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As in the Cold War, ugly compromises will be inevitable in the near future, many fear. Just as the West has turned a blind eye to the abuses committed by its anti-communist allies in the past, so too could it lend itself to damaging deals to democracy to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The struggle between autocracy and democracy is the defining challenge of our times,” said US President Joe Biden in December. The recent invasion of Ukraine by Putin is right. Putin’s arrest is part of the same struggle between democracy and autocracy, a clear antithesis that does not translate into the geopolitical game.
Even if Putin’s most important ally, China, is an authoritarian state, there are some democracies ambivalent about war. South Africa, where the ruling party has long been friends with the former Soviet Union, is now blaming NATO for the war in Ukraine. The president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, once praised by Putin, plays on neutrality, and Israel has assumed the role of mediator.
Biden also seeks the support of authoritarian regimes, which involves serious diplomatic and political challenges.
Take the example of Turkey, a state of strategic importance, but where democracy is under siege. Well, in the context of the war in Ukraine, the critical voices of its authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have been silenced.
On the one hand, Turkey has jumped to Ukraine’s aid, providing it with highly effective combat drones, but on the other hand, it does not apply sanctions to Russia and has left airspace open for Russian aircraft. Moreover, he gave a mouthful of oxygen to the Kremlin regime, suggesting that trade between Turkey and Russia could be done in gold or rubles. At the same time, ordinary Russians persecuted at home are taking refuge in the tens of thousands in Turkey, but with them also the sanctioned and expelled oligarchs from the West.
Western officials are urging NATO member Turkey to take a tougher stance on Russia on a daily basis. Turkish Democrats fear Erdogan will demand a high price for any help, including a tolerance of the habit of putting his political and media opponents in jail. Moreover, on March 1, the leader in Ankara even suggested that Turkey should start accelerating pre-accession negotiations with the European Union. And a few days later, he even asked President Biden to lift the sanctions imposed on the Turkish defense industry, after Turkey acquired the Russian air defense system S-400. Unlikely to happen, only the US made an alliance with undemocratic Turkey during the Cold War and could do so now.
Liberal democracies are therefore facing this dilemma. Poland is more democratic than Turkey, of course, but in recent years the Warsaw government has attacked the legal system and repressed press freedom. That is why the EU has frozen the € 36 billion financial stimulus allocated to Poland.
At this time, however, Poland has received almost two-thirds of Ukrainian refugees and allows the transit of military equipment that supports Ukraine’s resistance. In the face of the threat of Russia, its old enemy, Poland is willing to reconcile with the EU, and in return, the ruling PiS party is likely to widen its leash to justice and the press. The opposite reaction is not ruled out either – given that Western partners are now focused on the critical role they play in the refugee crisis and beyond.
“It would be very strange to put pressure on the Polish government to uphold the rule of law now. But Warsaw needs to understand that in order to fight autocracy, democracy needs to be strengthened, “said an analyst close to the Biden Administration.
As for them, critics fear that the PiS will use the context to deepen its control over Polish institutions and intensify its attacks on opposition forces.
The war in Ukraine has caused a sharp rise in energy prices, prompting the West to reconsider its relations with the autocratic petrostats. Of the 13 members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), 11 are considered non-democrats by the American non-governmental organization Freedom House, and two – partially non-democrats.
Unlike his predecessor (Donald Trump), Biden has seriously disturbed the leaders of the Gulf states, insisting on respect for human rights. He promised to make the Saudi regime “a pariah state as it is.” But now he is urging them to extract more oil – a message reinforced by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who visited Riyadh on March 16. Biden could go further with the tolerance of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), whom he accused in 2018 of involvement in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.
In addition, MBS is flirting with China to show that it has options (consider selling crude oil to China in yuan, not dollars, according to the Wall Street Journal). What does MBS want? Support for his war in Yemen and immunity from US sanctions.
Let’s look at another oil country, Venezuela, which hopes that the war in Ukraine will get rid of the embargo. Many Democrats refuse to recognize dictator Nicolás Maduro as president for blatantly defrauding the presidential election. Putin supported Maduro with weapons and money, even with soldiers, in an exercise designed to show that he can very well interfere in the political game near the United States. Today, everyone’s calculations are changing.
Maduro is clear that he can no longer rely on Putin, and Biden’s priority now is to stop Putin, who is no longer interested in bringing down Maduro. Hence Maduro’s astonishing statement on March 7, following a meeting of US and Venezuelan delegations. “The two flags look great next to each other, united, as the US and Venezuela should be,” he said. The Biden administration said the main purpose of the visit was humanitarian (Maduro released two US citizens detained in Venezuela).
Democracies have a long history of understanding authoritarian regimes. Some, absolutely necessary. The defeat of Nazi Germany would not have been possible without the alliance with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, which led the then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to justify the great compromise with the remark: “If Hitler invaded Hell, even the devil would be made a favorable presentation in the House of Commons. ”
But others are not at all honorable – supporting, for example, anti-communist kleptocrats from completely marginalized countries (see Mobutu Sese Seko’s support in Zaire, the current Democratic Republic of Congo).
However, the confrontation with Putin will force the West to reconsider its relations with autocratic leaders. But the new Cold War will be different from the old one – communism was based on an ideology that inspired revolutions in Africa, Asia, Latin America. Putinism is based only on nationalist-revenge hatred. Neither China nor Russia today offers a convincing view of the world so that other peoples can join, notes Stewart Patrick of the US Council on Foreign Relations. The good news is that it is a lesser existential threat to the free world compared to the late USSR.
So far, the war in Ukraine has clearly exposed the strengths of democracy and the disadvantages of an autocracy. The courage of the Ukrainians and their desire for freedom inspire the whole world. In the war, Putin is being sabotaged by the corruption of his autocratic regime. The Russian army is much weaker on the ground than on paper, as much of the budget has been misappropriated.
Even with this clear picture in antithesis of the two types of government, we do not know how this war will end or what impact it will have on global democracy. If Putin achieves a sham of victory, many dictators will gain courage. If he loses, he will be a windfall for the democratic forces in their fight against the dictators of the world. At the summit on democracy that Biden will convene again at the end of the year, much will depend on the courage of the Ukrainians and the help they receive from the world’s democracies, with all their shortcomings.
The antithesis of autocracy-democracy returns to the forefront.
THE CHALLENGE. The United States remains the strongest country in the world for the past 70 years, but the question of all is whether the great autocratic rivals, Russia and China, will succeed in undermining its status. Some say yes, others say no, and the latter argue for the native advantages (economic, military, diplomatic) of a democracy in international geopolitics. There are books that confront the autocracies and democracies from ancient Greece to the Cold War, and the winners of international politics are the democracies, with all their flaws. ARGUMENT. If in the Cold War the argument was that such compromises were necessary to counter the spread of communism, now the trap is the same – the argument told to the world and home voters would be that we can ally with the autocrats to confront an autocracy. THE VENEZUELA CASE. Even a limited rapprochement can strengthen Maduro’s regime. The recent meeting with US officials is a de facto acknowledgment that Maduro is at the helm, said Temir Porras, Maduro’s former chief of staff. At home, Biden was sanctioned by Republicans because the meeting dealt a devastating blow to Maduro’s opposition, said Senator Marco Rubio.
This article appeared in issue 137 of . magazine.