Hanne Fjelde Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt
Following the news over the past days have been both terrifying and heartbreaking. The invasion of Ukraine by the Russian armed forces is a belligerent act of war in violation of the UN charter and cannot be justified under international law.
Tragically, there are many signs from how the war is developing right now that it will become a protracted one, and fought in a way that will inflict extreme costs and significant suffering on the civilian population in Ukraine. There are already reports about war crimes being committed. Russian desperation in the wake of Ukrainian resistance and reports of low morale amongst the Russian troops are factors that enhance the risk of massive civilian atrocities, for example through indiscriminate shelling in urban areas.
Many have looked to geo-strategic interests and Russia’s fear of NATO to explain the aggression by the Russian government. Yet, I also want to highlight the role of the regime type. Russia has been in a process of democratic decline the past decade, and is now best labeled as a personalist authoritarian regime. This means two things. First, Putin is a leader with very few constraints on his own power. He has effectively curtailed formal institutional checks and other accountability mechanisms, such as free elections and independent media. He has also surrounded himself with advisors more likely to say yes than voice criticism. Hence, Putin has the leeway to initiate a belligerent war that seems to primarily serve his own narrow self-interest. Second, making policy decisions, personalist dictators are primarily worried about their own survival in power. They also know that popular demands for democracy tend to spread across borders: democracy movements inspire and learn from each other. The democratic development towards a more open society in Ukraine is therefore threatening to Putin’s rule. If Russia had been democratic, it is extremely unlikely that we would have seen this war waged against another democratic country.
The anti-war protests over the past days across more than 58 Russian cities might present a small glimmer of hope. They might hold the seeds to challenge Putin’s regime from within. The costs –both from international sanctions and the war itself – might provide a focal point for more coordinated popular protest. If these protests can capitalize on existing discontent and convince bystanders to join in, they might grow and contribute to defections also amongst the Russian elite that Putin rely on for support. Admittedly, such a popular uprising might be unlikely, Putin’s regime has severely restricted both the freedom of association and the freedom of information which would help mobilization. Regime repression against anti-war protestors is also very harsh and more than 6000 protesters have been detained. But as two international colleagues wrote a few days ago:
the thing about repressive regimes like Putin’s Russia is that they often look stable right up to the point that they are not.
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