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What Should the World Fear: The Rise or Decline of Illiberal Powers?

Lilia Shevtsova

Let’s ask ourselves what current challenges can affect the global order, international and European security, and the worldwide march of progress. The Ebola virus? The war in the Middle East? ISIS? Quite a few Western observers consider the rise of China to be such a challenge, but we shouldn’t be in a hurry to agree with them. Let me quote Minxin Pei, who highlighted the analytical problem: U.S. policy toward China, he says, “is premised on the continuing rise of China,” but “China’s declining fortunes have not registered with the U.S. elites.” Meanwhile, a lot of respected China “hands”—among them Francis Fukuyama, Andrew Scobell, Andrew Nathan, and Pei himself—would agree that “the resilience of the authoritarian regime in…China is approaching its limits,” or that “China’s apparently good record today contains many time bombs that will go off in the future.” If the Chinese model is losing its sustainability, then Beijing’s increased foreign policy activity and its more aggressive stance with respect to its neighbors could be viewed as components of an attempt to use the Kremlin’s formula of “compensation” for growing domestic problems by consolidating society around the quest for international status and ambition.

If this assumption is true, then we need to reflect on the risks that the decay of the world’s illiberal powers will pose to the international community. Indeed these risks could be even greater for the world than the risks of their rise. In any event, we already find that we have fallen into an analytical trap here: Our understanding of modern political processes doesn’t just lag behind developments; quite often it distorts our picture of them, complicating the formulation of an adequate political course. All too frequently in the past few decades, expert analysis and predictions have missed the mark. This is exactly what happened to Sovietology, which had maintained that the Soviet Union was stable right up to the moment of its collapse. Seymour Martin Lipset’s and Gyorgy Bence’s “Anticipations of the Failure of Communism” explained the Sovietologists’ error in the following way: “The scholars…looked for institutions and values that stabilized the polity and society.” They should have also emphasized “dysfunctional aspects, structures, and behaviors, which might cause a crisis.” This approach, perhaps, would allow us to look at China through a different lens.

While the question of China’s rise or decline is still up in the air and a subject of frequent debate, Russia’s decay is crystal clear. Moreover, while China may impact the global economic landscape and undermine the stability of the Asia-Pacific region in the future, Russia is already undermining the system of international relations and challenging the liberal democracies in a way that has confounded their ability to respond. The Western states are still trying to view this challenge as a mere regional conflict. Putin has bluntly declared: the old order has collapsed; the Kremlin is ready to offer new rules of the game.

We are still living in the midst of this unraveling of history. What pattern it will be woven back into is unclear, but one could offer a few preliminary conclusions:

• The Russian-Ukrainian war and Russia’s annexation of Crimea are legacies of the Soviet collapse, which helped along the reincarnation of the personalized power system in an anti-communist shell. Historically, in its quest for survival the Russian system has resorted to a military-patriotic mobilization. Today, with shrinking resources, it is unlikely to return to a peacetime footing on its own. In any case, the Soviet Union continues to hold the region in its deadly embrace.

• The Ukrainian revolution has demonstrated that the post-Soviet state model—a model based on the merger of power and property, and on the rule of force rather than rule of law—is not sustainable. Ukraine was but the weakest link; Russia’s decay may increase the vulnerability of other post-Soviet states, especially the ones directly dependent on Russia, creating a zone of instability in Eurasia.

• Russia’s current entry onto the global stage is as a revisionist force attempting not only to destabilize the system of international governance, but also to discredit Western principles and norms during a time when the liberal democracies have lost their normative mission.

• While the West has been reacting to the current international crisis by means of alluding to Cold War stereotypes (obsolete today), the Kremlin has revamped the very model of war, blurring the border between war and peace, and turning peacemaking and truces into instruments of war.

• Russia is testing the West’s ability to enforce its own declared red lines, especially with respect to international relations. That red line is blurry, porous, and retreating, prompting the Kremlin to try and force it back even further. Russia is conducting an experiment that will allow other illiberal powers, primarily China and Iran, to see how far liberal civilization is willing to go to protect its principles.

• It is impossible to return to the status quo ante in relations between Russia and the West. Their vectors diverge too much, limiting the room for tactical compromise and making efforts at dialogue unsustainable. The achievement of a new status quo will merely be a brief respite before a new escalation of tensions. Thus we need to create a new mechanism for handling chronic tensions.

The Russian System could function in its state of decay for quite a while. Until recently Putin might even have had a chance of being reelected in 2018. But by annexing Crimea and starting the war in Ukraine, the Kremlin has unraveled the peacetime logic and generated processеs that it could no longer stop even if it wanted to. Any compromise and agreement would mean retiring the military modality, but how to do this when the System can no longer function in times of peace? Peacetime modality would mean de-hermetization and movement toward an open society, which would mean death for the personalized power system.

One could expect that the Kremlin would content itself with a Western surrender on Ukraine that would satisfy the following terms: Kiev would not seek NATO membership; Moscow would influence the process of Ukraine’s European economic integration; the issue of Crimea would be eliminated from the agenda for the foreseeable future; the de facto sovereignty of the separatist-controlled Donetsk and Lugansk statelets would be recognized, preferably within the framework of the Ukrainian state; the other Ukrainian regions would be decentralized. But this “formula of peace,” which is supported by some in the West, would inevitably be undone—both by the separatists who live off war and by the Ukrainian people, who would ask, “What did we fight and die for?” The revanchist forces inside Russia would also clamor for new victories over the West in Ukraine. Those who hope that this “formula of peace” would work either fail to understand the origins of this crisis or are consciously deluding themselves.

The problem isn’t even that, by making Ukraine an instrument of Russia’s internal politics, the Kremlin cannot let it join Europe. In itself Ukraine is no longer the problem; rather, Ukraine has become the means of conducting a much broader battle. The Russian leader is pressing for a new world order. Within the logic of the Russian system, this demand is quite reasonable. In fact, Putin simply has no choice but to act in this way. He must continually escalate his demands, making them impossible to satisfy, since he needs to continuously fuel the military-patriotic machine, which needs a constant stream of pretexts to add to the litany of grievances and humiliation (real or imagined). Putin is just going with the flow; he couldn’t stop if he wanted to. He knows that as long as he is raising tensions, he can lay claim to the role of either Terminator or Savior (in times of trouble, one role calls for the other), but if he stops, he will become Akela (from The Jungle Book), the lone wolf who must leave the pack after failing to catch his prey.

Hence we have here a formula for the ratcheting up of tensions. Putin’s Russia cannot exit the military-patriotic model; doing so would be tantamount to the defeat of either the regime or its leader. But continuing with this model requires continually turning up the heat on the climate of militarism, eventually forcing a response from the West—a response that will further exhaust the already limited resources of the Russian system. The irony is that the Russian system today is returning to a path that in 1991 led to the collapse the Soviet Union!

Meanwhile, we can make a number of further observations:

• Russia is undermining the system of global governance by ruining the network of international commitments and treaties built with Soviet participation after World War II. The Security Council’s paralysis during the Russo-Ukrainian war is another sign of this: How can we look for a solution to the conflict if a veto power is a party to it?

• Vladimir Putin could conceivably hold on to power only by becoming another Stalin. However, he cannot do this—not only because he probably lacks the dictatorial nature but also because the country lacks a unifying idea (such as Communism in Soviet times) that could mobilize the people in the project of building a utopian world (the search for enemies cannot become such an idea). Besides, such a shift would require reliable repressive machinery and a closed society. The corrupt state and elites’ integration into the West contribute to the erosion of the regime, whose current consolidation can be attributed to inertia rather than to fear and legitimacy. Thus we have another deadlock: the Russian system can hardly become a dictatorship, but it can’t transform itself either.

• The Russian political regime has begun to undermine its own foundations and can no longer guarantee the interests of its base. This may indicate the beginning of the regime’s agony. Let us brace ourselves for the System’s attempt to survive through a regime and leadership change.

• Using war, anger, animosity, and hostility as the means of consolidating the people could produce a Hobbesian atmosphere in society. And when the authority that has made hatred into the means of unification fails to live up to people’s hopes, one should have no problem guessing who will be the object of this hatred. In any case, by burying the chances for peaceful reform, the Kremlin is returning Russia to a 19th-century instrument of change: revolution, with all its dreadful implications.

After tremendous efforts, the West has managed to agree on a sanctions regime, which is already beginning to destabilize the Russian economy. But the Russian regime is more afraid of losing its military-patriotic legitimation than it is of the pain inflicted by sanctions (for now). “Let’s lift the sanctions and offer more help to Ukraine”: This is what Russia’s accommodators in the West say. In other words, let’s ignore the rapist and take care of his victim. Will that prevent the rapist from committing another crime?

Essentially, the West faces a dilemma. On the one hand, retaining the sanctions regime may exacerbate Russia’s economic crisis, provoking turmoil and unearthing the forces that would make the current regime look angelic by comparison. And we also cannot rule out the possibility that the regime, feeling cornered, would retaliate. The Kremlin, meanwhile, has charged that the Western sanctions are in truth an effort aimed at bringing regime change to Moscow. True, in the end, sanctions could undermine the Russian political regime, but the very idea that they could cause regime change in Moscow greatly alarms Western leaders. Indeed, their fear of destabilizing Russia and setting in motion an unpredictable chain of events is a major factor that has induced them to proceed with every caution—a hesitation that is in turn interpreted by the Russian ruling team as invitation to test the West’s determination even further.

On the other hand, lifting the sanctions amidst the Kremlin’s continued aggression in Ukraine would signal that the West is ready to sacrifice its global leadership role, opening a no-holds-barred, Darwinian chapter in world affairs.

Exhausted by the Kremlin’s lies and having abandoned the quest to make a deal with the Kremlin, the Western leaders made a show of their moral resentment of the Russian leader at the recent APEC and G20 summits. Their irritation is quite understandable, but so is the logic of the humiliated personalized-power regime. We can now expect the empire to strike back!

True, the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry recently extended an offer to Europe (but not the U.S.!) to mutually abrogate the sanctions, which is a direct admission that the sanctions have really started to bite. The Kremlin must finally understand the gravity of the situation and the looming economic destabilization ahead. President Putin had to start looking for an exit solution. But does it mean that he is ready to backtrack? No, that’s not his style: he will be looking for a compromise that he can present as a personal victory and will keep the country within the war paradigm.

The traditional mechanisms of engagement and dialogue with the Kremlin will scarcely work in this situation. That is what makes it such a dilemma: All these mechanisms worked in the past for relations between the West and the USSR, albeit in a limited number of spheres. In the 1970s and 1980s, at least, Moscow tried to be a responsible partner. But how can the West engage in a dialogue with the present-day Kremlin, which has made lies and imitation the main elements of its politics? How can you talk to a leader who casts himself as the defender of international law even as he is violating it?

The West finds itself at an impasse, so of course it is quite understandable that it is continuing to look for a way to help Putin to get out of the corner he has put himself in. Some Western observers are playing with the idea of offering the Kremlin a tradeoff. Such a deal would be attractive for the Kremlin; one would expect that the idea of offering Putin Ukraine (and the whole post-Soviet space) in exchange for his facilitating a deal with Iran would be floated. But how naive such a deal! Didn’t Putin clearly tell the West that he wants a new world order? He will hardly be content with just Ukraine under his belt!

Others have repeatedly offered the suggestion that Russia could become our ally in the struggle against al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban. True, it actually could. But the West would have to pay a hefty price for such an alliance; the U.S. would have to commit, for example, to refraining from any steps that could be interpreted as a claim to hegemony, and the EU would have to promise to keep quiet and let the Kremlin interpret the global rules of the game. Is that something the West can agree to?

Or consider the newest invention of Austrian and German diplomacy: Let’s exclude Ukraine from the agenda in our discussions with the Kremlin (too divisive) and think about dialogue between the EU and Eurasian Union in order to eliminate the basis for Russia’s confrontational stance. This idea shows that Europe really has no clue where to look for a solution. True, at first glance it seems rational: We would need dialogue to cool down emotions and bring at least some degree of mutual understanding. On the other hand, wouldn’t Russia use this type of dialogue as a means of coopting its Western partners and as grounds for imitation?

Finally, here is one more mantra repeated by those who persist in seeking accommodation with Russia: “We have to find a private channel for dealing with Russia.” This is supposed to convince the Russians that mutually beneficial exchanges that provide tranquility are possible. Henry Kissinger has long been waiting in the wings to become such a “ private channel.” My answer is: gentlemen, you are underestimating Putin! Why do you believe that Kissinger would be any more effective than Merkel? Is it really about the “channel”? The problem is that at this stage the Russian system has shifted into a “hostility” gear and can only survive by hating the West and any “channel” it chooses! Could the “hate machine” shift out of gear? Of course, it could, but only after seeing persuasive evidence of the West’s capitulation. Or when threatened by a crisis that could force it to change—that is, change not its survival paradigm but its tactics.

Most devastating for the liberal democracies is the fact that the Russian system is trying to survive by rendering their principles and norms fake. The Russian system can’t produce an idea or ideology as did the Soviet Union; instead it makes competing ideas and ideologies irrelevant. It is experimenting with a new way of limping along—by blurring the borders between reality and bluff, truth and lie, moral and immoral, principles and conformism, war and peace. The architects of the new ambivalence would argue with relish: “You accuse Russia of being a corrupted state, but the West is just the same. We aren’t ruining treaties and international laws; we’re defending them. We aren’t threatening anyone; you’re the one who’s trying to surround us!” Arguments, values, persuasion, truth are of no avail within this type of discussion. Rule of Law? It has no role in this fake world. There are no rules; what seems to be a norm in one moment could turn into a counter-norm in the next. Thus, despite lacking its own ideology, the Kremlin has formulated a rather effective mechanism: the “weaponization of information, culture, and money.” (See Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss, “The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money”)

The disorientation of the West only broadens the field of maneuver for those who create this fake reality. One is at a loss as to how to return sense to shared principles and rules when they have been either brushed aside or discredited by the West over the past few decades.

We are watching the desperate battle of a decaying system that refuses to leave the stage while it can still gain a few more victories. In any case, illiberal power on the downslope, not the upslope, could prove to be most threatening to the world.

This article was originally published in
The American Interest
.