Vladimir Putin: Accidental Democrat

Russia's Paradoxical Route to Democracy

Ignat Arapov

‘’I am responsible only to God and history’’, these Putinistic words were repeatedly uttered by Spanish dictator Fransico Franco. For decades, Franco held his country in a dictatorial stranglehold. Yet, starting in the late 70s, La Transición Española moved the country from a fascist dictatorship into a full-fledged liberal democracy within a matter of years. Four thousand kilometres eastward, the Russian people have been subjugated to equally despotic rule for the better part of the last five centuries. Just like the Spaniards tell their grandchildren about La Transición Española, I believe that Russians will soon tell their (grand)children about the Perekhodnyy period v Rossi that democratized their country during the 2020s. 

The Spanish Democratic Wonder 

Charles Tilly, a world-renowned social science professor at Harvard, has extensively explicated how this Spanish democrat wonder was able to take place. Mainly, Tilly argues that Franco’s purge of the Spanish military has been pivotal in the country’s eventual democratization. For centuries, the Spanish military had a notorious sway in ruling the country; remarkably, the power-obsessed Franco managed to completely subordinate the armed forces to his control. This meant that when Franco deceased in the mid-70s, the military – which once enjoyed remarkable authority – had little influence on public politics left. Instead of turning into a military junta, the Spanish people sweeped into the power vacuum and established the democratic institutions that grant them liberty to this day. Russia is no Spain, and Putin is no Franco; however, the fascist dictator in the Kremlin will, like his Spanish counterpart, inevitably come down as well. And when he does, the Russian people will, like their Spanish counterparts, possibly be able to lay the groundwork for long-term democratic flourishing.

Spain’s accidental democrat, Francisco Franco. (Source: The Irish Times).

Putin’s Paranoid Purge

Ever since the annexation of Crimea and the start of the Donbas war in 2014, escalation by the Russian aggressor has loomed over the people of  Ukraine like the Sword of Damocles. On February 24th, Putin took the sword and attempted to slash the Ukrainian identity into unrecognizable pieces. The Ukrainian people have, however, shown admirable resistance that has enabled them to keep the invader out of most parts of the country. Besides the exceptional military performance by the Ukrainian troops, this, in part, has to do with grave strategic miscalculations on part of the Russians. 

Fueled with anger about this failed Clausewitzian regime-toppling, Putin has been engaged in a Stalinistic purge of those supposedly responsible for this disaster. Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin has been busy attacking so-called silovarchs, a term that congregates Siloviki – military elites – and oligarchs; these silovarchs are widely regarded as those with the most sway over the commander-in-chief. This purge takes many forms; the Russian President has, for instance, publicly embarrassed high officials in the Russian Intelligence Service – which, indeed, is the modern-day equivalent of Putin’s former employer, the KGB. Additionally, top-level officials at the Foreign Intelligence Branch have been annulled and locked up; likewise, the deputy head of the Russian National Guard has been dislodged. Especially staggering is the fact that Vladislav Surkov – head ideologist in the Kremlin from 1999 until 2011 and Putin’s main advisor on Eastern Ukraine since the start of the war in 2014 – has been placed under house arrest last week. This pattern makes clear that war-induced paranoia has gotten hold of the world’s biggest plutocrat; mirroring his 20th-century Spanish counterpart, Mr Putin is fortifying his own position by reigning in the power of authoritative government agencies. 

Muted Money Men

During times of the Tsarist regimes, the nobility historically served as a paramount pillar of autocratic rule. Similarly, oligarchs have exerted much influence over the Russian government during the past decades. But now, as Ukrainian refugees are fleeing westwards into Europe, Russian billionaires have been fleeing to Dubai, Tel Aviv, and Istanbul in the East. These oligarchs-in-exile may be able to keep living the high life, but this has come at the cost of reduced influence over the Kremlin. The radio silence coming from those kleptocrats still within the Russian borders further exemplifies that the Russian nobility has been losing its influence over the commander-in-chief. Following Charles Tilly’s theorization, this twofold reduction of autonomous power centres – both oligarchs and silovarchs – within Russian society can pave the way for democratizing the Russian Federation. When Putin inevitably falls, the Russian people should jump into the power vacuum that is currently being created by this Putinistic purge.

Keeping the oligarchs in check(mate).

Democratic Spillover

As stated before, the Russian ‘’special military operation’’ – which could be better described as a war-crime campaign of repeated rape and summary executions – has largely been a disaster for the Russians. Accordingly, a Ukrainian military victory is visible on the horizon. The main driver behind this imminent victory is the insurmountable Ukrainian morale; there is no alternative to winning this war, as Ukrainians have told me. Ukraine will fight until it wins. Moreover, most NATO states, with Germany as a reprehensible exception, have shown willingness to provide more heavy military equipment to the Ukrainian army, as exemplified by the recent shipment of artillery and air defence systems by the United States and Slovakia, respectively. The congruence of bulletproof morale with advanced arms makes a Ukrainian victory inevitable, albeit that this will be a long and bloody fight. This autocratic defeat will in turn deal a huge blow to the credibility of strongmen dictatorships. As portrayed by his popularity spikes after previously won wars, Putin’s legitimacy is built on exactly this power-projection capability. How powerful will the strongmen government model look after losing a war to a, in Putin’s words, non-existent country? 

The Ukrainian victory will, in turn, be able to re-ignite the democratic spirit in Europe. A strong democratic Ukraine – which could serve to inspire the Russian people – has long been Putin’s biggest nightmare. Paradoxically, by virtue of his anachronistic land-conquering, Putin has done more to strengthen the Ukrainian aversion against autocracy than anyone else ever could. When the fog of war has evaporated, the Russian people need only look to their prosperous and free neighbour to realize what tyranny is bestowing upon them, and what democracy could bring them instead. The prospective Ukrainian military victory thus makes a democratic spillover more likely than ever. 

Problematic Polls

Nonetheless, many sceptics will point out that recent opinion polls have shown that around 70 per cent of the Russian population back Putin’s barbaric onslaught; this would in turn highlight that Russians prefer war and despotism over liberty and peace. The validity of such surveys can be strongly critiqued, however. The Kremlin, which conducts most of these surveys, is not particularly known for its credible polling, to say the least. More importantly, recent research by the London School of Economics has shown that the fear of repression has led to preference falsification– individuals not publicly sharing their privately held views – in these opinion polls. After controlling for this distorting mechanism, the LSE researchers found that public support for the war is closer to 50 per cent. Oleg Tinkov – a Russian banking tycoon – stated this week that 90 per cent of Russians do not support the invasion. Compounding on this is the fact that earlier rounds of sanctions have not started biting yet and that more stringent sanction packages are inbound. Accordingly, public support can be expected to drop even further in the coming weeks, months, and years. 

Discredited Despots

Still, a segment of the Russian population will relentlessly support Putin’s neo-medieval invasion of its Western neighbour. Many people apparently still long for a strongman ruler who can restore their divine national pride, as portrayed by the recent re-elections of the Catholic-conservative Viktor Orbán and the Orthodox-conservative Aleksander Vučić in Hungary and Serbia, respectively. Likewise, the older Russian generations – humiliated by the fall of the Russian empire – have been staunch supporters of Putin’s effort to bring Kyiv back under the rule of ‘the Third Rome’. However, it is exactly these Orthodox nationalists who will be most mortified when Putin’s inevitable loss turns their once almighty country further into a pariah state.

Putin famously commented that the fall of the Soviet empire constituted the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century’. The disastrous attempt to restore the Empire, which we are witnessing now, could well be its 21st century parallel. This utter humiliation will not only weaken the support for Putin, who, of course, is mainly responsible for this loss of face. But it will also diminish the Ethno-nationalists sway over public politics as their war-mongering rhetoric has partly caused this geopolitical catastrophe. Both developments, discrediting the despots, will further enhance the long-term democratization prospects of the Russian Federation. 

Democratic Peace

A democratic Russia, however, firstly requires Vladimir Putin’s reign to come to an end. However, the question is not if Putin will fall, but when. Dr Mike Martin, working for The Department of War Studies at King’s College London, predicts this fall could occur relatively soon due to a governmental breakdown after losing the war. Others are saying that his health condition – Putin is perceived to be terminally ill – could bring him down soon. Regardless, sooner or later, the Tsar without an heir will come down. And when this glorious day arises, we might be seeing a perfect democratic storm: eliminated oligarchical and silovarchical power, a democratic spirit sweeping through the continent, and a population that has turned its back on the repressive despotic rule of Russian leaders. At that point, it is up to the Russian people to sweep in and claim their rightful place in public politics.

A democratic Russia has more merit than just liberating the Russian people, namely, a democratic Russia also liberates Ukraine from the omnipresent fear of Russian aggression. The democratic peace theory – often labelled as the only universal law in international relations – shows that democratic states are extremely unlikely to invade one another. In contrast, autocratic Russia has always been a brutal invader and renowned peace treaty violator. Henceforth, the only credible peace guarantee for Ukraine would be to have a democratic Russia as its neighbour.

Peace at last. (Source: Associated Press).

From Ivan the Terrible to Catherine the Great, and from Joseph Stalin to Vladimir Putin, it may seem as if Russia is destined to be ruled by autocratic imperialists. History, however, has never been inevitable, likewise, the future is never destined. While Putin’s gut-wrenching war in Ukraine may seem to have pushed Russia further into tyranny, it could in the end turn out to be the spark that re-ignited the flame of Russian democracy. One day, will not only the Ukrainian people be liberated from the nightmare that has been unleashed upon them by the Kremlin, but Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine will, sooner or later, also pave the way to the liberation of all those Russians who have suffered long enough from the tyrannical whims of war-mongering dictators.