'What he dreams of at night he can carry out in the morning'
Vladimir Putin has nearly as few checks on his ability to exercise power as did a Tsar, writes Dan O'Brien
Published 09/03/2014 | 02:30
We owe an incalculable debt to Russia. In modern times, that great nation has saved Europe not once but twice.
Both Napoleonic France and Nazi Germany were prevented from dominating the continent by the enormous blood sacrifices of the Russian people.
Had not millions of Russians laid down their lives to halt the advances of the great megalomaniacs of the 19th and 20th centuries, we, like all Europeans, would most likely be living very different lives today. And that is not all we have to be grateful for. In science, literature, maths, music and dance Russian society has enriched international society. At a human level, nobody anywhere is more profoundly cultured than a cultured Russian.
Russia is also enormously powerful militarily, rich in energy and other resources and – most importantly for the rest of Europe – autocratic and imperialistic. This makes it a threat to the peace and democracy of the continent. And it can be expected to remain a threat for long into the future.
What is happening now in Ukraine is an unfortunate if predictable reality of European life. We in democratic 21st-Century Europe remain ill-prepared to contain the expectations and ambitions of a great nation that shows few signs of changing its 19th-Century imperial worldview.
To say this is not to be wise after the fact. In a book in 2009, I concluded that if there was ever real trouble in Europe it would come from Russia. That conclusion was based neither on Russophobia nor on personalising Russia's posture towards its neighbours on Vladimir Putin, the dominant figure in that country since he became president on New Year's Eve 1999. Rather, it was based on the nature of Russian society, how that society has evolved over centuries, and how the political institutions embedded in that society function.
For all the sophistication of parts of Russian society, it is very different from the most of the rest of Europe. That much is evident to anyone who observes the continent and proven by two decades of international opinion polling which shows, among other things, that Russians value democracy and the rule of law less than most other Europeans, while strong leadership and stern assertiveness in the international sphere are admired and rewarded.
If there is a single image which illustrates the difference between democratic Europe and its autocratic east it is the Russian president posing bare-chested while armed with a rifle. Try imaging Enda Kenny or any other European leader emulating such a pose.
History, as always, offers the best explanation for these differences. In western Europe, the central theme in political history has been the long journey from the time when rulers wielded absolute power over their peoples to peoples determining who governs them and how, via elections, recourse to courts and constitutionally enshrined separation of powers.
That journey took place because independent aristocracies and the church eroded the absolute power of kings over centuries. Between these clashing forces, what today we call civil society began to grow – businesses, guilds and other free organisations – which further drained power from monarchs. Absolutism was gradually replaced with accountability, however imperfect.
The Russian world was different. Because the Tsars had no natural challengers and remained utterly dominant, civil society was stunted and remains so to this day (this
also pertains to most of Russia's near abroad, including Ukraine and Belarus).
The divergence with the West was already in evidence as far back as 200 years ago, as illustrated by an Austrian diplomat's contemporaneous description of Alexander I in the early 19th Century.
"None of the obstacles that restrain or thwart the other sovereign monarchs – divided authority, constitutional forms or public opinion – exists for the emperor of Russia. What he dreams of at night he can carry out in the morning".
This history of absolutism has manifested in many ways – Russia remained the last bastion of feudalism in Europe, was the first country to succumb to Marxist totalitarianism and is one of the few in Europe where democracy failed to take hold after communism.
The result of all of this in 2014 is that there is not a great deal more to stop Vladimir Putin acting on his dreams each morning than there was his predecessor in 1814. And given his continued popularity after 14 years in power, that is how most Russians seem to want it.
There is also every indication that his assertiveness and aggression in his dealings with other countries are as popular, if not more so, than he is himself.
Russians are supportive of their country exercising hegemony in what they and their diplomats consider their "sphere of influence", a term western European powers long ago abandoned as a relic of more bellicose times.
The latest intervention in Ukraine is as popular as his invasion of Georgia in 2008. Other strong-arm tactics, such as repeatedly cutting gas supplies to Europe and a large-scale cyber attack on Estonia, win him kudos from most Russians who resent their loss of global superpower status and see such actions as signs of resurgence.
Putin once famously described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest disaster to befall Russia in the 20th Century. For a country that lost tens of million dead as a result of Soviet barbarism and stupidity and Nazi invasion, the comment illustrates well how important national greatness is for Russians.
Russians' views on Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader who consigned the Soviet Union to the dustbin of history, reinforce the point.
While viewed as one of the great men of the 20th Century outside Russia for his peaceful dismantling of Soviet tyranny, Gorbachev's own people deride him and when he ran for election in 1996 humiliated him by giving him just 0.5 per cent of the vote.
But what is most worrying for democratic Europe is not Putin's Russia – but Russia after Putin.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a one-time oligarch who was jailed for 11 years by the Russian leader on trumped-up charges and released just months ago, once described Putin as being more liberal than 70 per cent of the Russian people. If he is correct, and he probably is, then whoever succeeds Putin may well be even more aggressively imperialistic.
And a change could come sooner than anticipated. Although he may not look it, Putin is now in his 60s and won't be around forever. If his eventual successor is less clever and less astute, but more aggressive and more unrestrained, then the rest of Europe – all the way to its western periphery – will really have to worry.
Dan O'Brien was Europe editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit from 1998-2010