Russia sought to impose autocracy on Ukraine – now it’s discrediting populism


A former commander in the Russian mercenary Wagner Group is seeking asylum in Norway, the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration told the Associated Press on Monday. The man, whom it identified as Andrey Medvedev, had arrived in Norway but declined to comment further, citing security and privacy reasons, The Post reports.

Reuters, citing the Russian human rights organization Gulagu Netreported that Medvedev fled the Wagner Group after witnessing its capture and execution of members who deserted the group.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, has accused Russia of carrying out “atrocious war crimes” in Ukraine and called for a special tribunal to be formed to investigate and prosecute them. The Russian invasion of Ukraine “is an extraordinary situation and it needs a strong reaction from the global community,” she said on Tuesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

As high-level conversations begin about a future international tribunal over the Putin regime’s war crimes in Ukraine, plans should also be made to bring to account those who incited and enabled them, says Vladimir Kara-Murza,* a Russian opposition politician imprisoned in Moscow since April for opposing the war. Speaking recently on one of the television talk shows, Margarita Simonyan, head of the leading Kremlin propaganda outlet RT, warned that in the event of Putin’s failure in Ukraine, “The Hague [the seat of international courts] awaits even the street sweeper behind the Kremlin wall.”

I don’t think anyone would suggest that street sweepers working for the Kremlin should be brought to justice, he writes for The Post. But the likes of Simonyan, Dmitry Kiselyov, Vladimir Solovyov and other Putin regime propagandists certainly should.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine ranks as one of the greatest military failures of modern times. What he thought would be an easy victory now saps Moscow’s strength, notes military expert Zoltan Barany. In the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy, he offers the definitive account of why Putin’s military failed, arguing that the corruption of the regime has crippled the country’s military power.

As The Economist has observed, Leon Trotsky wrote that “the army is a copy of society and suffers from all its diseases, usually at a higher temperature”.

“The Russian military is a quintessential reflection of the state that created it,” Barany writes: “Autocratic, security-obsessed, and teeming with hypercentralized decision-making, dysfunctional relations between civilian and military authorities, inefficiency, corruption, and brutality.”

The state of Russian civil-military relations is a gauge of democratization and provides a telling commentary on the country’s 15-year-long post-Communist path, he writes in his forthcoming book, Democratic Breakdown and the Decline of the Russian Military (below).

Because Ukraine is a democracy and Russia is an authoritarian kleptocracy, the war has highlighted a fundamental clash between alternative political systems, adds Sławomir Sierakowski, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement and a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. This dynamic raises the stakes considerably, because a military defeat for the democracy could be an invitation to dictators elsewhere to pursue their own conquests.

While individual populists have either moderated their positions or been marginalized, the broader “populist international” has become more fractured with the loss of its Russian patron, he writes for Project Syndicate. Western politicians can no longer walk around in pro-Putin t-shirts, as the Italian nationalist leader Matteo Salvini once did, or borrow money from Russian banks, as the French right-wing leader Marine Le Pen’s party has done. Pro-Russian and anti-NATO views are no longer acceptable. In 2022, the German pro-Russian parties Alternative für Deutschland and Die Linke lost local elections across the board.

Democratic backsliding continues to be a problem in a handful of [EU] member states. And there is no guarantee that the EU’s unity over defending Ukraine will hold, especially as Europeans will be asked to make more sacrifices over time, notes Matthias Matthijs, Associate Professor of International Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University. But for now, the EU deserves high marks for its handling of the crises of 2022. Support for Ukraine—both at the elite and the popular level—remains remarkably resilient, he writes for Foreign Affairs.

The war in Ukraine has further exposed the solidarity among autocratic rulers around the world, analysts  and  write for Just Security.

“War weariness” in Western democracies is a tired trope, says Eliot Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. We in the West are sacrificing nothing beyond modest financial resources—no comparison to the blood tax paid by the people of Ukraine. As a number of analysts have noted, spending some tens of billions of dollars to shatter the land and air forces of one of our chief opponents, Russia, is a bargain. Spending some tens of billions of dollars more, for as long as it takes, is no less worth it, he writes for The Atlantic.

Europe must strengthen its own resilience, better integrate its Eastern neighbors, and remain tough on the Russian regime without abandoning its civil society, argues Stefan Meister, author of the recent Carnegie article “A Paradigm Shift: EU-Russia Relations After the War in Ukraine.” He speaks with Laure Delcour, Thomas de Waal and Rosa Balfour at After the War: The Future of EU-Russia Relations, Wednesday Jan 25, 12:30pm CET. Carnegie Europe. RSVP]

Russian strategists who make the argument for fighting on increasingly do so not because they see a realistic prospect of victory, but because defeat is too hard to contemplate, The FT’s Gideon Rachman adds:

In a bleak article, [Dmitri] Trenin, a former Russian military intelligence colonel and then director of the now-closed Carnegie Moscow Center, argues that “while a theoretical path to surrender exists” for Russia, this option is unacceptable because it would entail “national catastrophe, probable chaos and an unconditional loss of sovereignty”. Fear of that outcome leads Trenin to conclude that Russia has no choice but to fight on as a “warrior country, defending its sovereignty and integrity”, even though this will require “great sacrifices” over “many years”. 

The “rupture” in Russo-Western relations is irreparable, there is no way to backtrack, Russia is guaranteed a difficult confrontation with the West for a long time to come, Trenin insists.

But one way or another, Putin will be gone at some point, argues analyst Vladimir Milov. After that happens, there are significant reasons to believe that his followers – although initially maintaining a facade of the similar consolidated imperialistic regime – will attempt a notable turnaround in domestic and external policies, he writes for Zentrum Liberale Moderne as part of the project International Expert Network Russia. The reasons for such an assumption include the following:

  • The great majority of Putin’s elite are pure opportunists not bound to a particular ideology. There are notable exceptions – like National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and maybe a few other top “ayatollahs” – but they are a minority and do not possess the means for an ultimate consolidation of power. …The rest of Russia’s ‘elites’ do not adhere to any particular ideology or values and have been noticed for many ideological twists and turns throughout their career (which can be easily tracked). There will be no deeply entrenched motives for them to stick to Putin’s ideology.
  • The costs for the elite associated with a continuation of the current course will be enormous, whereas the benefits of a political turnaround are clear.
  • Putin’s elites are well aware of the lasting popular discontent with most of their social and economic policies. Essentially, the population is pacified only by the domination of Vladimir Putin’s personal authority that was built over the course of more than 20 years. None of the newcomer rulers will have similar legitimacy and public authority to be able to promote an unpopular course and unpopular decisions.
  • There is no bottom-up popular demand for an aggressive imperialistic course from Russian society. Both the aggression against Ukraine of 2014 and the all-out war against Ukraine of 2022 caught the Russian public by complete surprise…. Most opinion polls show that, however skeptical Russians are about the West, they would still predominantly prefer normalization of relations as opposed to protracted standoff.
  • Maintaining mass political repressions to quell public discontent currently proves to be a costly option. It is not excluded that the new post-Putin rulers may still take that road, but since they don’t have the same ideological motivation as the rulers of countries like Iran or North Korea (see above), a simple cost-benefit analysis offers tempting motives to at least seriously consider a softening of the course.

All these factors show that it will be very difficult for authoritarian post-Putin rulers to maintain his current isolationist and imperialistic course – the costs will be significant, whereas the benefits of a policy turnaround are huge, Milov adds. RTWT

When the Russia-Ukraine war broke out, the social media platform Telegram (think Twitter and Whatsapp combined) emerged as its digital battlefield, Tanya Lukyanova observes.

The war’s fractured reality plays out on Telegram, which is like a broken mirror, reflecting all sides of the conflict, she adds (above). Russian and Ukrainian propaganda, independent voices, war reporters, and civilians share different perspectives on the same events – all on a platform known for its lack of recommendation algorithms and lax approach to content moderation.

Ukrainians are getting rid of Russian content, and Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine are switching to the Ukrainian language, UATV reports (below). Like 100 years ago, the external aggression made Ukrainians value their national identity and independence even more. This is confirmed by sociological surveys, including the rapid growth of the Ukrainian segment in social networks.You are invited to join the Reagan Institute on Wednesday, February 1, for “Dissent and Persecution in Russia: From Father Edelstein to Vladimir Kara-Murza.” Co-hosted by the Reagan Institute’s Center for Freedom and Democracy and the National Endowment for Democracy, the event will feature a screening of My Duty to Not Stay Silent, the newest documentary film by imprisoned Russian opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza, followed by a discussion on dissent and persecution in today’s Russia.

The event will feature opening remarks from Evgenia Kara-Murza, Vladimir’s wife. The panel discussion, moderated by the NED’s Damon Wilson, will include President and Founder of the Free Russia Foundation Natalia Arno, President of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation Ambassador Andrew Bremberg, and President and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Jamie Fly. Opening remarks will begin at 4:00 PM and the event will conclude with a reception starting at 6:00 PM. The Reagan Institute is located at 850 16th St. NW, Washington, DC. Please RSVP by completing this form.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email