Russia’s Hitleresque invasion of Ukraine has galvanized much of the world, especially the Western world, which has been shocked out of its post-Cold War complacency.
Wars of conquest, at least in Europe, were thought to be relics of a primitive past — a fading possibility in today’s globalized economically interdependent world. The Ukraine invasion bursts those comforting assumptions and gives us much to contemplate.
First, notice that the empathy for the Ukrainian people, the awareness of their suffering, and the concern for their well-being are so much more pervasively acute than they are for the people afflicted by the woes of war in Third World countries, like Yemen, Syria or Sudan.
Indeed, European nations that have resisted or refused war refugees from the Middle East and Africa are welcoming Ukrainian war refugees.
I suspect that emotionally among us people of the advanced Western world there is greater affinity to people who live in modern democratic societies with lifestyles and cultures that are fundamentally like our own.
It makes their war horrors so much more personally imaginable. Images of Ukrainian families huddled in subway stations to avoid bombardments are easily reimagined as our own.
Next, ponder the crazy social phenomenon whereby a single person can accumulate so much power that he can deceive, incite and mislead an entire nation into acts of horrific violence and inhumanity. How and why does this still keep happening?
Examining Vladimir Putin’s slithering subversion of Russian democracy may provide some answers, and should prompt a critical self-examination for us here in America.
Before he could become Russia’s modern Ivan the Terrible, Putin had to exsanguinate Russia’s fledgling democracy. Taking advantage of his lofty position in Russia’s unsteady post-Soviet government, he commandeered immense national wealth from the economic no-man’s land that ensued with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Putin used this plunder to purchase the fealty of key vassals — the newly minted oligarchs — and establish a personal feudal power base. He then moved with escalating ruthlessness to eliminate political opposition and potential resistance.
Political rivals and outspoken critics, including journalists, and even girl rock bands, were imprisoned or assassinated.
Assassinations were conducted both in and outside of Russia. His victims were murdered spy-style, surreptitiously, with poisoned umbrella tips, or thug-style, openly gunned down in daylight on the streets near the Kremlin.
Putin eventually engineered the erosion of constitutional limits on executive power. The Russian constitution was amended and approved by the high courts — now packed with Putin supporters — to essentially allow him to be the head-of-state indefinitely and with broad edict powers, which he quickly used to muzzle meddlesome media and replace duly elected regional governors with his appointed cronies.
To ensure that he and his United Russia party would always control government, Putin saw to it that free and fair election processes were undermined.
Both domestic and international observers documented pervasive chicanery, intimidation and intentional miscounting by Putin loyalists during Russia’s parliamentary elections.
Not only were strong opposing candidates unjustly prevented from running, some, like Alexei Navalny, who barely survived a Putin poisoning, were imprisoned on false charges or forced into exile.
Putin resurrected the secret police and steadily re-established the surveillance state. The Federal Security Service, FSB, is now the rebranded Soviet era KGB, and once again, like a cold fog, police-state terror shrouds Russian society and dampens civil liberties.
Putin the Poisoner’s brazen invasion of Ukraine is only his latest, though most alarming, act of despotic depravity.
Many Americans have remarked that “the Russian people should rise up” and end Putin’s icy grip on their country. That’s easy to say, but when the ballot box is no longer an option, rising up against repressive autocracy becomes very dangerous.
As Russia’s current condition demonstrates, once a nation has succumbed to autocracy it is difficult to recover democracy and civil rights — even if democracy is what the majority of the population wants.
When the machineries of power and information are in the iron grip of a tyrant, it is a daunting task to unloosen that grip.
As we have seen with Russia, democracies, with their guaranteed civil rights, personal liberties and restraints on power, don’t typically succumb to autocracy overnight. The process is gradual and incremental until one day citizens wake up to find they have a president for life with unchecked power who tolerates no dissent and invades another country while he nervously fingers the launch button for nuclear missiles.
It is easier to lose democracy than to regain it. Therefore, it is better to maintain it and not lose it in the first place.
To do that the majority of a nation’s citizens must stay vigilant and actively engaged in maintaining democratic institutions and principles to ensure that the foundations of freedom are kept in good repair.
Right now, democracy in America is getting as rickety as its infrastructure. Consider the repair list.
A grasping, vindictive, mendacious, megalomaniac connives to regain and hold onto the presidency by any means. Here is a creature who speaks of ending term limits on the presidency; who incites a mob of his duped followers to attack the Capitol in a desperate despicable attempt to overturn an election he clearly lost; who personally pressures election officials to manufacture votes for him; who is eager to deploy the military against the citizenry; who admires and envies autocrats like Putin; and who demands personal loyalty over loyalty to the Constitution.
A gone-rogue Republican Party, determined to overcome its demographic disadvantage, is using a playbook similar to that of the United Russia party’s to achieve one-party rule by undermining democracy with laws impeding voting, tampering with election certification, allowing loyalists “security forces” to man polling places, and even allowing state legislatures to nullify election results.
Like Putin’s loyalist security forces, former President Donald Trump’s MAGA minions are the indispensable tools of an aspiring autocrat, while the rogue Republicans are his United Russia party, too venal or intimidated to oppose him no matter how reprehensible his behavior.
Putin attacked and suppressed the free press while pushing the pro-Putin propaganda media to the forefront. Trump and his loyalists’ mount incessant attacks on the mainstream media while Fox News shamelessly acts as Trump’s propaganda organ, intentionally broadcasting mendacity and misinformation.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case essentially fosters a kleptocracy that funds the slide into an autocratic abyss. It is all similar in effect, though more subtle in method, to Putin and his cohort of oligarchs looting national wealth and purchasing government.
Considering how America’s mesmerized MAGA minions continue to willingly fall off the edge of reality, and considering that 80 million Americans voted to re-elect an obvious reprobate and aspiring autocrat, I have doubts about America’s fortitude for maintaining democracy.
Unlike with the valiant Ukrainians, destroying American democracy won’t require tanks and fighter jets, just enough political apathy to allow a minority of misguided ideological idiots to leverage the Electoral College — the effete anachronism that is an instrument of our own democracy’s destruction.
It may not end well in Ukraine, and Russia’s short-lived democracy is already gone, but the United States has an opportunity to finally wake up, stop the idiotic ideological infighting and recognize the real threats to our democratic republic.
— Randy Alcorn is a Santa Barbara political observer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.