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Fintan O’Toole: Putin’s vicious folly is a lesson in failings of dictatorial leadership

Ukraine invasion exposes myth that authoritarian regimes are more efficient

The 21st century has been largely about the retreat of democracy. 2021 was the fifth consecutive year in which more countries had become authoritarian than had embraced democratic change.

Regimes that were already repressive (China being the most significant example) have become even more so. Three of the world’s biggest democracies – the United States, Brazil and India – have come very close to losing that status. Even within the European Union, Hungary and Poland have abandoned democratic norms.

There are many reasons for this retreat, one of which is a myth of efficiency. It became all too easy to compare the floundering of the EU during the euro zone crisis with the capacity of the Chinese Communist Party to “get things done”. Or for Russians to contrast the chaos of their more democratic 1990s with the apparent stability created by Vladimir Putin.

Dictators – so the story went – could act decisively because they were not encumbered by political factions, the niceties of the law, fear of losing an election by implementing necessary but unpopular policies, the carping of the media or the tedious balancing of competing social interests.

We’re currently living through two enormous real-world tests of this theory: the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine. In neither case is authoritarianism looking good.

When Covid-19 hit us, there was, among many western experts and politicians, a palpable envy of the ability of the Chinese regime to give orders that would be obeyed on a mass scale. Citizens in democracies, they assumed, would be too “freedom-loving” or querulous to comply with lockdowns or wear masks.

Obsessive monitoring

This turned out to be nonsense. Asian democracies like South Korea and Taiwan were at least as efficient in dealing with the virus as China was. Most of the free citizens of western countries consented to drastic measures for the sake of the common good.

The invasion of Ukraine, meanwhile, is showing that even in the field most suited to a culture of command and obedience – the making of war – authoritarianism is weaker than democracy. Putin’s vicious folly is a lesson in the two great failings of dictatorial leadership.

The invasion of Ukraine shows even in the field most suited to  command and obedience, authoritarianism is weaker than democracy

The first is the paradox of information. Authoritarian systems hoover it up. They spy on everyone, obsessively monitoring even the most private of thoughts.

But as that information filters upwards to the dictator, it is shaped to confirm his existing prejudices, preconceptions and vanities. The filter is fear – it is imperative for one’s own survival not to tell the big boss what he doesn’t want to hear.

It is increasingly obvious that Putin never engaged with the first principle of war: knowing the enemy. He simply did not want to hear that Ukraine is a real country whose people are willing and able to fight for it.

The second failing of dictatorship is that the paranoia of the “supreme leader” makes the delegation of real power impossible. In a democracy, a president or a prime minister, whose authority derives from an election, does not feel threatened by allowing a military leader to conduct a war.

Semi-divine qualities

But the dictator’s authority rests on a claim to unique instinct and insight. Such semi-divine qualities must, naturally, be brought to bear on military tactics and strategy – even when the dictator is a rank amateur in such matters.

It seems clear that Russia’s war on Ukraine is being run from the Kremlin. There is no battlefield commander with authority to take quick decisions or to co-ordinate the movement of the different wings of the armed forces.

It seems clear that Russia's war on Ukraine is being run from the Kremlin

By contrast, democratic Ukraine has been, even in military terms, more nimble, fast-moving and inventive. Units on the ground have been able to react quickly to what they see in front of them and to take advantage of immediate opportunities.

Nor can we imagine that anyone on the Ukrainian side is afraid to tell President Volodymyr Zelenskiy bad news or unwelcome truths. Zelenskiy surely has a much more realistic idea of what is actually happening than Putin does.

Unlike Putin, he does not believe all his own propaganda – a prerequisite for good decision-making.

If the consequences were not so horrifically criminal, we might even say that Putin has done democracy a favour by shattering the illusion of authoritarian efficiency. His invasion reveals, not just the moral depravity so grimly obvious in the murder of civilians in Bucha, but the ultimate weakness of the “strong man”.

It remains as true as ever that democracy is the worst possible system of government except for all the others. When it fails, moreover, it is when it is least like itself, when corruption and plutocracy and jingoistic zeal make it mimic its enemies.

In the twin crises of Covid and Ukraine, we are seeing that leadership by consent, the maintenance of an open society, respect for science, the free flow of truthful information and rational processes of deliberation, are not impediments to good government. They are what make it possible.

Absolute power, meanwhile, does not only corrupt absolutely. It blinds and deafens. It distorts reality. It produces the hallucination that the sheer force of one man’s will can sweep aside awkward facts.

The people of Ukraine are the great awkward fact exposing the delusions of dictatorship and the necessity of democracy.