‘Dictators do not ask why before they take power, they ask why not’ (An excerpt from Winter is Coming, by Gary Kasparov).
Vladimir Putin is a quintessential dictator, complete with nauseating levels of narcissism and an abhorrent indifference to violence and bloodshed. Such qualities make him a greater threat to western democracy than ISIS, or any other body that is hell-bent on dismantling international relations (not to dismiss ISIS as a legitimate threat, they obviously are, though they are just not as well funded). As well, undisputedly, it has been liberal democracy’s glorious and complete failure to detect Putin’s endgame at an early stage and respond with appropriate condemnation that led to his dictatorial ascension. However, before embarking on the shortcomings of liberal democracy in relation to Putin, a caveat must first be made.
According to the results of a survey by the Levada Institute, a university-funded autonomous organization, Mr. Putin has an 80% approval rating within Russia. Why? His flaws as a leader are clear, as is his despicable hijacking of Russian democracy, during a time where Russia yearned for a free-thinking, free-speaking political landscape, a landscape they had begun to transition towards during the Gorbachev/Yeltsin reins. It was a transition the Clinton administration promoted, as declaring a Russian democracy would be, “A symbol [of[ the success of liberalism and democracy” (Source: BBC). But, Boris Yeltsin had warped and weakened Russia’s fledgling democracy, increased debt, and suffered a humiliating defeat in the First Chechen War. Russia was in turmoil and ripe for a power hungry demagogue to stir vitriol within a once proud nation. All one needed was a break. Yeltsin resigned in 1999 and elected Vladimir Putin as interim President. The international community was incapable of knowing what a calamitous decision that would later prove to be.
Whilst Russian politicians in the Post-Soviet Union failed dismally to achieve democracy and abetted a future dictator, the ultimate weakness, and ultimate failure came from international bodies and liberal democracies, who looked on with complete indifference as Mr. Putin carried out a series of atrocities during his brazen rise to autocracy. It begins with his decision to restart the Chechen War in 1999, where his disregard for violence, and obsession with power first manifested. In a ruthless display, Russian forces decisively quashed Chechen resistance and Putin was heralded as a purveyor of Russian strength and praised for restoring “Its former glory” (As quoted in the New Statesmen). However, a damning human rights report by Amnesty International entitled, “Welcome To Hell,” identified the callousness and cruelness of the Russian regime with arbitrary imprisonment, mass civilian killings, torture, rape, and assassinations listed amongst the abuses. If condemnation came from Europe or the U.S, it was forgotten after September the 11th 2001, as Russia became a necessary ally in the war on terror, with George W. infamously stating that “I was able to get a sense of his [Putin] soul” From one naïve comment, Putin was able to make constitutional changes that restored political power, censored media, and strengthen Russian borders (especially on the Ukraine border), unobstructed. If George W. Bush had not been an ignoramus and the U.S condemned Russian actions and, along with Europe applied severe sanctions at a stage when the Russian economy was weak, Putin may not have risen to power and democracy may have prevailed. But, as we will see, the intervention did not come until much later.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was supposedly vindicated by a referendum, which indicated 92% of Crimea’s population identified as Russian. Whether or not the referendum was valid (which it clearly was not, as the Russian troops had already invaded before it was held) it does not give Russia the right to invade another country, as an invasion of such is an act of war. Rightly, the U.S, U.K, and Europe condemned the annexation and implemented strict economic sanctions. The UN also refused to recognize Crimea as a Russian subject. Whilst condemnation and repudiation were swift and direct, it failed to address the annexation as a potential act of war. With 20,000 Russian troops lining the Ukraine border, the failure by international bodies to simply address a latent possibility of war could be construed, at best, as reluctance or, at worse, a complete ineptitude to display the necessary fortitude. For history indicates that dictators do not recede when tolerance is shown, but become more daring if they consider a response weak and their enemy indolent. Liberal democracies, again, had the chance to take a stronger stand against Putin but, instead, chose a deliberately milder stance in the hope of Russian acquiescence.
Putin’s first foray into the Middle East in 2015 directly opposed Europe and America in the Syrian conflict. A downtrodden and, all but defeated Assad regime, received airstrike support from Russian jets, which relentlessly targeted rebel fighters, most notably in the re-capturing of Aleppo. Again, Russian influence in Syria was not taken seriously, with American defense Senator Ashton Carter stating, “By supporting Assad and seemingly taking on everyone who is fighting Assad, you’re taking on the whole rest of the country of Syria… That’s why the Russian approach is doomed to fail” (a quoted by BBC). Fast-forward to 2017 and Russia has become the main player in Syria, organizing peace negotiations and securing their influence in the region. If Putin stays true to record, then stability in Syria will not come at the expense of Russia and his purported desire for a peaceful resolution is more than likely a front to disguise his actual, solipsistic intentions.
The insipid actions and missed opportunities by the U.S and other liberal democracies over the last sixteen have allowed Putin to do what he pleases without damaging repercussions and, over time, he has become more daring in his pursuit of power. We now arrive at 2017 and the Russian cyber attack on the American presidential election. Recent evidence indicates that Russian hackers released confidential emails from Democratic Party members, exposing some level of corruption within the party and questioning the trustworthiness of then leader, Hillary Clinton. Furthermore, a Russian Fake News syndicate created mock articles that promoted President-Elect, Donald Trump, and lambasted Hillary Clinton. President Obama immediately expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S in retaliation. With the result of the election being as tight as it was, the Russian influence could have been the determining factor that elevated Mr. Trump over Ms. Clinton. With Mr. Trump as President-elect, concern, if not a sheer panic is required, for previous U.S responses to Russia were often belated and useless, but never positive. This is the issue we now face with Mr. Trump, who has backflipped and held opposing positions on issues with unparalleled capriciousness, except when it comes to his admiration and respect of Mr. Putin, even in the face of a bipartisan denouncing of the recent cyber attack, Mr. Trump propagated via Twitter, his continued support.
Mr. Trump’s intentions when he takes office later this month remain opaque and impossible to predict (and if you take all he has said literally, he does not know which whim he may act on). Going forward, the U.S and liberal democracies require strong bipartisan repudiation of Mr. Putin, because pandering and acquiescence have never been an effective strategy against any autocracy (Chamberlin meeting with Hitler for example). They will seize on any perceived form of weakness and take any opportunity to exploit a situation for power. With continued and, potentially, harsher sanctions in place, the Russian economy may eventually slow and dissidents may arise within and, when cracks in Mr. Putin’s totalitarian regime appear, the international community needs to recognize it and be ready to support.