Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images
the national interest

Illiberal Chic Deserves to Die on the Battlefield of Putin’s Failed War

Authoritarianism doesn’t make your country smart or strong.

Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

When Russian troops poured over Ukraine’s border in February, Donald Trump proclaimed that the Russian leader had once again shown how shrewd he is: “They say, ‘Trump said Putin’s smart.’ I mean, he’s taking over a country for two dollars’ worth of sanctions. I’d say that’s pretty smart. He’s taking over a country — really a vast, vast location, a great piece of land with a lot of people, and just walking right in.” The Western leaders Putin had outmaneuvered once again were “dumb. Dumb. So dumb.”

Unlike most of Putin’s previous crimes, which Trump has either defended or denied, Trump did allow that the invasion was rather inhumane. But this was subsidiary to the main point, which as ever stood in awe of Putin’s effectiveness as a leader.

Now that Putin’s failure has become so glaringly apparent, it is worth revisiting just why so many critics of liberalism expected him to succeed, and why they have been proven so wrong.

The world has many autocrats, but Putin has become the preeminent symbol of illiberalism. With the exception of Viktor Orbán, he is the world’s most dogged critic of social liberalism, thrilling his champions with his slashing (bordering on deranged) attacks on feminism and gay rights. His Western apologists, unlike Orbán’s, have some reservations. They concede his methods are a little rough. But, like the Westerners who defended Joseph Stalin, they insist his brutality is necessary to drag a backward nation into a brighter future. He may be a murderer, but he seemed like a cool murderer. That even Putin critics like Ted Cruz presented his military as tougher than its “woke” American counterpart is a testament to the allure of illiberal chic.

Christopher Caldwell — a former Weekly Standard writer who, like fellow Standard alum Tucker Carlson, has veered toward authoritarian nationalism — delivered a lengthy paean to the Russian dictator five years ago. Speaking at the Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar, Caldwell conceded Putin’s “respect for the democratic process has been fitful at best.” Sadly, his critics keep dying of poison and falling out of windows. But you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs, and Putin’s results cannot be gainsaid:

He is the elected leader of Russia — a rugged, relatively poor, militarily powerful country that in recent years has been frequently humiliated, robbed, and misled. …

Yet if we were to use traditional measures for understanding leaders, which involve the defense of borders and national flourishing, Putin would count as the pre-eminent statesman of our time. …

When Putin took power in the winter of 1999-2000, his country was defenseless. It was bankrupt. It was being carved up by its new kleptocratic elites, in collusion with its old imperial rivals, the Americans. Putin changed that. In the first decade of this century, he did what Kemal Atatürk had done in Turkey in the 1920s. Out of a crumbling empire, he rescued a nation-state, and gave it coherence and purpose. He disciplined his country’s plutocrats. He restored its military strength. And he refused, with ever blunter rhetoric, to accept for Russia a subservient role in an American-run world system drawn up by foreign politicians and business leaders. His voters credit him with having saved his country. …

But when Putin said he’d restore Russia’s strength, he meant it.

But did Putin restore Russia’s strength? Caldwell took it as a given that he did, mainly because Putin acted as though it was the case. And in Caldwell’s defense, many people outside Russia, including analysts unburdened by any admiration for its leader, believed the country was far stronger than it has turned out to be. American analysts expected the vastly larger Russian army to roll through Ukraine, anticipating that the difficulties would come during the occupation.

But even after Russia shockingly failed to decapitate Kyiv, Caldwell continued to depict Putin as a strong, tough leader. Caldwell has another essay on Putin in the current edition of the Claremont Review of Books. Most of it is devoted to a normative moral defense of Putin’s invasion, which Caldwell sees as a defensive response to Western imperialism. Yet he continues, even as of this late date, to depict the invasion as a success:

It would be foolish to bet against the United States, a mighty global hegemon with a military budget 12 times Russia’s. Yet something is going badly off track. Russia’s military tenacity was to be expected — bloodying and defeating more technologically advanced armies has been a hallmark of Russian civilization for 600 years. But the economic sanctions, far from bringing about the collapse Blinken gloated over, have driven up the price of the energy Russia sells, strengthened the ruble, and threatened America’s western European allies with frostbite, shortages, and recession. The culture war has found few proponents outside of the West’s richest latte neighborhoods.

Later, he posits, “Should Ukraine fail, the Ukraine policy of the Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations will be counted among the significant foreign-policy blunders in American history.”

This was published before Ukraine’s current counteroffensive began reclaiming huge chunks of its territory, but well after it began slicing the Russian army to ribbons. What’s more, it was published well after Putin’s entire regime had been revealed as a fraud.

The invasion was predicated on a series of catastrophic errors. Putin fooled himself into believing Ukraine’s government and its national sovereignty had no internal support, because he surrounded himself with propagandists who fed him the lies he wanted. He likewise overestimated the strength of his own military, which had in fact been hollowed out by corruption and graft.

He has compounded these failures by overriding the judgments of his commanders. Putin has ordered his generals to hold positions they know are untenable, exposing troops to encirclement and slaughter rather than allowing them to retreat to defensible positions.

All these cascading mistakes are results of Putin’s brittle authoritarian regime. In an open system, his analysts might have been able to contradict his assumptions that Ukraine would surrender with barely a shot fired. Journalists would have exposed the graft that had eroded Russia’s paper military strength. And he would be able to trust that his military commanders were giving him honest advice, rather than fearing they were secretly undermining his war goals.

Liberal democracies are not perfect, and military debacles obviously happen here, too. But our openness at least permits us to identify and correct errors. The United States blundered into Iraq through self-delusion, but responded to the failure by electing an opposition candidate who condemned the invasion, won his election over a hawkish ally of the incumbent, and then reversed it.

Putin’s regime appears too brittle for any such response. His army is being slaughtered and his economy decimated (whatever short term benefits he is reaping from high oil prices are more than offset by the loss of thousands of his best-trained and most productive workers). His overarching strategy of dominating Ukraine and deterring Western alliances has backfired completely. Ukraine will emerge from the war more coherent, pro-Western, and militarily strong than it ever would have been in the absence of his attempts to subdue it. Previously unaligned European states are joining NATO.

Caldwell writes, “Vladimir Putin and the Russia he rules cannot stop fighting. As long as the United States is involved in arming Russia’s enemies and bankrupting its citizens, they are quite right to believe themselves in a war for their country’s survival.”

I believe, from the standpoint of Russia as a whole, this is wrong: The best time to stop fighting was before they started fighting, and the next best time is now.

But from the narrow standpoint of Russia’s dictator, Caldwell’s analysis may well be correct. Because his system makes it deadly to concede any of this, he is trapped in his own lies. Putin can only compound the damage of his errors because he knows the most likely alternative to absolute power is death. The illiberalism of his regime is not the necessary cost of greatness, but a tragic flaw that traps Russia’s people in poverty and oppression.

Liberalism does not make people perfect, nor does it create heaven on Earth.
But its great genius is that it invented a way out of this kind of trap. Liberalism gives us a method of blundering our way through trial and error toward better answers. Those Westerners who wish to throw away this inheritance should look at the grim fate of Russian conscripts being marched off to their deaths not as a model but a cautionary tale.

How Putin’s Failed War Exposed Illiberal Chic