The struggle between democracy and authoritarianism is what’s at stake here. All societies require a certain level of cooperation to survive. If they are to thrive, people must also buy into the values and schema of the society in which they identify.
To view the Russian invasion of Ukraine simply as a means to restore the buffer zone between Russia and its rival countries in Western Europe and North America is missing the larger point. To survive into the next century we must proceed as a global community. It will be either authoritarian or democratic depending on the outcome of the current struggle. This is a tug-of-war for what type of world humanity will experience in the lifetime of those who are alive today as well as the generations that follow.
This is a more basic struggle than a clash of ideologies like fascism, communism, Christianity, Judaism or Islam. The goal of all ideologies is based on myths that concern themselves with the best direction to take to obtain desired outcomes (such as a classless utopian society, or the reward of heaven for the obedient). These ideologies are not real. They are defined by the ‘leaders’ as justifications for behavior. This struggle is more basic. It is a struggle for what works vs what does not work for the good of the whole. What works best (and provides the greatest buy-in and pool of talent) is a society that provides for the general welfare of all its members and has restrictions only on behavior that adversely impacts others. In other words -- democracy.
Putin is an aging dictator. And like many aging autocrats his inner circle is comprised of many sycophants that tell him what he wants to hear, i.e., that he is brilliant and all-powerful. Putin’s (and other autocrats) reality is based on acquiring power and wealth. Those he interacts with (with the possible exception of Xi in China), are lower on the hierarchy. As a result Putin has significantly underestimated the resistance in Ukraine, the firming of resolve of NATO, and the resistance to his rule within Russia itself.
What can we expect?
In the short term, conflict in Ukraine presents several possibilities:
- Putin could be successful in overthrowing the democratic government in Kyiv and could impose a puppet government and re-establish a kleptocracy such as what exists in Russia and existed in Ukraine prior to the 2014 revolution.
- Russia could completely absorb Ukraine.
- These scenarios would evolve into a quagmire, not unlike America’s involvement in Vietnam. Other possibilities are:
- The current war will spill over, first into Western Europe, then the US and the rest of the world in a chaotic stumble resulting in a nuclear World War. Zelensky said “It’s not just a Russian invasion of Ukraine; it’s the beginning of a war against Europe. Against the unity of Europe. Against basic human rights in Europe.” In other words, it is against democracy itself.
- Putin could be replaced through a coup, either by the military or through the oligarchs. According to the New York Times reporter in Moscow, most people in Russia appear to be against the war. Half of the Russian citizens get their news from state-controlled TV which is government propaganda. Half of the population - probably the younger half -- is able to get their news from the internet. They are aware of what is happening. Also, many Russian citizens know people in Ukraine or have family there. Protests are increasing in larger and larger numbers.
The United States is fortunate that Joe Biden is president. He has the vision, fortitude and ability to lead us in these troubled times. Think of the predicament we would be in if Donald Trump were still president, which was Putin’s plan all along.
What we are really starting to experience here is that the world is starting to divide into two camps again, not based on ideology but the behavior of autocrats. Russia is a declining power with nuclear weapons - a lot of them. Make no mistake, China’s Xi Jinping is paying attention to the struggle as well as the outcome. This Ukrainian conflict is a preview of flashpoints in the struggle between authoritarianism and democracy for leadership on the world stage. There will likely be conflicts, i.e., China vs. the United States and the West over Taiwan (The Republic of China) and the South China Sea, North Korea and other areas of Chinese expansion. There are also rising threats from non-state players such as terrorist groups, organized crime, drug cartels and others that I will write about in other blogs.
It is my position that we are entering the most important time since humans have evolved on this planet. There will be greater social changes than when the last great social and environmental changes took place 15,000 to 18,000 years ago when humans switched from nomadic to sedentary life. It will not take place over thousands of years - but in this century. Remember, our survival, and the type of survival will be dependent on decisions that are made right now. Whether or not the governmental form ends up democratic, autocratic, ambivalent or apathetic depends on what decisions we make today.
Ultimately, the power struggles of our current time are secondary to the existential threat on our horizon, which is climate change. This is the 500-pound gorilla in the room that none of these power brokers want to openly acknowledge or concede to. Dealing with the existential threat of climate change will be expensive in every way and can only effectively be addressed with coordinated global behavior. Indeed, our collective survival is dependent on enforced cooperation. The question of who will be the enforcer of that cooperation is the crux of the matter. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just issued the bleakest warning yet that the accelerated climate change window to secure a livable future is fast closing. Those of us in democratic systems have a responsibility to demonstrate that an open system is more effective in dealing with global problems than an autocratic system, which historically implodes upon itself.