BERLIN — The expansion of Vladimir Putin's authority is directly connected to his ability to exploit the weaknesses of Western democracies. But people continue to play down the danger that Putin poses. Could this prove to be a fatal error for our system of liberal democracy?
“If you can't beat them, join them,” or so an old proverb tells us. But the new version of this old proverb among Western observers trying to figure out how to deal with Russia's renewed ambitions is: “if you can't beat them, then talk down the threat they pose.” And be clear, these are observers who could never be accused of being sympathetic towards the Kremlin.
But it is in this vein that the Bulgarian political expert Ivan Krastev recently published an article in The New York Times about “the return of the Cold War narrative,” warning not to over-hype Russia’s influence over Western political developments. Russia experts have expressed similar views in several popular German newspapers.
According to these articles, the general “overreaction” to Putin’s aggressive policies only enhances Putin’s status, and that the Russian president is not as powerful as he likes to portray himself. It would, therefore, be much smarter to ignore his threatening political and military gestures up to a certain point, and thus undermining his ambitions.
None of the arguments mentioned above are novel revelations. We have heard them repeatedly since Putin declared the West to be the enemy and broken decades of peace on the European continent by annexing Crimea and invading Eastern Ukraine.
But what is astounding is the fact that they are being repeated so vehemently at precisely this moment, after Putin has just had Aleppo reduced to rubble and downgraded the West to mere extras in the Syrian war theater. Now he is preparing to establish a new order in Syria, according to his wishes, with the support of both Iran and Turkey.
And on top of that, the Kremlin’s disinformation and cyberwarfare specialists have proven that they are able to manipulate the presidential election of the most powerful nation on Earth, with new Putin-friendly leaders eyeing victory in the Netherlands, France and Italy.
So, even if the recommendation to be more relaxed about the threat that Putin poses seems a tall order, the many crises looming in the West can hardly all be blamed on the Kremlin’s subversion tactics.
Alice Boota rightly notes in her article in Die Zeit that Putin “is not the cause for the crisis that liberal democracy faces. He is simply the beneficiary.”
Still, we should remember that authoritarian and totalitarian leaders and movements were never the cause for the crises of the democracies they destroyed. Instead, these leaders and movements were simply adept at how best to exploit such crises, while well-meaning democrats inevitably underestimated the danger before them.
His authoritarian societal model has a stronger gravitational pull in the West than the Soviet regime ever did.
Thus Putin’s authoritarianism and his apologists inside the West are a true peril in the face of a growing weakness of liberal democracy. Meanwhile, there is no lack of theories carted out to play down the threat. Former Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovski, for example, rehashes the age-old statement that, unlike the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia does not have an attractive ideology to offer to its supporters around the globe.
Although it is true that Putin does not have a monolithic ideology to offer comparable to Marxism-Leninism, his authoritarian societal model has, in a way, a stronger ideological and practical gravitational pull in the West than the Soviet regime ever did. This is because it is attractive to the classes who have means and who, under communism, would have been dispossessed.
Putin’s system, with its symbiosis of state, intelligence services and organized crime, offers them unrestrained reapings, while being free from the chains of law and order, democratic institutions or a free press. Another classic argument utilized to calm the unease Putin spreads is the noted weakness of the Russian economy. Though this may indeed one day be the factor that leads to the downfall of the regime, until that day the worsening of the Russian economy will only drive Putin to be even more aggressive in his foreign policy because confrontation helps legitimize his claim to power.
Putin’s continuous demonstration of his willingness to apply force intimidates, blackmails and divides the West, which currently shies away from any kind of military engagement.
Any supposed “overreaction” to this threat is nowhere to be seen. Russia need not fear any sanctions for its war crimes and violations of international law committed in Syria. As an example, Western governments as well as the UN have chosen to call the expulsion of Eastern Aleppo’s population, which constitutes a crime against humanity, an “evacuation” and celebrate its execution as a heroic act of humanitarianism.
It stands to fear, that the U.S., under the leadership of its new president, will legitimize Moscow’s violation of international law as well as its demands for a “zone of influence” within Eastern Europe. But no one should be fooled into believing that Putin’s ambitions stop there. Ultimately, he envisions forcing his will onto all of Europe.