different, untraditional, or foreign. Putin’s propaganda succeeded in portraying Ukraine as an immediate enemy that can and should be trampled for breaking away from Mother Russia and for being the proxy of far greater and more distant adversaries—the United States and NATO. Defeating those enemies would help to keep the Russian herd under control and disprove the idea that Russia’s cousins next door could ever go it alone and choose democracy.
Putin’s full-scale aggression in Ukraine has galvanized the Antidemocracy International—from the Chinese Communist Party to the U.S. ultraright. Many believed that Russia would win quickly and easily. As Washington was warning of the massive Russian military buildup on the Ukrainian border, Chinese president Xi Jinping and Putin met on 4 February 2022, ahead of the Beijing Olympics. They signed a long communiqué outlining future areas of cooperation and claimed there were “no limits” to their commitments.
At about the same time, former U.S. president Donald Trump, still a leader of the Republican Party, spoke admiringly of Putin to a crowd of supporters, saying “they ask me, ‘Is Putin smart?’ Yes, Putin was smart. And I thought he was going to be negotiating. I said, ‘That’s a hell of a way to negotiate, put 200,000 soldiers on the border.’” In those awkwardly worded remarks one can recognize the Putinesque leitmotifs of mocking an elected leader for being weak and praising a dictator for using or threatening armed force, regardless of its being in violation of existing norms of civilized behavior. No wonder it came from a politician who tried to hold on to power despite having lost an election. In Russia, “smart Putin” has freed himself from such burdens by simply doctoring electoral results in his and his supporters’ favor.
Europe’s far right has had its own romance with the Russian autocrat for many years. Hungary’s Orbán has long been viewed as a potential leader of the new Antidemocracy International by right-wing advocates in the United States. Orbán’s coalition won almost 53 percent of the vote in Hungary’s April 2022 election versus the opposition’s 34 percent. In Serbia, the unapologetically pro-Putin Aleksandar Vučić was reelected president in April 2022 by a sweeping margin. In France, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, is literally indebted to Putin. Her party, denied financing from French banks, took out a US$12.2 million loan from a Russian bank in 2014. In the first round of France’s April 2022 presidential election, Le Pen came in second to Emmanuel Macron for a second time, but by a significantly narrower margin than in 2017. (She was, however, soundly beaten in the runoff.)
European and U.S. right-wing populism is similar to that of Russia in the make-up of its political base and in its messaging. Trump, Orbán, and Le Pen voters tend to be less urban, have less formal education, and be more anxious about the rapidly changing cultural and economic landscapes. The rhetoric of these aspiring autocrats, like Putin’s, signals to their followers that the dizzying complexity of the modern world is actually nothing more than a battle between a good “us” and a bad “them,” whose ranks include foreigners and minorities as well as, in the case of Russia, the decadent West and liberals, who represent all the above. This is a sign that democracy is in danger.
The End of Ideology
Despite similarities, however, the leaders of the Antidemocracy International have no unifying or consistent set of ideas. They simply want power for themselves. It is only the rejection of democracy that brings them together. But it cannot mobilize a mass movement to the extent of self-destructive social engineering and world war in the way that messianic ideologies have. The two most portentous examples of such mass madness—Soviet communism and Nazi fascism—were defeated and discredited in the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, Muslim fundamentalism, another potential stirrer of mass hyperdelirium, has failed to produce anything more than terrorism, thereby securing its worldwide rejection. There is an animated debate concerning the end of history, but the history of ideologies is over, at least for now.
What has emerged in their place? The now-universal ideas of a market economy and a publicly supported government. As it turns out, however, implementing them takes a lot of work. Democracy is not an ideology. But it is the best of all forms of government, all of which (including democracy) are imperfect. Autocracy, in contrast, is a bad form of government. Democracy—with its endless debates and elaborate procedures, and seemingly dominated by a globalized, overeducated elite—may appear too mundane and uninspiring to win over the doubters who are overwhelmed by modern life. They instead take refuge in dreams of reviving the past. Those dreams are what nurture and feed the populists and autocrats.
Yet for many, nothing is more inspiring than freedom. Thus the fearless Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was able to mobilize and unite his people to fight the Russian invaders, and has called for building Ukraine’s democracy and for joining Europe. The international response to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has also been encouraging. Both sides of the political aisle in the United States have supported providing assistance to Ukraine. A divided electorate in France banded together to defeat Le Pen, and after Orbán’s win at the polls, Hungary supported the EU’s decision to impose a fifth set of sanctions on Russia. Although China and India abstained from condemning the Russian war, they have also refrained from providing Moscow with any meaningful assistance, especially military support. And even though they are clearly taking advantage of Russia’s self-imposed trading limits in the Western markets by buying Russian oil at huge discounts, Moscow’s old dream of creating an anti-Western axis with the two Asian giants remains unrealized. Putin’s friendship with Xi has proved far from limitless. Both Beijing and New Delhi understand the difference between words denouncing the existing world order and deeds able to damage it. In contrast to a declining Russia, China and India are rising and increasingly able to compete with the United State and Europe for influence on the international stage and a better place within the existing world order, amended to their taste but not destroyed.
Putin’s war on Ukraine has laid bare the critical need to defend and promote democracy in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. But it has also demonstrated democracy’s amazing resilience. The brutality of the Russian war has reminded people everywhere of the existential danger that autocracy poses because it relies on violence at home and, in many cases, abroad. Prodemocracy forces in the West and beyond have mobilized once again. Democracy is still on the march, however treacherous the path ahead may be.
Andrei Kozyrev is an author and former politician who was the Russian Federation’s first foreign minister (1991–96). He was twice elected to the State Duma, where he served from 1994 to 2000. More recently, he was a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute (2016–17). His books include his 2020 memoir, The Firebird: The Elusive Fate of Russian Democracy.
More from the Journal of Democracy:
Why Putin’s Days Are Numbered
By Vladimir Milov
How Putin’s War in Ukraine Has Ruined Russia
What Putin Fears Most
By Robert Person and Michael McFaul
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