Democracy and Putin’s Obsession with Ukraine
that He Dubs ‘nazi anti-Russia’
University of St Andrews
Russian Warship: ‘This is a military warship. This is a Russian military warship. I suggest you lay down your weapons and surrender to avoid bloodshed and needless casualties. Otherwise, you will be bombed.’
Ukrainian soldier: ‘Russian warship, go fuck yourself.’
Zmiinyi (‘Snake’) Island, Black Sea
25 February 2022
Putin accuses Ukraine of sins that actually are of present-day Russia’s making. First of all, fascist-style nationalistic autocracy is the manner of governance that the president instilled all over Russia during his twenty odd years in office. Second, it is under Putin’s rule when forced Russification (or ‘cultural genocide’) was ramped up to wipe out the country’s around 30 regional official languages spoken by Russia’s ethnically non-Russian citizens. By the way, they account for a fifth of the Russian Federation’s population, or almost 30 million people (including 2 million Ukrainians). Meanwhile, after the shock of Russia’s first war on Ukraine in 2014, the latter country has become a vibrant democracy. The observed progress in economy and the rule of law has brought Ukraine tantalizingly close to achieving its constitutionally-enshrined goal of joining the European Union and Nato.
Because of these achievements, since 2017, Ukrainians have enjoyed visa-free travel (BezViz) to the European Union. A sought-for prize denied to the Russians and Belarusians, who at the whim of their own country’s autocrats are excluded from unrestricted partaking in the culture and socioeconomic life of Europe and the broader free world, or the west. For Ukraine’s successes that by comparison undermine the legitimacy of Putin’s rule in the eyes of young and liberal Russians, the Kremlin now demonizes the Ukrainians and their state as a ‘militarized anti-Russia,’ poised on attacking Russia. Curiously, the Russian president and his cabinet latch onto the messianic symbolism of the Christian bible’s apocalypse to portray Russia as a latter-day savior of the modern world. In the Kremlin’s propaganda view the west is weak and degenerate and only Russia can make it see light. On the other hand, in his rambling July 2021 essay, Putin maintains that Ukraine is not a state and that all Ukrainians are Russians, who must realize this fact and let Moscow love them again.
War: Going Back to the Dark Past
The preparations for the Kremlin’s latest ‘peacekeeping special military operation’ began way back in 2021, that is, on the 80th anniversary of nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union. At that time in 1941, the totalitarian alliance between Berlin and Moscow (1939-1941) aimed against the west unraveled. But in today’s neo-totalitarian Russia it is prohibited to mention this fact,  namely that Stalin and Hitler cooperated. Putin was impatient to utilize the symbolism of the outbreak of what is still known under the Soviet moniker ‘the Great Patriotic War’ in non-democratic post-Soviet countries. Yet, on China’s kind request, the Kremlin showed restraint and waited for four long days after the end of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. At dawn, on Thursday, 24th February 2022, Putin in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief ordered the 240,000 Russian and Belarusian troops amassed along the Ukrainian frontiers to attack the country. The largest, in postwar European history, land invasion commenced.
The onslaught’s official goal is to ‘de-nazify’ Ukraine and stop the ‘ongoing genocide of Russophones’ in this country. These are lies for domestic consumption in Russia, where the freedom of the press and expression were liquidated during Putin’s long rule. There has been no genocide, and no NSDAP in today’s Ukraine. No major far-right (‘nazi-style’) party operates in this country and – let alone – governs Ukraine. Even more bizarrely, the invasion already unleashed, in a televized address to the Russian nation, quite intemperately, Putin denigrated the Ukrainian government as a ‘gang of drug addicts and neo-nazis.’ Incidentally, the valiant Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is of Jewish extraction. For sure, what irks Putin most is the fact that Zelensky won his post in a just, free and democratic presidential election, unlike the Russian autocrat holed up in the Kremlin.
Democracy Never Comes Cheap
The west appreciates democratic Ukraine’s progress and clearly realizes what the peaceful country is set against in this unprovoked uphill confrontation with the Russian Federation. We all can follow the war almost in real time, courtesy of online streaming news services. Furthermore, the story of this tragedy foretold has been in the news for a quarter of a year now. The heightened tension brought a string of western politicians to the Kremlin, be it in person or online. Much to the autocrat’s delight, these pliant supplicants begged Putin for not starting a war. The Kremlin promised that it was not planning any invasion. The west was not duped, because all Russia’s acts on the ground pointed to the contrary.
Meanwhile, words of support and promises of financial aid flowed to Kyiv, with some low-key defensive weaponry. During the past two decades, Berlin has abetted Russia’s growing geopolitical stranglehold on Germany and Europe by allowing the construction of the two Nord Stream gas pipelines across the Baltic. Aware of the looming prospect of a Russian invasion, finally the German government offered Ukraine 5,000 military helmets. Now, three days after the Russian attack, these helmets have just been delivered to the Polish-Ukrainian border to be collected by the Ukrainian government beleaguered in the capital under Russian invaders’ fire. Berlin refused to fly these helmets into Ukraine not to irritate Moscow.
Is it a joke? How is the ‘defensive gift’ supposed to help the Ukrainians? What kind of a signal does it send to the Kremlin? Business as usual? US President Joe Biden is more vocal in his criticism of Russia, but he stated that no Nato troops would be dispatched to Ukraine to help in the defense of this democratic country against autocratic Russia’s invading armies. Is it a becoming approach for the US that styles itself as the leader of the free and democratic world? Incredulously, Biden offered to evacuate Zelensky, his family and the Ukrainian government from Kyiv under the Russian siege. Zelensky lambasted the US president by curtly replying that what he ‘needs [is] ammunition, not a ride.’ Such an abandonment of duty would have put the Ukrainian defense into disarray. Zelensky is not like the last Afghanistan president, who escaped when his country need him most, when the Taliban forces approached Kabul.
What is more, Biden and the Americans owe it to Zelensky and the Ukrainians. Have they already forogotten how in 2020 Zelensky said no to then US President Donald Trump, when the latter sought Kyiv’s help in fabricating compromising material against Biden? The disgraced former president, who after losing in the 2020 presidential election tried to seize power in a coup, now, in the course of the Russian invasion, praises Putin. This illustrates not only Trump’s admiration for the Russian dictator, but also his thinly-disguised desire for turning the US into an autocracy with himself styled as Putin-like president for life.
In return for Kyiv’s help with protecting the US from sliding into autocracy, the western diplomats and embassies abandoned Kyiv ten days prior to the Russian invasion. Why could they not stay to add to the overall international pressure on Moscow not to invade? What has changed between now and 2008, when their counterparts refused to leave Tbilisi when Georgia found itself under the Russian attack then? How come that in the face of the imminent Russian attack on this post-Soviet country, the then leaders of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine made the point of visiting the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. They put their lives in danger’s path. Such a principled stance is what differs mere politicians from genuine statesmen. Most probably, these leaders’ visit saved Tbilisi from a Russian attack. Isn’t Kyiv with its three times larger population worth a similar privilege?
Dystopia That Is Coming True
Arguably, the currently best Belarusian-language novelist Alhierd Bacharevič prefigured the tragic events unfolding in Ukraine in his sprawling 2017 novel of 900 pages, titled Dogs of Europe. After the rigged presidential election in Belarus in 2020, followed by the mass protests that continued for a year, the writer went into exile in Austria not to be imprisoned. The plotline of his book proposes that in 2025 Russia annexed Belarus and in a quick succession launched wars against Ukraine and the neighboring Nato countries. This led to a Third World War fought with the limited use of nuclear weapons. China stayed neutral and facilitated the negotiating of the 2027 armistice that was signed in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. Subsequently, Moscow declared the founding of a Eurasian empire, officially dubbed the Russian Reich. It was composed of the Russian Federation, Finland, the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine. In addition, thanks to successful military operations in Asia, the Russian Reich also gained Kazakhstan, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Korea. The following year, in 2028, Putin was crowned as Emperor of the Russian Reich.
Yes, a fantastic take at political fiction, but how prescient. What Bacharevič saw in his mind’s eye began happening almost a decade earlier than he predicted. In real life, Russia de facto annexed Belarus in 2021, and attacked Ukraine in 2022. The west’s current resolve is limited to sanctions, and even more sanctions that may finally hit the Russian economy but only in the future. In reality it is appeasement without mentioning this ugly term. Appeasement at the cost of giving up on Ukraine, a country the size of France, with the population equal to Spain’s. Can Europe allow itself to sustain such a loss?
What would that mean for democracy? In 1993 the short-lived democratic experiment came to an end in the Russian Federation. Then President Boris Yeltsin ordered tanks to subdue the Russian Parliament. The country was again set on the way to dictatorship. From all the post-Soviet states only the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania embarked on the democratic path that led them to join the EU and Nato in 2004. Much to the Kremlin’s pleasure, the Asian post-Soviet states chose autocracy and mostly bow to Russia’s guidance in economy and security. Russia gradually dominated and now de facto absorbed Belarus, officially with the country’s dictator of almost three decades still at the helm. Meanwhile, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine chose to emulate the example of the Baltic states. As a result, the enraged Kremlin launched attacks and wars on all the three culprits that so carelessly rejected the kind gift of Russian-style and –led autocracy. The succession of Russian invasions created a string of de facto states on Georgian, Moldovan and Ukrainian territory, hindering the three states’ efforts at democratization, reforms and to join the Euro-Atlantic structures.
Now, from the perspective of its land frontier (and leaving the Kaliningrad enclave from consideration), all of autocratic Russia is safely insulated from the free and democratic world by the neighboring states that are either autocratic (Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Kazakhstan and North Korea) or neutral and pro-Russian (like Finland and Mongolia). The only exception is Russia’s border with the EU and Nato member states of Estonia and Latvia. Yet, the places about which the dictatorially-minded Russian president obsesses most are Russia’s frontier stretches with Georgia and Ukraine. Both states are still democracies and aspire to join the EU and Nato.
But does the free and democratic world need to look on idly and follow the Kremlin’s authoritarian and neo-imperial wishes and projects? It is oft-repeated that unlike authoritarian states, democracies do not fight one another. The question now is whether democracies should help one another, when one of them is under a military invasion launched by an autocracy. At present, this is the very case of Russia’s ongoing brutal and ruthless attack against Ukraine.
The west proposes that the announced barrage of economic sanctions will stop Russia and save Ukraine. But will it? In the past, the previous packages of sanctions imposed on Russia after the Kremlin’s wars and attacks on Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 (including the annexation of Crimea) did not deter or hinder Russia in its neoimperial and autocratic designs. In the mean time, western companies found creative ways to circumnavigate these sanctions and began doing lucrative business with Russia again. In 2019 even the US agreed to Germany’s wish to deepen this country’s and the EU’s dependence on Russian oil and gas by giving green light to the construction of Nord Stream 2. How come that any western leader should be now surprised that the Kremlin weaponized this dependency? Moscow wields it against the EU, so that neither Brussels nor Nato would dare to come to democratic Ukraine’s succor.
Unlike still believed by some commentators in the free and democratic world, capitalism is not democratic in itself or a precursor to democracy. Actually, this economic system is ideology-neutral, as shown by communist China’s unprecedented success at using capitalism to simultaneously grow the country’s economy and strengthen its totalitarian political system. Beijing’s ‘successful’ 2020 dismantling of democracy in still capitalist Hong Kong is a clear point in case.
It is invariably leaders, politicians and citizens who decide on how and in line with which values capitalism should be deployed in this or that country. At present, the globe’s authoritarian states led by China and Russia in a tentative alliance seem determined to spread autocracy worldwide at the expense of democracy. During the past decade, both powers have made sure to roll back fledgling and even established democracies in their immediate geopolitical neighborhoods. Such unsung cooperation is exemplified by the Kremlin’s recent coordination of its attack on Ukraine with the end of Beijing’s Winter Olympics. Autocracies also tend to help each other. What is more, in expectation of the west’s forthcoming economic sanctions after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Moscow already secured monumental oil and gas deals with China with an eye to offsetting this economic cost. Beijing loyally plays its role as a fellow autocracy.
At the same time, Russian money influences politics and economy in the west, gradually opening gates for a broader acceptance of autocracy there, too. By bowing be it to China or Russia, some leaders of EU member states show they are ready to undermine democracy in their own countries in order to stay in power or for personal gain. The current drifting of Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, or Slovenia toward autocracy is a clear proof of the fact that democracy is never given for ever and must be supported and cultivated to last.
The time to act is now. While autocrats of the world unite, the free and democratic world cannot afford to stand by and do nothing. On its own, Ukraine, a fellow democratic country, keeps repelling autocratic Russia’s unprovoked attack. No democracy is ready to help Kyiv directly in this unequal struggle. Meanwhile, China remains supportive of Russia, even if in a transactional manner. Should Ukraine fall, the future generations will blame the complacent west for this catastrophe foretold. And in the aftermath, no western leader will have the right to complain that democracy is rolled back even more in Europe and elsewhere in the world.
Just a historical reminder. During the early 1920s, practically all Central Europe’s states were democracies. Yet, after nazi Germany’s partitioning of democratic Czechoslovakia in 1939, not a single democratic remained in this region prior to the outbreak of World War II. Together democracies stand and thrive, divided they fall. Let us make no mistake about it: the future of Europe and the world is now being decided in Ukraine.
 Alhierd Bacharevič . 2018. Сабакі Эўропы Sabaki Eŭropy [Dogs of Europe]. Vilnius: Lohvinaŭ.