Democratic systems pitted against authoritarian rule as western leaders gather

Brussels meetings on Ukraine war illustrate drawbacks but also benefits of constraints

"Russia is capable of anything." Those were the ominous words of Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin to journalists in Brussels as Nato, the G7, and the EU gathered to forge a unified international response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

It highlighted an imbalance between the Russia and the West in their ability to act.

The response of western countries is a story of constraints. Germany has ruled out stopping buying gas from Russia because it would damage its economy. The EU is constrained by what its 27 members can agree to. The bloc's foundation is based upon internationally agreeing standards and laws. By their nature, democratic governments are constrained by what their electorates will support.

“It’s all well and good to talk about stopping it,” a diplomat said this week when asked about whether the fossil fuel supply from Russia should be cut.

"But if in Ireland, in Belgium, you're told electricity is rationed and you have to queue up to fill your car, you only have enough electricity for a few hours – how long will solidarity with Ukraine last?"

A defining constraint is the western commitment not to escalate, particularly given that it is up to Russia to define what escalation entails.

This is why Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s calls for Nato to impose a so-called no-fly zone over Ukraine have been refused. The call – to deny Russian aircraft the use of the skies, to remove Moscow’s crucial military advantage over Ukraine and its ability to bomb its cities – has been taken up by Ukrainian people, in protests all around the world, and “close the sky now” was the chant of a large protest that gathered outside EU buildings as leaders met.

Zelenskiy address

Zelenskiy has called for it since the invasion was launched on February 24th, he recalled in a video address to Nato leaders on Thursday.

“The worst thing during the war is not having clear answers to requests for help,” he told them. “To save our people and our cities Ukraine needs military assistance – without restrictions.”

Shortly afterwards, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte explained why the request could not be granted.

“What he obviously also wants is a no-fly zone. But that would bring the West, through our fighter jets, in a one-on-one direct confrontation with Russia,” Rutte told journalists.

"Whilst we need to do everything to support Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his courageous team and his soliders, at the same time we also have to protect the world from an escalation that might take a form that we all don't want."

In contrast, Vladimir Putin has organised his regime so that he has no constraints. He has destroyed any rivals to his power, crushed or co-opted systems of accountability, and created a controlled media environment to prevent even people even knowing about what he does.

On his arrival at the EU summit, US president Joe Biden told press that Putin's aim was precisely to exploit exactly this difference.

“His overall main objective is to demonstrate that democracies cannot function in the 21st century, because things are moving so rapidly, they require consensus, and it’s too difficult to get consensus, and autocracies are going to rule,” Biden said. He noted that the number of democracies worldwide has fallen in the last 10 years.

Sudden collapse

But while authoritarian regimes can be nimble, this same feature also makes them liable to sudden collapse.

As they accumulate power, strongmen cause their own fragililty, by shutting out correcting voices that would save them from making mistakes.

The distillation of power at the top in Russia is such that even senior figures within the regime are said to have been caught off guard by Putin’s decision to unleash the invasion. Soldiers, too.

It’s something that may have contributed to ill-preparedness in the Russian army. For the first time, Nato this week began to acknowledge that Russian losses may be as profound as the Ukrainian government has been claiming.

A senior Nato military official estimated that Russia had lost 7,000 to 15,000 soldiers already in its invasion. It's a vast estimate, and would represent a disaster for Moscow: by comparison, Russia lost 15,000 troops in a decade of war in Afghanistan.

Several European countries are now scrambling to get more military aid to Ukraine to allow it to maintain its resistance. It’s a rush because no one had prepared for this, never expecting the Kyiv government would still be standing against such a larger adversary one month on.

"What we have to do is continue supporting the Ukrainian army," EU chief diplomat Josep Borrell told journalists as he entered the summit. "The next two weeks will decide on which side victory comes."