Daniel DePetris: A transition to democracy in Russia would be extremely messy, if it happens at all

Daniel DePetris: A transition to democracy in Russia would be extremely messy, if it happens at all

Updated: 13 days, 3 hours, 22 minutes, 11 seconds ago

A Leopard 2 battle tank is on display at a factory in Munich on April 27, 2022. Ukraine is pleading for more advanced weapons like tanks and air defense missiles. (Felix Schmitt/The New York Times)

Will Germany send its coveted Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine, or at the very least give other countries like Poland the green light to send theirs? This is the question that lingered over recent discussions at the U.S. Air Force base in Ramstein, Germany, where countries supporting Kyiv’s war effort came together to pledge additional military assistance. With Russian forces supposedly two months away from launching another offensive, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been spending his days lobbying Western capitals for as much armor as the Ukrainian army can handle.

Yet amid the heated conversations about specific weapons systems, there is a more important subject that is getting short shrift: What does “winning” in Ukraine actually look like for Kyiv and its backers in the West?

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The question would seem to have an obvious answer: a free, sovereign Ukraine that has control over its territory and can make its own foreign policy decisions without undue influence from Moscow. But some very high-profile members of the Russian diaspora are thinking bigger: Winning not only means a humiliating Russian defeat on the battlefield but also the downfall of Vladimir Putin’s regime and Russia’s transition to a respectful, enlightened democracy.

In a Friday essay for Foreign Affairs, Garry Kasparov and Mikhail Khodorkovsky write that a post-Putin Russia is something the West should aspire to. (Kasparov is the chair of the Human Rights Foundation and a chess champion, and Khodorkovsky is a former oil executive who was forced into exile after serving a decadelong prison sentence.) The two Russians outline a preliminary plan for a post-Putin political transition, including the election of a constituent assembly to write a new constitution, the establishment of a state council with legislative responsibilities and the dissolution of Putin’s security apparatus.

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Kasparov and Khodorkovsky aren’t the only ones making this argument. Lech Walesa, Poland’s first democratically elected president since the 1920s and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, believes the best way to ensure Russia doesn’t wage another war is by democratizing it.

The argument for regime change is compelling for many: The only way Russia can be treated as a respectable member of the international community is if the security operatives and hypernationalists running the Kremlin are replaced by peace-loving, pro-Western democrats.

Such an evolution is the epitome of the ideal. But the key word here is “ideal.” Practically speaking, an autocratic-turned-democratic Russia is likely the least probable outcome if Putin were to die in office, retire or be pushed aside by the Russian political elite. The more likely scenario is a Russia that is just as brutal, unforgiving and intent on establishing a sphere of influence as Putin was.

The worst-case scenario is chaos and disorder, in which the center in Moscow is unable to maintain administrative control over Russia’s many localities. Civil war could even ensue — Chechnya and Dagestan, two republics in the south, have a history of separatist inclinations, and what better way to press those claims when the Russian government itself is incapable of extending its writ across the country?

As much as we would all like to see Russia turn into a democracy, the fact is that such political transformations are quite rare in history. Research from former intelligence officer Andrea Kendall-Taylor and political scientist Erica Frantz shows that only 20% of personality-based autocracies, which Putin’s Russia most certainly is, become democracies. The rest take the form of old wine in new bottles. To name a few examples in the recent past: In Egypt and Yemen, where people-driven revolutions forced out two strongmen, other strongmen took their place.

Other case studies aren’t exactly encouraging either. In the lead-up to the U.S. regime change operation in Iraq, Washington was full of experts, politicians and policymakers who assumed the removal of Saddam Hussein would usher in a pluralist, democratic utopia where every Iraqi vote would be counted equally. It didn’t take long for that aspirational, but naive, view to come crashing down. Today, Iraq can hardly be called a democracy — at best, it’s a system driven by sectarian quotas, riven by foreign influence and “governed” by a revolving cast of the same characters.

Or take Libya. The North African country was ruled by the erratic Moammar Gadhafi for four decades, with most of the state’s institutions destroyed or rendered useless in order to ensure his personalist rule wasn’t challenged. When the United States and NATO helped anti-Gadhafi rebels get rid of him in 2011 after months of airstrikes, speculation was rife in Washington that Libya could serve as an example for the entire Arab world of what stable democratic governance could look like. Of course, it didn’t turn out that way; the Libya of today is a real-life version of Mad Max, with militias having more power than the security forces, ego-driven warlords fighting over power and rival parliaments writing their own rules.

The prospect of a democracy in Russia shouldn’t be dismissed outright. Nor should we castigate those who dream about it — particularly when those dreams come from people who were persecuted by the system they wish to replace.

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The point, rather, is to remind the dreamers of how rare autocracy-to-democracy transitions are. And in a country like Russia, with more than 6,000 nuclear warheads and approximately 10% of the world’s oil production, the transition is bound to be extremely messy — if it happens at all.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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