Time is on whose side?

Day 12 of the war and some momentum has been lost, at least in the strange kind of euphoria that was evident on social media. The convoy of indeterminate length that sat immobilized north of Kyiv still sits immobilized north of Kyiv. The Russians continue to mindlessly bombard Ukrainian cities. The Russian air force remains conspicuous by its absence. Sure, there have been unproductive peace talks, and humanitarian corridors have been established then abandoned, and there is a steady stream of memes featuring Ukrainian farmers and refugees over the border into Poland. But by and large things have settled down to a pattern of Russian persistence, Ukrainian resistance and little in the way of progress for either side.

The biggest factor now seems to be time, in manifold ways: how long can the Ukrainians hold out? How long can the Russians sustain their offensive? How long can the Russian economy and people endure the sanctions? How long can the West impose them before suffering themselves? How long will Putin’s supporters stand by him. Whichever of these is the shortest will likely be decisive. This seems obvious today, as if we should all have foreseen it two weeks ago.

But we didn’t foresee it then and it is interesting to consider why. Either explicitly or more probably sub-consciously we must have anticipated events developing other than they did. Trying to recall the consensus at the time there certainly wasn’t widespread belief that the Ukrainians would repel the assault. As far as sanctions are concerned the actuality is far beyond expectations then, which means the effects were not anticipated either, in terms of economies on both sides and the threat to Putin’s regime. Which leaves the performance of the Russian army. Whether they realised it or not, people thought that the Russians would probably take Kyiv and topple the regime quickly. So the irony is that for all the feelgood standing with Ukraine and Zelensky, we believed he would fall, and indeed that would have been the best outcome, because what we have today is much, much worse. NATO is not going to engage directly with Russia and Putin isn’t going to stop, so the Ukrainians must face the bombardment alone with our support in hardware and best wishes.

The focus of the putative negotiations is a face-saving exit for Putin, with recognition of Crimea as Russian and independence for the breakaway republics being proposed as an opening bid. But would that really suffice, considering it merely converts what he already had from de facto to de jure? The next step would be a demilitarized Ukraine, but would this be enough without accompanying regime change, which is surely a concession too far for the Ukrainians? A Putin puppet in Kyiv would negate all the suffering, even if it were a stable solution, which seems unlikely.

It’s an increasingly common criticism of western democracy that it elevates mediocrities to power. People speak nostalgically of the statesmen of the past who surpassed the current incumbents by every measure. It’s easy to dismiss this as the sense of decline which is endemic, particularly among the middle-aged; it was always better in the old days. But perhaps it is also a strength of democracy. Term limits or the high chance of removal at the ballot box lower the stakes and rewards of political office. The most able eschew it as too risky considering the limited returns and focus on business instead. The temptation for them is reduced further by the network of safeguards against graft and corruption. This is not to say these don’t exist, but they are greatly constrained.

In comparison Russia could be said to have too much politics; power and wealth are too fully entwined. This is demonstrated by Putin’s machinations to remain in control: his temporary relegation to prime minister, his removal of the limit on presidential terms. Such a system is only going to result in tyranny. The gains are simply too great to trust in the vagaries of free and fair elections. Institutional weakness is too great to block the opportunities for patronage and self-enrichment. Unfortunately, all this is combined with a large military and nuclear weapons in an environment where the distinction between personal interests and those of the state are easily blurred.

Some are optimistic that sanctions will spook those around Putin into deposing him, but here to the nature of the regime needs to be considered. To make a stand in this way would take considerable courage and whoever were to do it would almost certainly be motivated by personal gain, or at least a desire to avoid further reduction in their wealth. This makes it next to certain that that person would be as ruthless as Putin and just as interested in maintaining Russia at it is. They would have to come to some accommodation with the west and withdraw from Ukraine, but there would be no incentive for them to clean up Russian politics or pursue extensive constitutional change. The last thing they would do is install a liberal democracy unless they were possessed of selfless virtue hitherto unknown. Therefore they would have the same imperative to suppress dissent and the same vulnerability to the example of more open regimes on their borders.

There is a common, fatalistic viewpoint that Slavic peoples are somehow unsuited to democracy which is borderline racist. However, it can’t be denied that it has struggled to emerge in the countries that formed the USSR and indeed is vulnerable in some ex-Warsaw Pact states. History, tradition and institutional fragility can mean it will take time for it to establish deeper roots, and even then, western experience suggests these may always be shallower than we would like. In the case of Russia it is hard to discern a potential path to robust democracy. So many people would have to surrender so much it is hard to see how it could be achieved by anything other than wholesale destruction of the current settlement. Eliminating Putin will not be enough.

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