After communism fell, Russia’s rulers, the siloviki (strongmen, like President Vladimir Putin and his cronies) experienced a period of uncertainty. Eventually, Russia came back under their control.
They said, you can’t really run a Western democracy in a post-Soviet country, it just results in chaos.
But then Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia pulled it off!
Well, that is a false hope, they said. Those Balts are basically Germans - culturally Lutheran or Catholic. You can’t have a real Western democracy in a post-Soviet Orthodox country.
Then, down in the Caucasus, Georgia started to pull it off too.
Well, they said, that is also irrelevant. Perhaps one can pull off westernization in tiny Georgia; but you still can’t have a real Western democracy in a large, post-Soviet, Orthodox country.
Then Ukraine started to pull it off! If Ukraine succeeds then the siloviki will be left with the reasoning: “Ok, perhaps it is possible to have a western democracy in Ukraine, but it still stands that you can’t really have one in a large, post-soviet, Orthodox country that begins with the letter R!”
This joke points to the core reason for Putin’s aggression against Ukraine since 2014. He is attacking Ukraine because of the success of the Ukrainian people in removing their siloviki-backed thug of a president (Pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych), holding real free and fair elections, and even starting to reforming their state and economy.
This might give the Russian people some dangerous ideas.
Putin tried to squelch the Maidan revolution in 2014-15, but he was unable to destroy the Ukrainian army, or the Ukrainian will. Now, this winter, he might be preparing for another major invasion, this time well-prepared, with nothing held back and without pretense.
A RAND corporation study released over the summer pushed back on this explanation. While acknowledging that fears of democratic spread as a drive for Russian intervention, the authors opine that:
“It is unclear whether the Russian elite thinks in these terms. We certainly do not have examples of Russian leaders speaking of their fear of the demonstration effects of Ukrainian democratic success on the Russian populace. Moreover, we know that Russian elites have a very low opinion of their Ukrainian counterparts; it is difficult for them to conceive of the possibility that Ukraine can survive without Western assistance, let alone become a thriving democracy.”
This RAND study suffers from a false empiricism, actively ignoring statements from Russian leaders about why they are invading/threatening Ukraine, and the nature of the enemy that they claim to be fighting against.
Putin and his cronies believe the word “democracy” is a euphemism for control by sinister forces. They often use the phrase “external control” to describe this regarding Ukraine. Ukraine is not really democratizing, they say, but instead falling under the secret control of NATO, the Pentagon, George Soros, etc.
Putin is attacking Ukraine because the country is increasingly democratic, but according to his propaganda, Ukraine is actually becoming less democratic, less “sovereign”, and more under the control of these shadowy conspiratorial forces.
In July, during his annual marathon press conference, when asked if he was willing to meet with the Ukrainian president, Putin responded “Why meet with (President Volodymyr) Zelensky if he has put his country under complete external control? The key issues of Ukraine's life are resolved not in Kyiv, but in Washington, and partly in Berlin and Paris.”
Other Russian leaders and commentators often talk about the “dark forces” that pull the strings of Ukraine. They will never say that they are against “democracy” because they insist that Ukraine is not really a democracy, and neither was Georgia in 2008 for that matter.
From time to time, they go even further, by saying there are no real democracies in the West either! All of Europe and even the United States are actually under the control of deep states.
This is the justification for their war against democracy all over the world: the West is controlled by “absolutely undemocratic networked organization of the real power of security services hidden behind the external window-dressing of democratic institutions” as Putin’s former advisor Surkov put it.
This is what they claim they are fighting.
This is the slander they direct against democracy that justifies their aggression, against Ukraine or Europe or the U.S. These dark forces have taken control of Ukraine - might Russia be next? Yes, it might - and any anti-corruption, pro-democracy, or anti-war initiatives in Russia will be painted as part of the conspiracy of Western imperialists to subdue Russia as they have subdued Ukraine.
This kind of thinking has a clear propaganda use - Russia is not attacking a struggling democracy in Ukraine; the Russian elite are merely defending their geopolitical interests against “the crooks” that run the West.
There is an even more disturbing question to consider.
Is this all disinformation, or do Putin and his ilk really believe this lie?
Despite that joke, we have to consider this possibility. Napoleon might have cynically mouthed the words “liberty and equality” while building his empire, but Hitler really believed in the existence of a massive Judeo-Masonic conspiracy and Stalin really believed in a conspiracy of finance-capital that ran supposedly democratic states.
If the Putinist slander against Ukraine, against the West, is just a lie then it is more evidence of trouble ahead - they are willing to say anything to justify aggression.
However, If Russia’s leaders are true believers in their own propaganda, then there is no persuading them to relent, no chance to win them over with transparency and negotiations; they are self-righteous maniacs on a deranged crusade to “liberate” free peoples.