THE FIGHT between autocracy and democracy is a “defining issue of our time,” President Joe Biden said in December at the virtual “Summit for Democracy”. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is his testimony. With the help of missiles and tanks, the autocrat is trying to stifle a freely elected government.
In addition, the core of the anti-Putin coalition, which consists of America and much of Europe, is firmly democratic. In short, the crackdown on Putin seems to be in line with Mr Biden’s account of the “battle between democracy and autocracy”, as he said in his speech on the state of the union. But geopolitics is never so neat.
Although Mr. Putin the most important patron, China, authoritarian, some democracies ambivalent. India, a major buyer of Russian weapons, refuses to condemn him. South Africa, whose ruling party had long-standing friendships with the former Soviet Union, blames the war on NATO. The president of Brazil, whose “masculine qualities” Putin once praised, admits neutrality. Israel says it is temporarily hoping to play mediator.
And Mr. Biden is also seeking help from authoritarian regimes, raising concerns that as the West did not notice abuses by anti-communist allies during the Cold War, he will now make ugly compromises to confront Putin. This will create diplomatic and political problems. Compared to claiming that compromise was necessary to counter the specter of communism, it may be more difficult to argue – allies abroad and voters at home – that one needs to deserve the grace of autocrats to resist autocracy.
Consider Turkey, a country of great strategic importance where democracy is under siege. Western criticism of Turkey’s strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan has subsided since the start of the war.
Sympathizing with Ukraine and selling it highly effective combat drones, Erdogan opposed sanctions against Russia and kept his airspace open to Russian aircraft. He also threw Putin a financial lifeline, offering to trade between Turkey and Russia using rubles or gold. Ordinary Russians fleeing persecution at home found refuge in Turkey. However, Russian oligarchs are fleeing Western sanctions. Two superyachts of Roman Abramovich, Putin’s billionaire friend, are moored there.
Western officials are urging Turkey to take a tougher stance on Russia. Turkish Democrats fear Erdogan will demand high prices, such as the West’s indulgence in its habit of shutting down its critics and shutting the media. On March 1, Mr Erdogan suggested that Turkey speed up its path to EU membership. A week later, he called on Biden to lift sanctions against Turkey’s defense industry imposed after Erdogan bought S-400 air defense from Russia. Since then, America has offered a way out, offering Turkey to send S-400 to Ukraine. This is unlikely to happen for technical and political reasons, including because of Turkey’s fear of retribution. But America can still make a deal with Erdogan. America reconciled with undemocratic Turkey during the First Cold War because it was an ally. It could be in the new Cold War.
Among Western countries, liberals face a version of this dilemma. Poland is much more democratic than Turkey, but in recent years its government has interfered with judges and persecuted opposition media. Because of this, EU froze 36 billion euros ($ 40 billion) of funds for reconstruction from the pandemic destined for Poland.
However, today in Poland there is welcomed the largest share of Ukrainian refugees and allows weapons to cross its territory for the Ukrainian resistance. Faced with the threat that Russia, its worst enemy, may find itself on its borders, it seeks to reconcile with EU. This could push the ruling Law and Justice Party to harden its nobility of judges and stifle the press. But perhaps the opposite. Poland’s Western partners may not notice the abuses because of the significant role it plays in relation to Ukraine. “It would be very strange to put pressure on the Polish government over the rule of law right now,” said an analyst close to the Biden administration. “But Warsaw must understand that confronting autocrats requires strengthening our own democracy.”
For their part, critics fear that “Law and Justice” is using the specter of further Russian aggression to wrap itself in the flag, strengthen its power over Polish institutions and intensify attacks on domestic “enemies” such as liberals, feminists and gays. “Maybe we need to change our approach even more thoroughly,” says the host on the Polish topic. TV recently pondered. “Can a frontline state afford to tolerate attacks on its value system?”
The war has led to rising energy prices, forcing the West to reconsider its relations with autocratic oil powers. (With 13 members APEC, a club of oil exporters, 11 received a rating of “unfree” American organization Freedom House; two of them are rated as “partially free.”) Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Biden angered the rulers of the Persian Gulf by emphasizing human rights. He once promised to make the Saudi regime “the outcast they are.” He is now asking him to pump more oil, a message backed by Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, who visited Riyadh on March 16. Mr Biden may have to go further to agree with Muhammad bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, whom he accused of ordering the dismemberment. Washington Post columnist in 2018. The prince is arranging in China to demonstrate that he has options. It views oil sales prices to China in yuan, not dollars Wall Street Journal reports. The Prince wants more help in his ill-fated war in Yemen and immunity from prosecution in America.
Another oil-working autocracy, Venezuela, hopes the war in Ukraine will help it avoid an embargo. Many democracies refuse to recognize Nicolas Maduro, the despot who rigged the election, as president. Mr Putin has supported Maduro with planes with weapons and money, as well as several military personnel, mainly to show that he can intervene in the American court. But now everyone’s calculations are changing.
Maduro can no longer count on Putin, who has no money and he is much more concerned with the conquest of Kiev than cherishing Caracas. Mr Biden is more concerned with stopping Putin than ousting Maduro. Hence the unusual scene on Venezuelan television on March 7, when Mr. Maduro described a meeting with a White House delegation two days earlier. “The two flags looked beautiful,” he said, “united as the flags of the United States and Venezuela should be.”
The Biden administration says the main purpose of the visit was humanitarian. Maduro released two American prisoners. He also vowed to return to talks he abandoned last year with the much-persecuted Venezuelan opposition. But the parties also talked about oil. The delegation in Caracas reportedly agreed to lift sanctions on Venezuela, which exports some oil to the United States.
Both sides are wary. But limited rapprochement seems possible and will certainly strengthen Mr Maduro’s power. His meeting with U.S. officials has been a “de facto recognition” that he is leading, says Temir Poros, Maduro’s former chief of staff. The strongman “got what he always wanted.” Republicans accuse Biden of showing weakness by appealing to despots. Mark Rubio, a senator from Florida, said the meeting “caused enormous damage” to the opposition.
Compassion for the devil
Democracies have a long history of dealing with nasty regimes. Some of them were clearly needed. To defeat Nazi Germany, the West worked with Joseph Stalin, prompting Winston Churchill to remark, “If Hitler had gone to hell, I would have at least favorably mentioned the devil in the House of Commons.” Others look shameful. America’s support during the Cold War for anti-communist kleptocrats in strategically peripheral places such as Mobutu Sese Seka in Zaire (now Congo) finds few defenders today.
Fighting Putin will force the West to reconsider many of its ties to smaller attackers. But the new Cold War is different from the old one. Communism was a universal ideology that inspired revolutions in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Putinism is a howl of nationalist and reactionary anger. Neither Russia nor China offers “a compelling worldview that can attract massive support from around the world,” said Stuart Patrick of the American Council on Foreign Relations. This makes them less of an existential threat to the free world than the Soviet Union, and thus reduces the incentive or justification for making deals as unpleasant as those made to keep communism at bay.
As sanctions devastate Russia’s economy, the Kremlin’s support for its own autocratic clients may fade. The strongmen in Mali and the Central African Republic can survive, as the operations of Russian mercenaries who protect them look self-financing. (In CAR has many diamonds.) But Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus may be more shaky. Putin has saved both tyrants in the past by sending troops to defeat Syrian rebels in 2015 and thugs to help Lukashenko suppress protests against the stolen 2020 election. Both people are trying to keep Putin in their corner. Mr. Assad, who is seeking finish its isolation from his Arab colleagues is said to have sent Syrian “volunteers” to help Russia in Ukraine.
Mr Lukashenko has helped Putin by allowing Russia to start pushing Kyiv south from Belarus. Belarusian troops were supposed to join them, but the Belarusian opposition says it does not want to follow the order of the unpopular despot to attack impeccable compatriots. It is reported that Belarusian railways sabotaged the railway connection with Ukraine to stop supplies to the invaders.
So far, the war itself demonstrates some of the strengths of democracy and the shortcomings of autocracy. Ukraine’s militants surprised their opponents, and the commitment of its people to their freedom inspired the world. For his part, Putin was able to start his destructive war on a whim. His curses are afraid of bringing him unwanted news. He seems to have sincerely expected that many Ukrainians would meet his troops. And his regime, like most autocracies, is corrupt, making his army weaker in the field than on paper. Budgets were looted; The Russian kit is damaged due to lack of maintenance or spare parts.
However, the outcome of the war is unpredictable, and so will its impact on global democracy. If Mr. Putin achieves something like victory, it can inspire strongmen everywhere. If he loses, it can inspire those who oppose them. If Mr. Biden convenes his democratic summit again later this year, much will depend on the courage of Ukrainians and the support they will receive from democracy with all its shortcomings. ■
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