A black book on top of a book white a blue and yellow cover, and other yellow and blue books in the background. A picture of a bombed building in Ukraine is in the background.

Power Structures

We Have a Lot to Learn From the War in Ukraine

Putin may be losing the war militarily, but he very well might be winning in his battle against democracy here in the U.S. Here are some crucial takeaways.

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Voltaire wrote, “He who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Russia has proved that to still be true, even in the digital age. Worse, we can see the same seeds of horror planted in the U.S. already. Russia’s actions regarding Ukraine can teach us a lot about ourselves, and the future of a competitive authoritarian United States.

1. The power of propaganda and confirmation bias

Russia has effectively ended all independent media, and cut the people off from the internet. The Russian people are more than willing to believe what the media tells them and reject reality. They overwhelmingly support the war. They see it as justified, inevitable, and a matter of Russian survival, just like the TV tells them. We can see people affected by nationalism, in an information vacuum filled by whatever the Kremlin dictates, absorbing the information that feeds the confirmation bias built into them from years of conditioning, while they reject anything that counters these beliefs. For instance, there are innumerable stories of Russian ex-pats contacting their families back home, telling them about the systematic rape and massacre of Ukrainian civilians at Bucha by Russian soldiers. But their families reject this intel outright, and instead parrot the Kremlin’s messaging, insisting that it’s all fake, or that the Ukrainians did it to themselves. 

If this sounds like Fox News, OANN, Newsmax, and other American right-wing outlets, you’d be right. Right-wing media, and many Republican lawmakers, are perfectly willing to go along with bonkers conspiracy theories that claim prominent Democrats are murdering babies and drinking their “adenochrome” in an effort to achieve immortality. If U.S. troops were to commit similar atrocities to those that Russian troops are committing against Ukrainian civilians, you would either have a significant portion of the public disbelieving it, or actively celebrating the atrocities, the same way Trump did with the SEAL who murdered people at random and posed with their bodies.

2. The durability of competitive authoritarianism

As it became clear that the war was not going well, there was speculation that Putin might be pushed out by his generals. Or by the oligarchs, who were losing their yachts, money, and fancy boarding schools in the U.K. for their wretched crotch spawn: Maybe they still have enough clout to push Putin aside? Or perhaps the Duma would force him out, the way the old Central Committee cashiered Khrushchev? Or the mad mothers with their howls confused by the loss of 30,000 sons.

Or perhaps someone like Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian authoritarian, kleptocrat, and Putin protégé, who had spent a decade cozying up to Russia, would have some influence, especially with Russia appearing both weak and morally repugnant. Would it be enough for him to want to push him out of power? Or the pro-Russian governments in Serbia. Or maybe the wildly unpopular President Aleksandr Lukashenko in Belarus would be forced out by a revitalized public, or a military that wanted no part of a meat-grinder war in Ukraine?

The answer to all of these is, of course, no. They’re all still firmly in power, despite the disastrous war. Russians have rallied around the flag. The election in Hungary was free but completely unfair. Serbia is more rabidly pro-Putin than ever. Even the most precariously positioned, like Belarus’s Lukashenko, is hanging on, despite acts of sabotage to his nation’s rail system.

Nasty little dictators almost always leave office only when they die of natural causes—and then they get a lavish state funeral: Spain’s Franco, Venezuela’s Chavez, Russia’s Stalin, China’s Mao, Yugoslavia’s Tito, North Korea’sKim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il. The rest attack neighboring nations only to lose a war for national survival (e.g., Hitler, Mussolini, the Khmer Rouge). Only one (Yanukovych of Ukraine in the EuroMaidan Revolution, ironically) has been tossed out by his own people since the end of the Cold War.

As such, the lesson is that these European dictators are installed for life, and that once democracy is gone, it’s probably gone for good, even in the most extreme circumstances.

3. Putin is losing, but pro-Putin forces in the West are winning

Putin’s dreams of making Russia great again are in tatters, his army having sustained horrible losses, the flagship of the Black Sea at the bottom thereof, NATO united and expanded, and the Russian economy sanctioned into ruin. Any hope of military action against the Baltics or Poland would be crushed quickly, his military already exposed as a paper tiger. But, oddly enough, Putinism is winning the war. In the U.S., conservative media outlets continue to play Russian propaganda, and Republican senators on listening tours are being lectured by their constituents on how “pedophilia that goes on in Ukraine, Putin’s there stopping it, but our news doesn’t bring it up.” This is in part because Donald Trump is so vocal about his praise for Putin and his invasion of Ukraine. Republican leaders are terrified to call Trump out for it for fear of drawing his wrath. Even Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a potential GOP presidential frontrunner, has gone out of his way not to criticize Putin. Given Biden’s dismal numbers, and GOP efforts to ensure they have the ability to overturn elections, it seems almost certain that a pro-Putin authoritarian will become the next president of the United States in 2025.

In France, the far-right pro-Russia candidate Marine Le Pen thankfully lost to President Emmanuel Macron on April 24, 2022. Had she succeeded, the U.K. would have been the only remaining nuclear-armed opposition to Russia, with Israel having urged Ukraine to surrender. While Boris Johnson has strenuously opposed Putin, Russia’s cultural influence there is strong. It’s worth noting that Putin has praised J.K. Rowling for her anti-trans stances, and the Johnson government has been following Russia’s lead on transgender rights. (It’s also worth noting that Rowling didn’t dispute Putin’s characterization of her beliefs, or object to Russia’s treatment of trans people in her rebuttal.)

Putin may not win this war militarily. But he is on the brink of winning the war as the West is on the verge of renouncing democracy, embracing right-wing competitive authoritarian populism, and ending civil rights as we know them, particularly for LGBT people. We are a little over one election cycle away from the light of democracy being extinguished from every member of the UN Security Council, and every nuclear-armed nation.

Which brings me to the next point.

4. Authoritarian nations almost inevitably do something fatally stupid and violent

Prior to Russia’s war in Ukraine, Putin was assured by his military advisors that it would be a cakewalk. The Ukrainian army was weak and disorganized, just as they had been in 2014. The Russian Army was the strongest it had been since the end of the Cold War. Zelensky was despised by the people, and Russian troops would be greeted as liberators indeed, many on the road to Kyiv brought their parade uniforms for the post-war celebration. There was the expectation, both by Russia, and many in the West, that Kyiv would fall within 72 to 96 hours, a puppet government would be put in place, and the war would be over in a matter of a week or two.

We’re now about to enter the eighth week, and we can all see that’s not how it played out. Putin, and thus Russia, has never appeared more weak or vulnerable. This came about because the authoritarian surrounded himself with second-rate yes men, who would never bring him bad news or threaten his hold on power with competence. They either didn’t know, or hid the truth from Putin, that Russia’s army was in many ways hollowed out from graft, corruption, and political isolation.

Some of this should sound familiar: The U.S. invasion of Iraq was spurred on by an administration pushing the intelligence community to strain itself to find and evidence of WMDs, no matter how circumstantial. It was also uninterested in information that contradicted the narrative they wanted. A diligent officer in the intelligence community who gave an honest assessment of the evidence would likely be punished by seeing his less scrupulous peers promoted ahead of him for producing a bad, but desired, assessment. Thus, it should be clear that the U.S. isn’t invulnerable to some of the same errors that befell Russia.

But it’s not hard to envision the U.S. doing something as brutally stupid as the invasion of Ukraine if we get a second Trump term, and the functional end of democracy. We already know that Trump surrounded himself with amoral, sycophants, yes men, ideologues, and zealots. Anyone who didn’t meet all these criteria was pushed out, including, in the end, Mike Pence. Trump has also grumbled that he would replace any military leadership he felt wasn’t loyal enough to him (i.e., don’t do exactly as they’re told, regardless of the wisdom or legality of the order). He also made it clear that he intended to withdraw from NATO in his second term.

The final piece of the puzzle is the right-wing punditry pushing him to do stupid things. Case in point: Candace Owens called for the U.S. to invade Canada and liberate it from the tyranny of Justin Trudeau during the Trucker protest convoy in February 2022, just before war in Ukraine broke out. The rest of the Fox News lineup joined in, and implied that Canada wasn’t a free country anymore. Owens in particular seemed to believe that the U.S. would be regarded as liberators, and other NATO countries would be too afraid of us to do anything about it. On top of it all, Trump personally despised PM Trudeau, and feuded with him constantly over petty things.

Thus, it’s not too hard to imagine a completely insane scenario where Trump withdraws from NATO, Fox News pundits and buddies convince him Canada needs liberating, oligarchs tell him how rich the U.S. (and Trump) will be when it gets access to all that Arctic oil, gas, and rare earth metals, and U.S. military leadership has been denuded of anyone capable of saying “no.” Next thing you know, there’s a U.S.-Russia axis against NATO, and things just get worse from there.

Yes, that seems nuts, but looking back at the Trump presidency, nuts was the norm. Half of this prophecy is things Trump already indicated he would do.  The other half you’d have to assume that Trump doesn’t behave in a self-serving, vindictive, petty, shortsighted way when offered the chance to act on his whims with no checks and balances left. You’d also have to assume that Trump has left enough guardrails in place that there’s anyone left to tell him no, after he’s made it clear he intends to ensure there’s no one in his cabinet, or government in general, that will say “no” to him.

Given the long history of dictators with delusions of grandeur launching foolish wars, it would almost be a surprise if a second Trump administration didn’t do something even dumber than invading Ukraine.

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