Putin’s Democracy Problem: Civil Society and Ukraine

Vladimir Putin is trying to accomplish two very dangerous tasks at once: the destruction of civil society in Russia, and the withering away of international support for a democratic Ukraine. The first will be more easily accomplished than the second.

The Assault on Civil Society

The imprisonment of Alexei Navalny has been followed by a systematic attack on other human rights advocates. Some of his associates have left the country; others have been silenced.

The dragnet has reached to many political critics of Putin, such as Memorial, a human-rights group founded by Andrei Sakharov.  This group’s two branches have for three decades documented Stalin’s crimes, Russian human rights abuses in its wars in the “near abroad,” and abuses by Russian officials. It has also defended political prisoners.

Memorial has previously been placed under the “Law on Foreign Agents”; now the regime is seeking to eliminate it entirely by supreme court decision for violating that law.

“The Memorial trial is therefore fully in line with Putin’s current strategy of silencing all opposition figures, political leaders, journalists and now independent organisations,” writes Benedicte Berner, an associate in political science at Harvard.

But Putin has a second motivation in seeking to get rid of Memorial: “Putin seems to want to erase this memory and rewrite history by introducing a grand patriotic narrative that is incompatible with the recognition of Soviet terror. Therefore, the offensive against Memorial takes a new step in repression . . .   It is no longer just about repressing the present, but also about denying and transforming the past.”

            Clearly, it is only a matter of time before other human rights groups are forced to dissolve or scatter. The threat to Russian civil society is substantial.

The Threat to Ukraine

Then there is Ukraine, described by one Russia specialist as “the single most important piece of unfinished business as the Russian leader contemplates his agenda for the remainder of his time in office and his legacy.”

Putin’s view of Ukraine is much like Xi Jinping’s view of Taiwan: It cannot be independent, historically and culturally it belongs to Russia, and only foreign meddling keeps Ukraine from Russia’s rightful grasp.  Moreover, like Xi with Taiwan, Putin would hope to make absorption of Ukraine a fitting testimonial to his legacy as one of Russia’s greatest leaders.

What brings the threat to Ukraine and to civil society together is fear of democracy, says Prof. Aurel Braun at the University of Toronto. In an interview with me he said the prospect of a democratic Ukraine on Russia’s border is more terrifying to Putin than even Ukraine’s membership in NATO.

In fact, the one is prelude to the other: Unless Ukraine deals with its corruption and other weaknesses that undermine democratic rule (which is to say, accountable and transparent governing), Ukraine has no chance of being accepted into NATO.

Ukraine’s popular overthrow of a pro-Russian leader in 2014 had much to do with Putin’s decision to occupy Crimea later that year, Braun says.  For now, Putin’s contingent of “little green men” in Donbas is an attempt to keep Ukraine’s democratic efforts in turmoil.  He seems determined not to ever let it flourish.

As Alexander Vindman, who directed Russian affairs in the National Security Council under Trump, has put it: “A prosperous Ukraine buttressed by American support makes an authoritarian Russia unviable in the long term. . . . Mr. Putin needs Ukraine to be a failed state.”

Will Russia invade?  Russia’s border with eastern Ukraine is extremely tense right now. Anywhere from 80,000-110,000 Russian troops have massed there, and concerns are rising in the US and NATO that this latest deployment is prelude to an invasion.

US intelligence reportedly believes the troop numbers will increase to about 175,000, but any invasion would not come until after the new year, if at all. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned Russia: “Let me just reiterate that any escalatory actions by Russia would be of great concern to the United States … and any renewed aggression can trigger serious consequences,” Blinken said in an interview in Estonia after a meeting with the Russian foreign minister.

President Biden, in his conversation with Putin December 7, warned of unprecedented “severe consequences” if Russia attacked Ukraine, though he also indicated that any US troop involvement would be limited to the NATO countries.

Some commentators see the Russian action as just another Putin move to keep the West off balance and sensitive to Russian interests in Ukraine, which include preventing it from being a security threat by virtue of Western military aid and, at worst, becoming the next NATO member. For example, Anders Åslund writes that Moscow’s key objectives is to “divide and weaken the European Union,” and he cites “a gas war against Central and Eastern European countries; a migration crisis along Belarus’s borders with Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland; a renewed military mobilization on Ukraine’s eastern border; and agitation for Serbian secession from Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

His conclusion:

“The Kremlin tends to send up trial balloons to see what it can get away with before hitting hard if the opportunity arises. That means the West – the United States, the EU, and the United Kingdom – will need to act fast to head off whatever is coming next. The biggest mistake one can make in responding to Russian provocations is to do nothing, or to react too slowly and too softly.”

Åslund thinks Ukraine should be admitted into NATO; I disagree. I think Ukraine’s membership in NATO is a needless provocation of Russia, and highly unlikely to happen anyway.

Washington has finessed the mater. On November 10 it adopted a US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership that supports “Ukraine’s right to decide its own future foreign policy course free from outside interference, including with respect to Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO.”

The obvious and intended ambiguity is over Ukraine’s aspirations versus political reality: Germany and France do not support Ukraine’s membership in NATO, and Putin regards possible membership as the primary justification for military pressure on Ukraine.

The Way Forward

Would dropping NATO membership not be the most direct route to bringing about Russian withdrawal from the Ukraine border? Melvin Goodman, writing for CounterPunch, thinks so:

“Russian President Vladimir Putin reasonably wants guarantees that NATO must halt its eastward expansion and not deploy certain weapons systems on its borders. In return, the United States should insist on the return to the Minsk II agreement in 2015 that was designed to ensure a bilateral ceasefire, to create security zones on the border between Ukraine and Russia, and to decentralize political power in eastern Ukraine (the Donetsk and Luhansk Regions).  Russia would be required to withdraw all foreign mercenaries from the region.”

Another commentator, Anatol Lieven, argues similarly. Writing in The Nation (November 29-December 6), Lieven calls for a “Minsk III” agreement–a follow-up to the Minsk agreement in 2015 reached by Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union– that would, by constitutional amendment, grant autonomy to the Donbas region, subject to approval by referendum and Ukraine’s parliament. If parliament should fail to approve, Donbas would have the option to join Russia.

The essential point is that diplomacy must be revived if a major war is to be avoided.

Whether Putin is bluffing or determined on Ukraine, the situation is a tinderbox. At the least, Biden must assure Putin that NATO membership for Ukraine is not foreseeable, and that only defensive weapons and economic aid are being sent to Kyev.

Putin must assure Biden that Russia will neither invade nor increase its presence inside eastern Ukraine. And both must agree to get back to negotiations aimed at the Donbas region’s autonomy within a Ukraine with secure borders and no foreign military presence. Otherwise, look for the US to impose very painful sanctions on Russia that may not help Ukraine but could quickly escalate to a military confrontation.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.