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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
5 November 2022: Hard choices, plus texts and tunes
I’m back in North Carolina this week, taking advantage of the final days of early voting to cast my ballot in the mid-term elections. My Congressional district, which votes reliably Democrat, is not the one district in the state that is actually competitive. But Cheri Beasley has a non-zero chance of capturing a Senate seat, so I’m here to do my part. Hope springs eternal, I suppose, Or, as they say around here, bless my heart.
What I’m thinking about
Vladimir Putin did something this week he doesn’t do very often: he changed his mind, in broad daylight, for all to see. Specifically, after announcing that Russia would withdraw from the deal that guarantees safe passage through the Black Sea for ships carrying grain from Ukrainian ports, the Kremlin abruptly announced that it would re-join the deal, and the ships could keep sailing.
Now, I don’t know — and cannot know — why Putin changed his mind. Perhaps he realized he had backed himself into a corner. After all, the only way he could prevent those ships from sailing would be to seize them or sink them, and neither of those approaches would do him any favors. Or maybe, as Russia’s Kommersant newspaper reported, he was talked into it by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Now, neither of those explanations seem entirely plausible to me. If it was a recognition of a miscalculation, surely the nature of that miscalculation would have been clear before it was made. And I’ve seen no indication that Erdoğan has that kind of influence over Putin. (I could believe in a phone call from Xi Jinping, but nobody’s reported that.)
But fundamentally, at least for me, why Putin made his about-face is less interesting than the fact that he did it — because the fact alone suggests that there are still cost-benefit analyses being done in the Kremlin.
Ten months ago, that sentence — that the Kremlin engages in cost-benefit analysis — would not have needed to be written. But ever since Putin launched a war he cannot win, building our analysis on the basis of Kremlin rationality has been a difficult thing. Back in July, when I wrote that I thought Putin was motivated by a set of calculations having to do with regime security (as opposed to national security), some critics responded that Putin was guided not by rationality of any kind, but by the ideology of imperialism and nationalism. More recently, and at greater length, the RAND Corporation’s Krystyna Marcinek made the same basic argument:
If Russia is not fighting a war for security, but a war for its imperial identity, then a … cost-benefit analysis may not be entirely applicable.
This, Marcinek writes, has important implications for how we might think about Putin’s propensity to, say, use a nuclear weapon. And she’s right: if Putin’s not thinking about costs and benefits, then he’s not thinking about the risks and rewards of escalation in terms that would involve self-preservation. That is a scary thought.
But Putin’s grain-deal volte-face strikes me as evidence that he retains at least some degree of rationality. Even if I don’t know exactly why he rejoined the deal, or withdrew from it in the first place, the very fact that he made one decision and then another suggests the presence of a policymaking process that involves rational analysis.
Put differently, Putin knows that he has to make choices. He knows that these choices have consequences. And he makes choices with at least some regard to those consequences. I’ll take that as good news.
I’ll also take as good news the evidence that Putin’s choices are becoming harder to make — for at least two reasons. One, as my CEPA colleague András Tóth-Czifra wrote recently, the sanctions and the state of the Russian (and global) economy is creating increasing fiscal strain on Russian federal and regional budgets. For the moment, those strains are not insurmountable, but they involve tradeoffs that the Kremlin would rather not have to make. And, as UCLA political scientist Dan Triesman writes in Foreign Affairs this week, those tradeoffs accumulate, leading to increasing dysfunction in Russia’s decision-making apparatus. That does not, Dan writes, mean that Putin is doomed to fall. But for is regime to fail, he may not need to. Paralysis will do the trick.
What I’m reading
Maybe it’s because everyone’s mind has been on one election or another of late — whether the American mid-terms, Bolsonaro’s evident departure, or Netanyahu’s putative return — or maybe it’s just me, but I kept coming across interesting things to read about democracy and authoritarianism this week. And oddly, just about everything I read was optimistic (except for Nate Silver).
I’ll start with the essay in the Journal of Democracy by Jason Brownlee and Kenny Miao, “Why Democracies Survive”. Yes, they say, authoritarianism is on the march, with numerous formerly or putatively democratic countries sliding back into autocracy (i.e., Turkey and Russia). And yes, even in more durably democratic countries, authoritarian leaders are posing significant challenges to the institutions and behaviors that give democracy shape and meaning. But by and large, Brownlee and Miao argue, those democracies are withstanding the challenge:
It is not hard to imagine prosaic outcomes for … elected executives who have flouted democratic norms: Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński, India’s Narendra Modi and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. These individuals may harbor fantasies of emulating Erdoğan, but such fearsome schemes remain circumscribed by the very political systems they seek to corrupt.
Now, Brownlee and Miao — a political science professor and PhD student, respectively, at the University of Texas, who wrote the essay before last weekend’s elections in Brazil, but not before it was clear that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had a good shot at winning — got the Bolsonaro call right. And I’m right there with them on their analysis that Kaczyński’s authoritarian project is effectively stymied by the constitutional limitations that Poland places on the central government. But it is very hard to see anyone gathering enough a supermajority in Hungary to undo the structural advantages that Orbán has engineered for himself. And after reading Christophe Jaffrelot’s magnum opus on Modi, I’m increasingly struggling to call India a democracy.
Truth be told, we don’t know where things are going to land for any of these countries, or a great many others. Bibi was gone, but now he’s back. Bolsonaro may have enough of a stranglehold in parliament and on the streets in Brazil to prevent Lula from governing effectively, laying the groundwork for his own return. And then there’s Trump. In short, Brownlee and Miao are making judgment calls about where they place countries and how they interpret the durability of current political outcomes, and if they had made different judgments, the final analysis might have looked quite different.
Still, their analysis is compelling and even hopeful, and so very much worth a read, not least because of the validity of the crux of their argument: it is not leaders that make autocracies or democracies rise or fall. Democracies, for all their imperfections and faults, have developed formal and informal institutional arrangements and practices that sustain democracy (much as autocracies have done the same in the other direction, but that’s another story). We should only expect those arrangements and practices to dissipate in extraordinary circumstances, they remind us, and thus we should expect democracies to remain democratic more often than not.
In that vein, Harvard political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks published an excellent new working paper on organizing for democracy and against authoritarianism in the United States. Responding implicitly to a lot of the “anti-politics” approach that has taken root in contemporary social-movement theory and practice — an approach that sees effective and socially legitimate mobilization mostly outside of formal political practices, such as voting and interacting with established political parties and institutions — Chenoweth and Marks outline a recipe for democratic resilience that combines the best of both worlds. Yes, they say, build alternative structures to protect society against an increasingly dysfunctional and abusive state. But then use those structures to liberate formal politics in the name of democracy, by disrupting would-be autocrats’ ability to govern.
While the action in Chenoweth and Marks’s argument happens in spaces created by the pro-democratic resistance movement itself — in communities of solidarity and protest, empowered to protect community interests and impede the power of the state — they nonetheless urge that action be focused specifically on elections and the political parties that contest them. Why? Because it is the institutions of formal politics that autocrats need to subvert in order to win, and so it is there, at the end of the day, that they must be defeated.
And that, in turn, takes me to my third reading for the week, Cole Harvey’s article in American Political Science Review on the ways in which even authoritarian judiciaries can help limit autocrats’ power at the ballot box. (A bit of full disclosure here: Cole, who teaches political science at Oklahoma State University, is former PhD student of my friend and co-author Graeme Robertson. Neither of them are paying me to write up his piece, alas.)
While Brownlee & Maio and Chenoweth & Marks focus on democracies that are trying to stay democratic, Cole’s focus is the opposite: autocracies that are trying to stay autocratic. Nonetheless, he notes, most contemporary autocracies hold elections (or things that look like elections), and they have courts (or things that look like courts) — and he has good news and bad news on the interplay between those two things. The good news is that even in highly authoritarian countries, courts can provide some protection against electoral manipulation. The bad news is that this tends to happen only in systems where the autocrat isn’t really afraid of competition — and so the democratic openings this dynamic creates are few and far between. One implication, though, might be that courts can, in certain circumstances, become a tool for cracking open even pretty iron-clad regimes. (NB: That’s my interpretation, not Cole’s.) But more broadly, it’s a useful reminder that institutional arrangements and practices tend to reinforce the survival of the systems of power in which they develop.
What I’m listening to
More like what I’m not listening to: Shirlette Ammons’s new album, which I’ve been impatiently awaiting since September, but which hasn’t landed yet. So in the spirit of principled impatience — and of the political moment — here’s one of my favorite protest songs of all time, which Ammons recorded with Caitlin Cary, as part of a protest wave here in North Carolina back in 2016.