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Russia: weaponizing democracy to better fight the West

Russia ditched democracy as not fit for the country’s needs. As a result, the Kremlin identified elections and relatively brief terms of office as the system’s weak points. Since the 2010s, Moscow has learned how to use the openness of the internet and democracy for destabilizing the West. It costs little and brings huge returns. The Kremlin has successfully weaponized democracy for attacking Europe and North America.

April 3, 2024 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

Patriotic gathering at Moscow's Luzhniki stadium in March 2022. Photo: Lumen Photos / Shutterstock

The Kremlin dislikes democracy. Post-communist Russia gave short shrift to this system of governance. Democracy was introduced in the Russian Federation for about two years between the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and President Boris Yeltsin’s 1993 order to shell the Russian parliament, which refused to submit to his will. Even then it was clear this first and last president fairly elected in Russia was just going through democratic motions.

Democracy became a mere façade in early post-communist Russia, maintained for pulling the wool over the West’s gullible eyes. After all, in this vulnerable period, Moscow was dependent on the goodwill of the Second World War allies of Britain, France and the US. Yet, despite prevailing over the Soviet Union, these powers decided to abide by the 1945 Potsdam Agreement and the principles of peace and stability in Europe as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. They did this for the common good after the fall of communism, for the sake of a better future and lasting peace in Europe and across the globe. The Kremlin also pretended to subscribe to democracy and these lofty goals, because post-communist Russia was eager to take over the Soviet seat in the UN Security Council. This was not a foregone conclusion, because Russia had never been a member of the United Nations before, unlike (Soviet) Belarus and (Soviet) Ukraine. To add insult to injury, these two other polities had also signed the UN Charter in 1945. Russia did not.

The West won the Cold War. There is no denial of this fact. But from the perspective of the dominant KGB wing in the Kremlin, the US and the free world were plain stupid to not have taken full use of this unprecedented victory. It was a crucial moment of misreading the former enemy. The West, trusting in democracy and capitalism, thought alongside West Germany’s geopolitical intuition of Wandel durch Handel. This is the belief that free trade and the growing economic integration of the totalitarian Soviet bloc with the rest of the world would finally usher in democracy there, too. After the fall of communism, this hope was largely fulfilled in Europe in the case of the Soviet satellites and some post-Soviet states.

However, Russia – first tacitly, and then openly – ditched democracy in favour of Soviet-flavoured totalitarianism, in emulation of Beijing’s successful marriage of capitalism in economy with communism in politics. The Kremlin and its KGB-trained ruling elite bet on the global spread of China-style “communist capitalism” underpinned by a totalitarianism in governance. For the less technologically and politically advanced states of the Global South, a light version of this system was designed. It was limited to straightforward authoritarianism with a single male dictator at the top. African, Asian or Latin American dictators can now count on China’s money and Russia’s mercenaries, no strings attached. This is unlike the case of the West, which largely made developmental aid conditional on the observance of human rights. Instead, China seizes the key parts of its insolvent client states’ economies. Economic imperialism is back. Meanwhile, even a cash-strapped Moscow ensures the same outcome for Russia, with the threat of withdrawing military support for the sitting dictator, or turning the mercenaries against him with an eye to installing a replacement dictator, who would be more pliant to the Kremlin’s wishes.

After 1993, no equal or fair presidential election was held in Russia (or would be in any predictable future). After two brief years in the early 1990s, democracy was over in Russia. The problem was that the West either did not see it or turned a blind eye to this fact. At the same time, Russia’s ruling circle fully realized what was happening. They knew which way the governance of their country was going. No competition for the top political post was permitted. Instead, succession became the buzzword of the new times. The hope was for reviving a Russian empire. In 2002, President Yeltsin handpicked an unknown and non-descript KGB officer from St Petersburg, Vladimir Putin, as his designated successor. Meanwhile, during the 1990s, the free-market reforms introduced only halfway sowed more chaos and inequality than the communist planned economy before. Not surprisingly, most Russians began to see democracy as dermokratsiia, or “shit-o-cracy”. The West remained unfazed though, and famously, at a 2001 summit in Slovenia, US President George Bush looked deep into Putin’s eyes and saw a genuine democrat in the new Russian president’s soul.

Putin’s initially authoritarian rule turned totalitarian with the decision to attack Ukraine in 2014 and Russia’s ongoing full-scale war against this country, beginning in 2022. As the Kremlin sees it, the inherent unpredictability of the outcome in genuine elections makes democracy vulnerable in the highly interconnected world of today. In democracy, long-term geopolitical “games” are limited by relatively brief electoral cycles and typical checks and balances. No democratically elected leader has the time or is free of constitutional restraint to embark on a project to slowly undermine and annex another country that would take a decade or two. Imperialism is not the way of democracy.

Autocracy: better than democracy?

In the eyes of President Putin and Chairman Xi Jinping of China, this self-limiting character of democracy amounts to a great advantage of autocracy over democracy. Yet, the second system allows for the bloodless and smooth transition of power. Not so much, proponents of autocracy say these days, pointing to the recent case of US President Donald Trump, who did not accept his loss in the 2020 election. But autocrats, instead of resigning themselves to this inherent weakness of their preferred system of governance, were actively looking for solutions. As of late, some post-Soviet autocracies successfully dealt with the problem of power transition by emulating the Russian model of hand-picked successors, be it in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan. Other authoritarian post-Soviet polities lean toward North Korea-style family-based dynasties. Already the second generation of the Aliyevs rule Azerbaijan, while the current Belarusian dictator is grooming his youngest son for succession.

But what happens if the sitting president-cum-dictator dies suddenly in office, leaving no time for picking and installing a suitable successor? In the past, this was the critical moment when often a bloody struggle for power ensued in an authoritarian polity. Nowadays, full control of ubiquitous mass and social media, as practiced in technologically developed autocracies, buys the ruling elite precious time for dealing with this important problem of governance. This elite obfuscates and could even fill in the public space with the deceased dictator’s body doubles, whose employment had worked fine during the dictator’s lifetime. Eventually, when the successor has been procured, agreed upon and enthroned, the citizenry and the world can be safely informed of the country’s untimely loss. Next, the dead dictator can be buried with pomp in a lavish state funeral, paving the way for the successor. The dictator is dead, long live the dictator!

Fighting democracy with democracy

Moscow has begun meddling in other countries’ elections since the mid-2000s. Mainly propaganda (including troll farms and fake news) and internet-enabled hacking have been employed to this end. First, the Kremlin targeted the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as test cases. Subsequently, encouraged by some successes and the West’s disinterest about what was happening, the method was launched against polities in Western Europe and North America. The long-sought victory over the West in this field came in 2016 with the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election. In the first case, the Russian interference tipped the balance in favour of Britain’s self-injuring departure from the European Union, while in the second, the Kremlin’s meddling ensured victory for Donald Trump, who is in awe of Putin and holds a low opinion of NATO.

The Kremlin was astounded and at the same time delighted that with such limited resources the West could be gamed and made to do Russia’s bidding, even to its own disadvantage and harm. Although now it may seem bizarre, western countries were excruciatingly slow to recognize this serious vulnerability posed by democracy’s key mechanism of elections. Only Estonia worked proactively to develop some mitigating measures, like the country’s data embassy in Luxembourg. This novel embassy’s main role is to preserve the functionality of Estonian statehood should Russia manage to nullify the country’s online administration and economy, or if the Russian military overruns the territory of Estonia.

To this day, no countermeasures have been undertaken against Russia in this field of internet-enabled hybrid warfare against the integrity of governance that in essence defines statehood. Meanwhile, Russia plays it safe. Since 2019, the Kremlin has been developing a sovereign internet for Russia. If a western power or NATO develops a successful capability for counterattacking Russia over the web, the Kremlin is well prepared to disconnect the country’s internet from the rest of the world. Hence, Russian-style meddling in Moscow’s own governance over the internet or social media is next to impossible. In late 2023, the West remains divided and is tearing itself apart over military and economic aid for Ukraine. This is despite Russia’s clear victory in the information war waged against the West and the Kremlin’s repeated attack on the integrity of elections in western democracies.

Is the West giving up on democracy?

The West does not believe that it is engaged in Ukraine against Russia. But that is exactly the Kremlin’s “justification” for Russia’s war against this country. Helping Ukraine as a fellow democracy is proof enough for the Russian dictator. After all, NATO helps Ukraine militarily and trains Ukrainian pilots, while the EU has already opened accession negotiations with Kyiv. Most observers in the West see the war as existential for the democratic West. Losing is not an option, because neo-imperial Russia would then pounce on Moldova, the Baltic states, Poland and so forth. Until Russia extends from Vladivostok to Lisbon, perhaps.

Important elections are looming high on the horizon, which shows that democracy remains well and vibrant across the West. But what about the outcomes? Hungary’s steady pro-Kremlin stance and the recent victory of a pro-Russian party in Slovakia further encourage Moscow. Should Trump win the US presidential election in 2024, Russia’s success most probably will become well-rounded in a geopolitical sense. In other words, the US would turn autocratic, abandoning NATO and a fractious Europe to their own devices. A Washington and Europe busy with the ensuing domestic chaos would give up on Ukraine, probably facilitating the country’s defeat at Russia’s hands. Trump would not think twice about according to the Kremlin the former Soviet bloc and post-Soviet countries as its own sphere of influence. A new Yalta, as envisioned by the Russian dictator, would become a reality. The great powers would be carving up the globe again.

Faced with this clear-cut prospect of the end of democracy in the West, what are the self-proclaimed supporters of this system of governance doing? They may praise democracy as it ensures equal political rights for all and espouses human rights. But in this situation of existential danger, most democrats appear to be more than lackadaisical. They are actually throwing in the towel even without trying to defend democracy against Russia’s hostile designs. Nowadays, the West’s capital, expertise and industry race to develop increasingly better neural computing systems and large language models as the basis of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Resulting solutions (for instance, Chat GPT) are rapidly released to the public at large across the globe for the sake of swift monetization. Profit triumphs over common political sense. Capitalism trumps democracy again, ensuring that autocracy may prevail.

No one really seems to be thinking that releasing these solutions online to everyone amounts to supplying Russia (and other autocratic powers) with even more powerful weapons. Moscow (alongside China or Iran) is subsequently in a position to undermine democracy worldwide. With multilingual AI-run bots, trolls and hackers, the Kremlin will need fewer staff and less financial outlays to influence more deeply and more extensively elections across the West. If taken for granted and left unsecured, democracy and its open character become a clear danger to this system of governance. This is especially true when the system is weaponized in the hands of autocracies that see democracy as a threat to their own societies and ways of dictatorial governance.

Ukraine: the future of democracy

My modest proposal is, let us first of all finance and supply Ukraine properly, so this staunchly democratic state can start winning the war against totalitarian Russia for us all in the West. At the same time, we should make sure to insulate our democratic processes (especially elections and public opinion) from Russia’s interference. Estonia is the country to learn from how to do this. Next, just like airplane parts are banned from exports to Russia, the country (alongside its fellow autocracies) should be barred from having access to AI technologies developed in the democratic West. And most importantly, as long as the Kremlin wants to fight the West, the West should respond adequately and proactively by using its own superior resources and capacities. Mere mechanical and inherently delayed reactions to Russia’s acts of aggression are incompetent and insufficient, proverbially allowing the tail to wag the dog. However, the West’s inventions of AI and the internet can be employed ever more innovatively and efficiently to counter the menace of totalitarian Russia or China.

Ukraine is the country where the future of the West is happening in front of our eyes. The future of the West that finds itself under the undeclared but relentless hybrid-cum-traditional military attack launched by totalitarian Russia. This resurgent and neo-imperial Russia is tacitly or openly supported by the world’s leading autocracies, among others, China, Iran or North Korea. They wait and keenly observe, ready to pounce on the democratic West if given a chance. And again, Ukraine is from where we need to learn. It is the place to try out the latest technologies and approaches at our disposal to let Ukraine thrive and its population live secure lives. This is true even if in the near future, the country will need to function under the continuing nuisance of autocratic Russia’s onslaught.

Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His recent monographs include Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War (Routledge 2018), Politics and Slavic Languages (Routledge 2021) and Eurasian Empires as Blueprints for Ethiopia (Routledge 2021). His reference Words in Space and Time: A Historical Atlas of Language Politics in Modern Central Europe is available as an open access publication.

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