Bobby McDonagh / Mar 2022
In these dangerous and shocking times, it is worth considering whether Vladimir Putin has the remotest understanding of the nature of democracy.
On the face of it, as he lets slip the dogs of war from his “Wolf’s Lair” in Moscow - isolated from reality, from world opinion and apparently from any serious advice - the answer appears to be “no”. His call for Ukraine’s “de-Nazification” and his description of the country as a US “puppet” are infantile. They suggest that Putin is incapable of understanding the very concept a democracy in which people have a right to vote in free elections and to choose their own government and destiny. Putin’s contempt for democracy is, of course, a wider phenomenon. His recognition of the 2020 Presidential election in Belarus as legitimate is but an obvious example. His buddy “President” Lukashenko is now a fellow belligerent in Ukraine, insofar as that term can be applied to a sock-puppet.
Within Russia itself, Putin, is surrounded by a circle of yes-men whom we have recently seen on television nodding and quivering with fear at his staged “meetings” with them. His regime pays lip-service to the institutions of democracy but, like all autocratic governments, merely conceals its totalitarianism behind a veneer of democratic vocabulary. As a Frenchman once observed, “hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue”.
In Putin’s Russia, there are “courts” and “laws”. But the courts are manipulated, opposition leaders are locked up, and thousands of brave peaceful protesters against Putin’s war have been imprisoned. The state-controlled media trot out the regime’s falsehoods, including the farcical fiction that there has been no invasion of Ukraine and that there is no war. Some pro-Putin “think-tanks” emphasise the tanks rather than the thinking.
At the apex of this glorious “democratic” pyramid is a “parliament” which voted unanimously, yes unanimously, on Putin’s instructions, to approve the illegal annexation of Donetsk and Lugansk and subsequently approved, again by unanimity, the grotesque invasion of a peaceful neighbour. This “parliamentary” unanimity recalls the comment of a British commentator in Soviet times that the outcome of Soviet elections should not be taken for granted, as a swing of a mere 51 per cent in the polls could mean a change of Government.
The Russian President also seems to have misunderstood the nature of western democracies. Of course, all countries, including real democracies, take account of their own interests; a degree of realpolitik necessarily feeds into their thinking. However, what Putin has not appreciated, in his simplistic conviction that “might is right”, is that - for the EU and many other like-minded countries around the world - international relations are about more than realpolitik and brute force. They are also about morality, human decency, international law and the democratic way of life that their people enjoy and to which the Ukrainian people aspire. Putin has seriously miscalculated the strength, unity, determination and irreversible nature of the democratic world’s response to his brutality.
For Putin, at the level of day-to-day policy making, democracy is no more than an encumbrance at home and a plaything abroad. It means literally nothing to him.
Nevertheless, there is paradoxically a contrary and deeper truth. The fundamental problem is that Putin understands democracy all too well. Democracy is what he fears most. Conor Cruise O’Brien once wrote that “there’s no such thing as politics at three o’clock in the morning”. If Putin is ever awake in the small hours of the night, what frightens him most, apart one hopes from the sound of children crying, is democracy. Democratic countries stand both as a rebuke to Putin and a threat. They are a rebuke because they are far more attractive to their own people than what his totalitarian regime can ever offer the Russian people. They are a threat because the existence of democratic countries, especially in his own neighbourhood, serves to encourage the Russian people to hope that one day they also can aspire to choose how and by whom they are to be governed. Assertions of Putin’s so-called domestic “popularity” are, in the absence of free speech and democracy, and as he relentlessly jails his critics, as meaningless as estimations of how Kim Jong-un is trending in North Korean polls.
What Putin hates above all about Ukraine is its democracy and the sight of a neighbouring people exercising rights that he denies his own people. Putin’s claim that Ukraine, whose incredibly brave and patriotic people are being savagely mauled by a dictatorship with overwhelming military superiority, is an “existential” military threat to Russia is laughable. However, what is a threat to Putin, even an existential one, is the existence of democracy and freedom in Ukraine, as well as around the world. Democracy offers the dangerous promise, immeasurably strengthened rather than quenched by the pointless savagery of recent days, that a better future may eventually lie ahead for the noble Russian people who have suffered and achieved so much.
Putin is hostile to the EU, the world’s most important grouping of democratic nations on his doorstep, precisely because it stands for the decent values he despises. It is no wonder he has funded ultra-right Eurosceptic parties and interfered in support of the Brexit referendum. On Ukraine, the EU’s most fundamental interests and values are fully aligned.