#178: Russia Deserves Better

President Putin is working hard to weaken Russia. During the last decades, he has almost completely destroyed the last remnants of Russian democracy. Instead, he has built a system built on lies, repression and violence. Proudly, he announces that Russia is returning to old strength, that the Russian people are experts at suffering, and that they will win over the “decadent” West. New allies like China and several other countries that have become beholden to Russia due to deliveries of energy and military equipment are allegedly standing firm on Russian’s side. The old Soviet or imperial Russian territories are returning to the “Russian World.” The West capitulated in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Libya, demonstrating its weakness. They are afraid of further sanctions, of the cold, of Russia’s nukes. Ukraine will not hold out much longer, because the West is weak. What could possibly go wrong?

This is a distillation of the current Russian propaganda flooding the internet. Many seem to believe it, and some of it certainly may include kernels of truth. Some of it is correct:

  1. Several EU countries – chiefly among the Germany and Italy – are reliant on Russian gas and oil. They are skeptical about their economic future should Russian deliveries of fossil fuels cease or be further reduced. This may indeed impact their resolve to aid Ukraine; in Germany, this certainly is now an open question.
  2. The United States seems fractured between a Trumpian and a weakening Biden camp and is heading into midterm elections.
  3. The United Kingdom is still weakened from Brexit and will see Boris Johnson – one of Ukraine’s most ardent supporters – leave.
  4. Sanctions against Russia are slow to set in, and the Russian economy and currency seem to be rebounding.
  5. Russia is holding significant Ukrainian territory, weapons deliveries to Ukraine are slow, and Ukraine has suffered serious losses in people and arms.
  6. Several countries in the world are indeed seemingly on Russia’s side, or at least do not speak out against it – especially in the so-called Global South.
  7. The Russian-provoked world hunger crisis may further destabilize the world, create even more of a push for refugees heading to Europe, which will struggle to deal with such a situation.

Yet these are only partial truths:

  1. Germany has worked to reduce its reliance on Russian fossil fuels and may indeed experience some short-term shortages, but mid- through long-term, it will be able to completely divest from Russian energy, so will the rest of Europe. This will mean a complete loss of all Russian investment into pipeline systems to Europe.
  2. Foreign policy in the United States tends to be constant no matter who is in power. Apart from rhetoric and appearances, the US will stay committed to NATO. Trump was determined to have Europe pay its fair share for NATO expenses – which, as annoying as Trump’s personality may be, is essentially correct, and was already demanded by Obama, and will now come to pass due to Russian actions. If the US is culturally predisposed to any antagonist, it certainly is Russia, sadly: Putin is playing into an old stereotype of the evil Russian, and that narrative is still fruitful in both American culture and politics. Ukrainian, Russian and many other Eastern and Central European immigrants (including myself) know how to understand what Putin is doing, and are prepared to pressure to support American commitment against Russian imperialism. This is maybe the worst outcome of all this: the reactivation of the belief that Russia is irretrievably barbarian and antagonistic to the West. All soft power advances made by Russia since Gorbachev are now wasted – in the entire West.
  3. Similar to the US, the UK knows where it has to stand – and if you were counting on Boris Johnson, that was a precarious position anyway. Brexit – should it last – may have the opposite effect of the UK overcompensating in NATO whatever role it has lost in the EU. If Brexit stood for anything, it was not primarily a rejection of Europe but a reimagination of British Empire, on the side of the United States, and yes, on the side of – but not part of – the European Union: While Britain would be stronger in the EU, it will still be able to project sufficient strength and continue to be set against a new Russian imperialism.
  4. Sanctions against Russia are a slow burn. Russia was becoming more integrated into the global and especially Western economy, and this disentanglement will become more painful as time moves on. Indeed, as I have previously argued, Russia is indeed part of the West, whether Putin likes it or not. To argue differently means to ignore not just the cultural but especially the economic intertwinement between Russia and the West. Sanctions are also painful for Europe and the United States (5 USD or more per gallon for gas is NOT normal!), but the combined Western Economy is vastly bigger than Russia’s, and over time, any losses due to sanctions will be annoying to Europe and the US, but catastrophic for Russia. This includes the loss of technological imports, of markets, of possibilities for Russia’s population with regards to education, migration, employment, etc. Russian officials have been complaining more and more about sanctions – which means that they are starting to work, and those with some foresight know how much worse it will get. Russia may not be able to continue its war for as long as they might need to win it.
  5. Ukraine is indeed struggling and suffering, no doubts about this. How is this a good thing? Is this how you treat a “brother country” that has been culturally and historically intertwined with Russia for centuries? How could a future relationship between Ukraine and Russia even be imagined? If there ever were legitimate concerns about the safety and future of Russian-speaking populations within Ukraine, how is this war solving the problem at all? If, from a Russian perspective, Ukrainian nationalism is a problem – is not this war fostering it even more? Of course, Putin and his colleagues may or may not care about these questions – but a future Russia certainly has to project something else than repression and violence if it is to create a future for its multi-ethnic country and its neighbors. ––– Furthermore, Russian victory in Ukraine is not guaranteed and may look very unlikely in the long term. Putin has made this into a confrontation with the West, which means stakes are higher and the West cannot afford a loss, and its resources are vastly superior to Russia’s.
  6. As to the question of Russia’s new allies or friends, we shall see. China values stability and seeks to become a respected player in the world, wanting to place itself into a position either next to or rivaling the United States and Europe. An all-out genocidal war of conquest and destruction is not what China wants, even though it may cherish the problems this creates for the West. India (and many other countries of the postcolonial world) has always been pragmatic about where to get economic or military support, and it currently is heavily invested in support for its arsenal of Russian weapons. Brazil wants to create a lead role for itself in the Americas, which means an anti-US posture may be seen as productive. South Africa is looking for support from whatever direction it may come in order to advance its own position. Israel is anxious about Russian-dominated Syria and the strange alliance between Russia and Iran, and it is careful how to position itself. Other countries follow similarly ambiguous paths when it comes to Russia (even within the West!). ––– These are not deep friendships, they are pragmatic ad-hoc positionalities which may or may not translate into longer trends. Certainly, the G7 countries are no longer the only show on the planet, and if any contenders arise, they may probably join the group as Russia briefly was able to do. Russia may have a lot of territory, a sizable but not huge population, and a lot of resources relevant for an industrial fossil-fueled age, but its market is comparatively small and the world is moving away from fossil fuels. There should be no surprise that some countries are seeking their advantage right now, but Russia should not misunderstand this as true alliances.
  7. Creating a hunger crisis is a deeply flawed and immoral strategy that may very well backfire, especially as Russia is attempting to increase its influence in Africa that will be hit hardest by the lack of grain deliveries from Ukraine. While Europe indeed has a problem accepting many more refugees, this may not translate into political destabilization but rather just into furthering hypocritical and deeply problematic EU policies. The fact though that both the European Union and the United States are prime targets for immigrants and refugees – rather than Russia and China – is more of a vindication of the West than a problem. People know what’s what, and that if there ever is a possibility for a better life, how difficult it may be to achieve, it’s within the West and certainly not Russia.

All in all, this hopefully shows in more detail the miscalculation by the Russian government – and it reveals a path for Russia that – should it be continued – does not lead towards a better future.

Russia deserves better. The narrative that Russian people don’t want democracy has been disproven by every opposition leader, every person seeking to emulate the Western model in Russia, every emigrant, and even by Ukraine. Let us for a moment take seriously the Russian argument that Ukrainians are closely related to Russians. If you consider this, then remember that Ukrainians have had several attempts at a democratic revolution already – most recently, the Orange Revolution from 2004-05 and the Euromaidan from 2013-14. You could probably count Zelensky’s election as a further proof for the need for change. His television show “Servant of the People” made a passionate plea for more democracy, less corruption and political accountability. It got him elected on that very platform. Ukraine served as a great model for Russia and Belarus – which may be the real reason for Putin’s war. But if you accepted that Ukrainians and Russians are very similar in culture and thinking, in spite of all the differences, that means that democracy in Russia – real democracy, not just the illiberal “guided” version Putin is following – is very much a desired possibility in Russia.

Democracy is not just about politics. It stands for a whole complex of factors that create a functioning framework allowing for human rights, individual dignity, personal expression, a sustainable future, accountability, transparency, orderly succession of governments, constructive debate, and most of all, the feeling that you as a person can have a chance to have a meaningful existence that lives up to the principle of people’s sovereignty. Certainly, this is an ideal not always practiced to perfection, to put it mildly. But it is something that can be done, and it is independent of cultural background. Let’s remember that Western countries have not always been democratic either.

Even Putin knows that a democratic Russia is possible: This is why he has created his system of oppression. He knows that his kleptocratic government is a thorn in the eyes of most Russians, he knows that what he is doing is making Russia weaker – otherwise, he would not need to pursue the policies he is pursuing.

While transition from autocracy to democracy is hard – as proven during the Gorbachev, Yeltsin and early Putin and Medvedev years – other post-Soviet countries have managed to succeed. I have no doubt that Russia can do this as well. All it needs to get started is to move away from the abyss into which its leadership is currently leading both Russia and Ukraine.