Of all the forces conspiring to drag the world out of its slumber and face the daunting realities of the 21st century, few can match the chaotic malevolence of the Russian state under Vladimir Putin. The world seems paralyzed in response, and for good reason: the toolkit of traditional statecraft falls short of what is required to deal with the problem.
The 20th century model that Francis Fukuyama famously thought would be the “end of history” is beset on all sides by existential crises that threaten both labor market capitalism and the nation-state model. Nuclear proliferation, climate change and other environmental catastrophes are requiring countries to rethink centuries-old models of competitive advantage-seeking and reorient toward a more cooperative future to ensure the survival of humanity.
Automation and global supply chains are forcing nations to rethink what it means to protect formerly national industries, even as they grapple with underemployment, low wages, high cost of living and overfinancialization in a modern reality where good, stable jobs are increasingly scarce, raising families is incredibly expensive, and rising immigration leads to nativist backlash.
Nations are increasingly forced to consider either radical solutions like universal basic income, or grovel ever lower to increasingly powerful multi-national corporations in search of a dwindling supply of gig economy jobs that automation and the internet haven’t already culled. The global financial elite is increasingly diverse and disconnected from any one nation-state, leveraging their capital everywhere to raise the cost of housing and drive tax rates and public investment ever lower while demanding privatization of public goods. Democracy itself is becoming increasingly unstable as anxious and angry populations, especially on the right, are easily goaded by social media siloing to seek authoritarian solutions for their resentments and concerns.
But Putin’s Russia is proving to be a thorny combination of all of these problems in one, perfectly distilling the challenges of the 21st century. It is a perfect encapsulation of 21st century postmodern absurdist nihilism on behalf of the ludicrously rich, posing as realpolitik.
To call the Russian government “Russia” is essentially a misnomer. Putin’s regime is less a nation-state than a loosely connected group of mobsters who (with the unwitting help of a willing bipartisan United States foreign policy that preferred radical free market fundamentalism to an orderly transition from state communism to democratic socialism) stole the assets of the Russian people and turned the Russian state into a privatized, kleptocratic international crime syndicate. It far more resembles the organization Spectre of the James Bond novels and films, than the nationalist Soviet republic of the Cold War era.
Where the world struggles to come together to combat climate change in fits and starts, Russia’s fossil-fuel dependent oligarchs move to hamper progress at every turn, bolstering recalcitrant forces in the United States and elsewhere against real action.
Where the world struggles to maintain democracy in the face of revanchist and white supremacist anxieties over immigration and rise of the global south, Putin’s explicitly racist regime spends large sums to radicalize those populations toward the destruction of democracy and the rise of openly fascist, religious fundamentalist autocracy.
Where the world seeks mostly to denuclearize and de-escalate conflict (the Bush regime and its imperialist stupidities in Iraq notwithstanding), Russia actively seeks destabilization for the sake of multilateral chaos.
Where the world struggles to try to contain the power of the global plutocratic class with a slow reawakening of democratic socialism against decades of inflation-obsessed austerity and market fundamentalism, what passes for the Russian state has simply turned over all its operations to a crew of mobsters who have impoverished the Russian people and looted all of their publicly held goods, stashing the proceeds in Western stock markets and real estate investments.
Where the world is finally realizing it needs to curb the power of social media algorithms to prevent the proliferation of conspiracy theories and cultural civil wars, Russian kleptocrats are actively exploiting those vulnerabilities.
The rest of the developed world is not blameless in this. Western capitalist nations enabled this process by giving Boris Yeltsin a green light to run a privatized fire sale on Russian assets, and certainly the American example on climate change and warfare in the Middle East has been an ugly one. No western nation is exempt from the charge that it has turned over the functioning of government to its plutocratic classes.
But most of the world is at least paying lip service to trying to do something about these issues, and countries with right-wing leaders have active opposition movements dedicated to resisting and defeating them. The Russian state, on the other hand, is locked ever tighter in the grip of its Putin-led mafia, brazenly flouting even the pretense of international norms and carrying out active assassinations against whistleblowers and political exiles on the streets of London.
So what is the rest of the world to do?
The short answer is the same as with the other challenges: withstand and support one another in cooperation and mutual resistance, with a view toward sacrificing the good of the financial elites in favor of democracy and the common good.
As Anne Appelbaum noted in the Washington Post, the Putin mafia feels in part at liberty to behave as it does because it knows that many Western nations are corrupted by the flood of Russian money into their financial and real estate sectors. The only way to hurt Putin’s cronies is to freeze their assets, but many powerful domestic interests rebel against that notion for both ideological and self-interested reasons. It is shocking that it took a killing spree straight from a Le Carre novel for Britain to finally be spurred into maybe taking the only action that would actually put a pinch in Putin’s pocket. And yet the Brits still likely won’t have the courage to do it.
That, of course, is more than one can say for the Trump Administration, which to all appearances is serving as a direct subsidiary and agent of Putin’s crime syndicate.
Putin’s cronies depend on the largesse of Western banks to maintain and hold their assets. It would suffice for Western governments to cooperate in proactively forcing their banks to impoverish the Russian oligarchs in return.
Putin’s cronies depend mostly on fossil fuel revenues to maintain their grip on the Russian economy. It would simply behoove the West to act aggressively in investing in renewable energy to eliminate dependence on Russian exports.
Putin’s cronies depend on fueling white racism, anxiety and resentment to delegitimize democracy and cosmopolitan liberalism itself. It’s impossible to shame racists out of their racism on a grand scale, but it is possible to mitigate the storms of social and economic displacement by reducing the power of the asset classes and investing heavily in boosting the social safety via jobs guarantees and basic income guarantees. That in turn requires cooperation among nations not to subvert one another in using tax arbitrage to attract temporary corporate jobs.
Putin’s cronies depend on leveraging social media to destabilize democracy. It would benefit nations to tighten regulations on social media to minimize those effects.
In short, the answers that the developed world must already seek to ensure the survival of democracy and civilization in other respects, are the same answers that will shield them from and defang the bizarre 21st century absurdist kleptocratic monstrosity that has taken hold of the Russian state and abused its people.