Putin the Great
Russia’s Imperial Impostor
Russian and Chinese actions are converging to challenge the U.S.-led global order. Last month, China joined Russia in conducting the latter’s largest military exercises since the Cold War. As the war games kicked off, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shared pancakes and vodka in Vladivostok in yet another public display of their rapport. In addition to enhanced military cooperation, the two nations’ collaboration in international institutions and remarkably frequent high-level engagements reflect their growing agreement about how the world should be ordered. Central in this shared view is the belief that weakening democracy can accelerate the decline of Western influence and advance both Russia’s and China’s geopolitical goals.
Russia and China view efforts to support democracy—especially U.S. efforts—as thinly veiled attempts to expand U.S. influence and undermine their regimes and have consistently sought to counter Western democracy promotion. These efforts are not new, but they are changing in scope and intensity. Since 2014, Russia in particular has been taking the fight to Western democracies. Because Moscow and Beijing gauge their power in relation to the United States, they view weakening Western democracy as a means of enhancing their own standing. The Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, for example, was intended, at least in part, to tarnish U.S. democracy and allow Moscow to claim that Washington has no right telling other nations how to conduct their elections. For their part, Chinese leaders have sought to gradually weaken democratic norms as a way to enhance the international legitimacy of China’s Leninist-capitalist brand of governance.
Although these efforts are long-standing, two factors are increasing their threat to democracy. First, Russian and Chinese foreign policy tactics are converging in new and synergistic ways. Russian foreign policy is confrontational and brazen. China, so far, has used a subtler and more risk-averse strategy, preferring stability that is conducive to building economic ties and influence. Although these two approaches are different and seemingly uncoordinated, taken together, they are having a more corrosive effect on democracy than either would have single-handedly. Russia’s assault on democratic institutions, including electoral interference, the spread of corruption, and disinformation campaigns, weakens some actors’ commitment to democracy. But it is the alternative model of success that China provides and, more important, the revenue it brings to struggling governments that give weak democracies the capacity to pull away from the West. In a similar way, China’s engagement would likely be less potent without Russian efforts to weaken democratic institutions and loosen commitment to democracy.
Russian and Chinese foreign policy tactics are converging in new and synergistic ways.
This dynamic is most apparent in eastern Europe and the Balkans, where long-standing Russian efforts to discredit democracy and the EU exist in tandem with major infrastructure investments from China. Consider Serbia, where Russia has long projected influence to undermine democratic progress. The country now has a central role in China’s plans to fund transport projects in Europe as part of the One Belt, One Road initiative. Serbian leaders view Chinese financing as an opportunity to promote themselves domestically by delivering improved infrastructure without abiding by the strict regulations that come with European funds. This has created the popular misperception that China now invests more in Serbia than do major EU countries. When this economic leverage combines with the sustained drumbeat of Russian messaging about the EU’s failings, it effectively tempers Serbia’s resolve to pursue reforms such as strengthening the rule of law required for EU accession. Despite differing interests in Serbia and a lack of coordination, Russia’s and China’s efforts are mutually reinforcing.
China and Russia are also capitalizing on the rising tide of nationalism and discourse about sovereignty to portray Western support for democratic institutions as foreign influence that must be resisted. China has long peddled this narrative in Southeast Asia, particularly among authoritarian-leaning governments such as Cambodia, as has Russia in the Middle East. Today, such messaging has growing resonance in Europe, where Moscow seeks to amplify the narratives of illiberal populists and anti-EU forces and paint them as patriotic defenders of national sovereignty. Russia has proactively fed nationalist sentiments against EU integration, including by interfering in support of Brexit and Catalan independence. These campaigns advance the Kremlin’s objectives to magnify European divisions and make the EU a less cohesive and decisive actor.
Current shifts in geopolitical power are a second factor increasing the potency of the threat that Russia and China pose to democracy. History (and research by the political scientists Carles Boix and Seva Gunitsky) shows that when the world is led by one or more authoritarian powers, more countries become authoritarian. When the Soviet Union’s power increased early in the Cold War, for example, authoritarianism spread across the globe. The defeat of communism and the United States’ triumph, in contrast, caused democracies to proliferate and the number of countries under autocratic rule to decrease. The shift in geopolitical tides means that today, the factors that have been shown to enhance democracy are now working in reverse, creating conditions more conducive to the spread of authoritarian rule.
China and Russia have long pursued a number of direct actions to prop up friendly dictatorships, enhancing the durability of these regimes. Most visibly, they use loans and investments to reinforce besieged authoritarian governments, as Russia has done in Venezuela and China in Cambodia. They also offer no-strings-attached financial aid and weapons, diluting Western leverage to press for human rights and rule-of-law reform. And they proactively transmit their survival strategies to governments and leaders looking to shore up their domestic control. Both countries are convinced of the threat of Western-backed revolution and have responded not only by “diffusion-proofing” their own regimes but by persuading other governments of the dangers of Western engagement and teaching best practices for controlling their citizens and guarding against these democratic incursions. China in particular has become an exporter of surveillance and policing tactics, with Chinese companies selling facial-recognition systems and training authoritarian governments on how to most effectively monitor phone and Internet activity.
Geopolitical changes, however, amplify these direct efforts as Russia and China engage with a broader spectrum of states. China’s rising power and Russia’s assertiveness mean that they are expanding their networks of trade and patronage with many states at once—as the United States did in the aftermath of the Cold War—creating greater opportunities to encourage authoritarian tendencies. But even beyond buttressing like-minded autocrats, Russia’s and China’s international activism may also work to weaken democracies. Research shows that extensive linkages with the West (through aid, trade, and social networks) encouraged democracy and its consolidation after the Cold War. Russia’s and especially China’s growing ties now raise the risk of a growing global tide of authoritarianism.
Shifts in geopolitics also mean that Russia and China don’t have to intentionally engage in autocracy promotion to weaken democracy. Even without a deliberate strategy to export their models of governance, China’s rise and Russia’s assertiveness send a powerful signal to other leaders about the success of their models and alter perceptions about what constitutes a legitimate regime. Putin has offered a model of governance that others seek to emulate. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for example, seem to admire Putin’s strongman tactics and have adopted elements of his repertoire to enhance their control. As Xi has consolidated his personal power, the Chinese system now looks more like the Russian one. Although there are important differences, Xi and Putin together send a potent message to onlooking leaders of the success and desirability of strongman rule.
For too long, Western leaders have assumed that deep distrust and competition would drive a wedge between Russia and China. But this prediction has not panned out. Instead, the countries’ strategies have become mutually reinforcing in powerful, if perhaps unintended, ways. The result is that Russia and China are fortifying authoritarian tendencies around the world by facilitating leaders’ turn away from democracy and by making it easier for existing autocrats to remain in power.
Efforts to directly confront China and Russia over their anti-democratic actions are unlikely to yield results and may further bolster their collaboration. There are, however, tools that the West can deploy to counter this trend. In addition to upholding positive models of democratic governance, the United States and its partners should double down on bolstering the democratic resiliency of countries most at risk, including through supporting the development of independent, in-country expertise on China and Russia and bolstering investigative journalism and civil society, which can shine a light on authoritarian influence and national leaders co-opted by it. The stronger a country’s regulatory environment, civil society, political parties, and independent media, the less effective authoritarian powers’ attacks on democratic institutions will be, and the less appeal the authoritarian narrative and model will have. Working with U.S. allies and partners to empower domestic constituencies to stand up against foreign subversion of their own democracies will be the most effective weapon against Chinese and Russian influence.