Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
Crises illuminate the contours of world affairs, and the war in Ukraine has had a clarifying effect on the Biden administration’s approach to the world. Since taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden has argued that the struggle between democracy and autocracy is the defining clash of our time, even as critics and some members of his administration haven’t always agreed. For Biden, at least, the Russian invasion and the world’s response to it has proved that he was right all along.
In his State of Union address in early March, Biden described the war in Ukraine as a battle between freedom and tyranny. In Warsaw a few weeks later, in another speech replete with Cold War echoes, the president announced that Washington would lead the free world to victory in a great struggle “between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.”
Biden has good reason to be hitting these themes hard. The Russian invasion has shown how deeply the struggle to shape global order is rooted in opposing conceptions of domestic order. It has clarified and intensified the struggle between advanced democracies and Eurasian autocracies. And it has given Biden’s foreign policy, which seemed headed for frustration if not outright failure just a few months ago, a new lease on life. Yet critics of the democracy-autocracy thesis aren’t wrong to argue that the world isn’t quite so simple. Winning this contest of systems will require crafting a strategy that takes these complexities into account.
Biden must first specify what Washington opposes—not the existence of autocracy but that combination of tyranny, power, and hostility that so threatens the United States and the international order it has built. He must then flesh out his concept of the “free world,” a familiar term that can be more flexible than it sounds. Finally, his administration must address four key problems that this framing implies. A free-world strategy can help Washington prevent this century from becoming an age of autocratic advantage—but it raises pointed questions about who’s in, who’s out, and how to navigate a world that is increasingly divided and stubbornly interdependent at the same time.
Biden’s foreign policy has unfolded in three stages. The first six months of the administration showcased bold ideas and big plans. Biden came into office stressing the ideological roots of great-power rivalry and the need to strengthen the cohesion and resilience of the democratic world. His administration soothed alliances that had been strained during the Trump era; it cultivated democratic cooperation on issues from semiconductor supply chains to stability in the western Pacific. Biden focused NATO and the Group of 7 on the China challenge; he raised the ambitions and expanded the activities of the Quad, a group that comprises Australia, India, Japan, and the United States; he pursued new schemes, such as the AUKUS security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, that connected democratic allies in creative ways. “America is back,” Biden claimed: a confident superpower was reasserting principled international leadership.
Then the next six months got very ugly. The ill-managed U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan delivered the citizens of that country to a brutal tyranny. Biden’s China agenda stagnated in the absence of any compelling trade policy for the Indo-Pacific; his “Asia first” approach foundered amid worsening tensions with Iran and Russia. The major democracy-themed initiative—the Summit for Democracy—was a glitchy, underwhelming Zoom meeting. Meanwhile, much of Biden’s domestic agenda—meant to build a “situation of strength” at home through ambitious reform—stalled in Congress while galloping inflation created domestic weakness instead.
Stage three initially looked even worse. By early 2022, U.S. officials were warning that Russian President Vladimir Putin would soon invade Ukraine and that he could easily conquer most of the country. In the run-up to the conflict, Washington adeptly revealed Russia’s plans through the rapid dissemination of sensitive intelligence. Yet it nonetheless struggled to deter Putin or secure transatlantic agreement on a punishing sanctions package, in part because of residual European skepticism that the assault would indeed occur. The administration was confronting the possibility that a frontline democratic state would be destroyed by an imperialist autocracy, creating cascading global insecurity and a pervasive sense that the dictators were on the march.
Yet Ukrainian resistance, Russian blunders, timely American support, and surprising European unity have saved that country—and with it, Biden’s foreign policy. Shocked by the brazenness of the attack, a transregional coalition of democracies slapped harsh sanctions on Putin. The United States and European allies turned the tables on Moscow, providing money, guns, and intelligence that helped Ukraine defend itself and take a terrible toll on the invaders. The world’s premier alliance of democracies, NATO, is strengthening its military capabilities and preparing to take on new members; countries in the Indo-Pacific are moving faster, if not fast enough, to meet the parallel challenge from China. Putin’s invasion produced greater unity and urgency among the advanced democracies than at any time in decades. It also has largely, but not wholly, vindicated Biden’s democracy-versus-autocracy framing.
The war in Ukraine has certainly confirmed that regime type is a crucial driver of international behavior. Russia’s policies flow from a witch’s brew of history, geopolitics, personality, and ideology, but autocracy and aggression undoubtedly go together in Putin’s regime. A democratic Russia would not feel so threatened by a democratic, Western-facing Ukraine. A consolidated, modern democracy would not systematically commit war crimes as an act of policy, seize and annex a neighbor’s territory, and lie, shamelessly and continuously, to its population and the world.
The war has also reminded us, therefore, how profoundly the world would change if it were run by revisionist autocracies. Yes, the hypocrisies of the liberal international order are legion; dictators have no monopoly on deception and coercion. Yet in a system that was not led by Washington or another democratic superpower, the aggressive, flagrantly acquisitive action Putin has taken in Ukraine, and that Beijing has taken in the South China Sea, would be far more common. Great-power predation—economic, diplomatic, military—would be the norm the world endures rather than the exception it has the luxury of criticizing. The type of global order a great power pursues is the outward projection of its political order at home.
The war, then, has both highlighted and deepened the fundamental global cleavage today—the clash between advanced democracies that are committed to the existing international order and the Eurasian autocracies trying to overturn it. Regional aggression is starting to elicit global democratic responses. The coalition that has sanctioned Russia includes not just the United States and Europe but also Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—just as European powers are asserting their interest in preventing China from dominating the western Pacific.
At the same time, the world’s two great autocracies are joining hands. A war that began weeks after Russia and China touted a relationship with “no limits” will surely produce an even tighter axis, since neither country, having alienated much of the democratic world, has anywhere else to go for now. And that, in turn, will further encourage democracies at both ends of Eurasia and beyond to cooperate in confronting an emerging illiberal coalition. Biden may say that Washington wishes to avoid a world of opposing blocs, but that is precisely the thrust of global events and U.S. policy.
Critics of the democracy-autocracy thesis aren’t wrong to argue that the world isn’t quite so simple.
Yet the “clash of systems” model doesn’t explain everything. If most advanced democracies have rallied, many developing democracies have not. India and Brazil have adopted a position of neutrality. Countries in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia have sought a middle ground. There are always specific reasons, such as India’s dependence on Russian arms or Brazil’s reliance on Russian fertilizer. Yet this new nonaligned movement is a reminder that many of the United States’ democratic brethren are choosing not to choose.
Moreover, the Biden administration is rediscovering its reliance on nondemocracies. Perhaps one day a green energy revolution will make the petrostates irrelevant, but for now Washington needs Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies to offset the energy shock the war has caused. Containing Russia and China will require the cooperation of countries—including Singapore, Turkey, and Vietnam—that are governed in illiberal ways. The United States isn’t opposed to all autocracies, and not all democracies are fully on its side.
Finally, the war in Ukraine has shown the perils of interdependence with hostile regimes—but that interdependence isn’t going away. The advanced democracies can brutalize Russia economically, but they can’t—at a tolerable cost—totally sever it from the world. They can’t, and shouldn’t, come anywhere close to a complete decoupling from China. Freedom-versus-tyranny rhetoric brings to mind a global landscape fully split in two. But we live in a world where two increasingly hostile camps cannot fully escape each other’s economic and technological embrace.
If Biden intends to pursue a free-world strategy, his first task is to clarify what, exactly, the United States opposes. The answer is not autocracy per se, given that Washington must work with some illiberal regimes to check others. What the United States opposes is the marriage of tyranny, power, and hostility: those authoritarian regimes that have the intent and the ability to fundamentally challenge the existing international system, by exporting the violence and illiberalism they practice at home to the world.
This behavior can take the form of outright territorial aggression, whether blatant or subtle; it can involve economic and political coercion meant to distort the foreign policies and domestic politics of other nations. It can involve meddling and subversion that impairs the functioning of democratic societies, transnational repression that can chill basic liberties globally, or efforts to weaponize new technologies in ways that could drastically shift the balance of power or the balance of freedom and oppression. Different behaviors will, of course, merit different responses. But it is this combination of autocracy, capability, and aggressive conduct that the free world must organize itself to meet.
Which means that Biden must also better articulate the coalition he aims to rally. The free world is a Cold War–era concept making a comeback. The original phrase, though, was more malleable than we often remember. It included liberal democracies, friendly authoritarians, and states of various shades in between. Today, the free world is best thought of as a three-tiered coalition.
The United States will need different rhetoric for different audiences.
The first tier features the United States’ democratic treaty allies—the (mostly) liberal democracies that make up the Anglosphere, the transatlantic community, and the strongest links in the chain of U.S. alliances in the Indo-Pacific. This group features deep, institutionalized cooperation based on shared values as well as shared interests; it constitutes the core of any coalition to resist aggression, maintain democratic technological dominance, and otherwise thwart the autocratic challenge. And although U.S. alliances are organized regionally or bilaterally, they create preponderant global strength: including the United States, this group commands a majority of world GDP and military spending. The key, then, will be not simply enhancing capabilities and collaboration within existing alliances but also forging greater connections across them, as AUKUS has done.
The second tier includes democratic partners. These countries are often imperfectly or inconsistently aligned with the United States. They are far from wholly comfortable with American power. Yet they would surely be far less comfortable still in a world where expansionist autocracies had the advantage, so they will lend critical assistance on select matters.
India may be hesitant to break with Russia, but it is already a vital part of the geopolitical and technological balancing effort vis-à-vis China. Indonesia will increasingly cooperate with Washington on security issues, even as it maintains close commercial ties to Beijing. Ukraine and Taiwan are non-allies that constitute geopolitical bulwarks in crucial regions. Biden’s goal should be to further develop institutions and arrangements, such as the Quad or various tech alliances, that enhance the overall power of the free world by thickening the connective tissue between its first and second tiers.
The third tier consists of comparatively benign autocracies—illiberal countries that still support an international system led by a democratic superpower. Admittedly, efforts to draw distinctions between good and bad dictators have a sordid lineage. But certain autocracies do depend on an open, U.S.-led global economy; occupy strategic geography that leaves them vulnerable to Beijing or Moscow and thus dependent on Washington; or are otherwise deeply wired into the existing system. These countries, such as Vietnam and Singapore, will work with the United States on a transactional basis, to thwart more extreme forms of autocratic aggression. But their dealings with democracies will be more attenuated when it comes to human rights, the future of the Internet, and other governance issues.
A free-world strategy can thus be principled without being absolutist or self-defeating. It offers a plausible rationale for working with some autocrats against others. And it packs a strategic punch: a free-world coalition can allow the United States and its friends to marshal a decisive superiority on critical issues. Nonetheless, challenges abound.
The first involves managing interdependence in a fragmenting world. The goal here should be not to fully unwind those ties but to ensure that the terms of interdependence favor the free world. This will require selective decoupling—denying Chinese firms access to investment and high-tech inputs, for instance, or increasing Europe’s freedom of action by weaning it off Russian energy supplies. More important will be increasing the commercial, financial, and technological cohesion of the free world, to accelerate its growth and innovation and decrease its vulnerability to autocratic coercion. This is urgent: China is racing to reduce its susceptibility to international economic pressure, in recognition that the terms of interdependence may determine the balance of leverage in a crisis.
A separate challenge is engaging ambivalent, democratic partners, countries that cooperate with Washington on concrete issues but don’t particularly like the free-world model. The United States will need different rhetoric for different audiences: self-determination and freedom of geopolitical choice may sell better than democracy-versus-tyranny in Africa or Southeast Asia. Washington should carefully prioritize what it needs from these partners, whose choice of 5G telecommunications provider may be more important than their position on Ukraine. Yet Biden must also exploit opportunities the war has provided.
India’s strategy of using Russian arms to protect itself against China is now bankrupt: if Moscow is crippled by conflict and sanctions, and ever more dependent on Beijing, then it can’t or won’t provide Delhi with the military equipment it might need in a crisis. By helping India reduce its reliance on Russian military gear, the United States and other democratic countries can also reduce India’s incentives for hedging over time.
A free-world strategy can be principled without being absolutist or self-defeating.
A free-world strategy also has awkward implications for estranged autocratic partners. After all, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates do engage in transnational repression, weaponize surveillance technologies, and coerce their neighbors. Both have pulled closer to Russia and China, in part for economic reasons, in part because of a declining U.S. interest in Persian Gulf security, and in part because strongmen have an ideological affinity for other strongmen. Both countries still have long-standing, extensive ties to the United States, with whom they share an interest in containing Iran; their relationships with Washington are valuable enough that they won’t crumble overnight. But one possible upshot of a more starkly divided world is that the most important Gulf monarchies could end up on the other side.
Even if a green revolution eventually turns Riyadh and Abu Dhabi into has-beens—a big “if”—in the medium term this could lead to nasty strategic consequences in a region that still matters very much. For the time being, then, a free-world strategy can’t liberate the United States from ongoing engagement, and perhaps ticklish compromises, with key autocracies that have a foot in both camps.
Finally, Biden should answer a question he has avoided so far: How does this end? A free-world strategy doesn’t require a goal of regime change, although Biden’s ad-libbed comments about Putin haven’t clarified the issue. Democracies can moderate tensions with hostile autocracies, as détente showed during the Cold War. But if this is really a contest between countries with fundamentally different worldviews based on fundamentally different domestic orders, then such a détente will, once again, be temporary. The United States spent decades trying to draw Moscow and Beijing into the international system; now it must strengthen the free world around them, and reduce their ability to do harm, until their internal politics shift or their power fades. A free-world strategy can eventually produce a happy ending. But “eventually” may be a very long time.