Home inFocus Russia and the Authoritarian Axis Rising

Russia and the Authoritarian Axis Rising

William C. Martel Winter 2014

It takes time for societies and policymakers to grasp when dramatic changes are underfoot. This delay in recognition can happen even when a major shift in global affairs is altering the foundations of international security. Over the past year, what we see clearly are the effects of one such shift through the emergence of a new constellation of powers.

This concert of nations—the “authoritarian axis”—is a source of turmoil in the world whose consequences are creating a radical transformation, perhaps as momentous as the Soviet Union’s collapse two decades ago. This grouping of powers through philosophical agreement and loose coordination among their policies is reshaping global affairs, especially in the Asia-Pacific, Middle East, and Eurasia.

The principal members of this group are Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and Syria. All are signaling growing anxiety that they are “behind the curve” of history. But the emergence of this axis also reflects the fact that its members gravitate toward authoritarian policies. Indeed, its members share certain characteristics that raise questions about how these nations and their peoples missed “the curve” in building the democratic states and free markets that most of the world embraces.

The most worrisome trend of all is that we see growing evidence that these states deliberately and actively coordinate their foreign policies. Such coordination appears to be a relatively recent development, which coincides with Vladimir Putin’s return to his third term as Russia’s president.

Despite the fact that this growing coordination negatively impacts the interests of democratic nations, states in the West, including the United States, have responded weakly to the policies of the authoritarian states.

Why the Axis is Emerging

There are three common motivations that animate the policies of these authoritarian governments. One is their apparent fear of democracy, freedom, and liberty, which each of these societies works aggressively to curtail. Simply put, these states are on the wrong side of history, politics, and economics—and they know it.

Second, these authoritarian regimes distrust and may be jealous of Western, notably American, power and influence. As the single most powerful state economically, technologically, and militarily, the United States is the exemplar of success enjoyed by free societies that authoritarian societies most deeply oppose. Stated simply, democratic values, particularly transparency in government and society, threaten the legitimacy and ultimately the survival of repressive, authoritarian governments.

A third reason, unavoidably, is contempt. The authoritarian leaders of these states cannot help but notice how hesitant the West is to criticize strongly their states and policies.

Seeing the success of free societies, the authoritarian axis may represent a purely defensive posture against the power of democratic nations. When we consider the economic and technological power, even when weakened by recession, of the United States, Europe (Germany, U.K., and France), Japan, and an emerging India and Brazil, among others, the members of the axis (with the exception of China, current trends not withstanding) are not remotely serious players in the world economy. This fear drives like-minded authoritarian states and governments closer together.

The critical event in Russia’s realignment is Putin’s return to the presidency. He gradually, and with surprisingly little U.S. opposition, shifted toward more strident anti-American rhetoric to bolster his domestic power and international reputation—the latter to persuade other states that it is safe to join the axis against Washington. His more confrontational language, which was unmatched by Washington, also signaled the West’s unwillingness to oppose Moscow. His ability to build this axis, with China’s collaboration, explains why Russia remains a significant geopolitical adversary, despite its profoundly weak economy that survives largely on revenue from petro-dollars.

Despite the American “pivot” to Asia-Pacific, signs that China and Russia are increasing their economic and military cooperation mean that states will feel their power and influence throughout the region. Just recently, China announced the establishment of an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea. China and Russia’s growing assertiveness will increase tensions in an area where states already doubt Washington’s commitment. When Japan and South Korea debate whether to develop nuclear weapons, there is tangible evidence that states fear that America’s commitment is in jeopardy.

Common Characteristics

States in the authoritarian axis share several common political and economic characteristics. They fear transparency and democratic institutions, face varying levels of domestic opposition. They possess repressive, authoritarian governments whose leaders routinely impose burdens on their own people to ensure their survival. When Russia arrests opposition leaders, it fuels worries of its return to Stalin-era style repression. Several female members of a Russian rock band are serving long sentences in jail in the modern Russian gulag for making critical comments about Putin.

States in the authoritarian axis have—with the exception of China, although recent data points to problems ahead—desperately weak economies. Take the case of Russia. Fifty percent of its national income derives from oil and gas sales, net capital outflow is accelerating, and its stock market is down by one-third since Putin announced in 2011 his plan to return to the presidency. Russia’s economy shows no signs of a rebound while crony capitalism continues unabated.

Russia’s Economy Minister stated publicly that his country’s share of global GDP is likely to fall in the next twenty years, from 4 percent to 3.4 percent. Furthermore, its economy faces several critical structural problems: falling energy revenues, shrinking population and workforce, and fewer domestic consumers.

By every critical economic measure, Russia’s economy is in serious decline. It has no serious high-technology industries, is rife with corruption, suffers from an exodus of talent, and foreign direct investment is almost non-existent. This authoritarian petro-state cannot seem to escape the monikers of possessing nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, surviving on oil and gas sales, and have another “president for life.”

Dependent on energy exports, these states know that declining energy prices will throw their economies into recession and political upheaval. As energy prices drop, Russia’s economy faces increasing difficulties. Recent reports suggest that to support its budgetary goals, Russia relies on crude prices at $110-$115/bbl. With falling oil prices and additional discoveries of crude globally—thanks to oil sands and hydraulic fracturing—Russia is overwhelmingly vulnerable to declining energy prices.

Foreign Policies of Authoritarian States

The foreign policies of the authoritarian states are governed by several principles. The first is reflexive opposition to the United States. No principle seems more important, particularly to Putin, than to resist and restrain American power and influence whenever the opportunity arises. For Putin, one senses that opposing the United States is a prime directive.

Second, members of the axis work systematically and in a loosely coordinated fashion to restrain, resist, and paralyze the UN. Using vetoes, China and Russia prevented the UN Security Council from passing resolutions to stop the Syrian government from killing its own people. Moscow consistently opposes expanded sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program.

Third, these states practice the simple, yet effective, policy of supporting and protecting each other—no matter what.

Fourth, these states oppose democracy and free markets in their own societies. With governments guided by authoritarian leaders, their opposition to democracy and free markets is apparent and enduring. Worse, their policies have corrosive effects on peace, prosperity, and freedom.

Fifth, they threaten, and on occasion invade, their neighbors. In the case of Russia, European states cannot forget that Moscow cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine in the winter of 2009 over pricing disputes. It reportedly launched cyber-attacks against Estonia in 2007, and invaded Georgia in 2008. After Russia recently strong-armed Ukraine from joining the EU, we have seen massive protests as hundreds of thousands Ukrainians reject Kiev’s decision to form a closer alliance with Moscow.

While the axis has moved to develop much stronger bonds, momentum has been building for some time. Russia and China over the last two decades developed a growing arms trade. In April 2012, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping said Russia and China agree “100 percent” on policies toward Syria and North Korea. In 2012, Beijing and Moscow signed trade and energy contracts worth $15 billion.

China and Russia form the center of an increasingly strong axis of states whose watchword is routine opposition to Washington’s policies. When Putin visited China in 2012, he did so deliberately before meeting with Obama as part of a strategy to reaffirm publicly Russia’s relationship with Asia’s rising power. Those meetings in Beijing gave both Putin and Hu the chance to share and coordinate and their ideas and policies toward Syria, Iran, and energy issues, among others.

Russia’s broader strategy is to counterbalance and ultimately undermine American influence.

Iran’s coordination with China and Russia is increasing. Putin met with Iran’s President Ahmadinejad in Beijing in June 2012 before talks over Iran’s nuclear program. Iran, in turn, sought Chinese and Russian support at the P5+1 nuclear summits in Beijing and later in Moscow. Meanwhile, Russia gained Iran’s support for policies toward Syria, and warned against using force against Iran. China joined Russia in opposing military strikes. Russia and Iran criticized U.S. policies toward Syria, accusing Washington of supporting rebel groups fighting against Syria’s government. Iran, too, accused the United States of arming the Syrian rebels and escalating the crisis.

In terms of military coordination, ties have run deep for years. Russia sells arms to almost all members of the axis. In 2012, Russia and China conducted a large naval exercise in the Yellow Sea. Iran’s threat in 2012 to close the Strait of Hormuz is viable thanks to Russian Kilo-class diesel submarines and anti-ship missiles likely derived from Chinese technology. Russia remains intent on expanding its large naval facility in Syria.

Security in a World of Authoritarians

The first step is for the democracies and their allies to identify the problem. While axes emerge and fade naturally in geopolitics, Russia is the prime mover that motivates and organizes this axis. It solidified politically at the moment when Putin, in running for the presidency for a third term, needed to strengthen his domestic base of support. One also senses Putin clearly harbors great antipathy toward the United States and perhaps President Obama.

Second, China is unquestionably the most powerful state in the axis. Vastly more powerful than Russia, which Moscow certainly understands, China likely sees Russia as an economic and political lightweight. Beijing also may harbor some contempt for Russia, which despite its natural resources, cannot seem to become a serious economic and technological player. Seeing itself as the next great power, Beijing knows that it has immensely greater clout than Russia—and may view Russia with disdain. Strategically, this sense of disdain may provide a common linkage in the interests of Washington and Beijing.

Third, the authoritarian states undoubtedly understand that they are economically and militarily weaker than the United States. Perhaps the leaders of the axis states believe that unless they coordinate their policies, the forces of history will sweep them aside. By this logic, geopolitical offense is the only option because operating on the defense is a losing strategy.

Fourth, this geopolitical shift has been latent for years, only to emerge in full-throated fashion with Putin’s third term as president. The instinct is that these states, sensed weakness, confusion, and a lack of commitment in American policy. They took advantage of the effects of two wars, a five-year economic downturn, and political divisions in Washington, and acted accordingly.

Last, this bloc has profound consequences not only for Europe but also for the Asia-Pacific and larger Indo-Pacific regions, which is the world’s most economically dynamic region. China and many axis partners benefit from purchases of Russian military equipment. From ultra-quiet diesel submarines, to modern fighter aircraft to the engines that power its new J-20 stealth fighter, China likely would not be where it is militarily without Russia’s help. While major arms purchases have slowed between Moscow and Beijing, we should expect to see greater collaboration, as their interests remain aligned.

Failure to Respond

For the record, no one wants another Cold War. In theory, societies in the West should be optimistic about the future. In effect, the members of the authoritarian axis may be deeply unstable. Recalling the cases of the Soviet Union, Serbia, Ukraine, and Georgia, policymakers should never forget that apparently “stable” regimes can collapse unexpectedly.

Still, one senses that the West is showing signs of weakness. The failure to criticize publicly and strenuously the depredations of the authoritarian states is a complicit form of acquiescence, which increases their legitimacy and sense of geopolitical momentum. We need to reverse the fortunes of the authoritarian states either now or later but before their momentum becomes an even greater challenge to the West.

With this principle in mind, the West’s central strategy for dealing with Russia and the authoritarian axis rests on three principles. First, identify regularly what the authoritarian states do, say, and stand for. Transparency is a powerful antidote to authoritarianism. We simply cannot give them a free ride as they threaten states in the West. Too often policymakers in the West underestimate their own power and influence.

Second, we need to emphasize the inherent power and value of democracy, freedom and free markets, and human rights as the basis for true legitimacy, prosperity, and power. Third, the West must be committed to engaging the authoritarian states on the “playing fields” of democracy and freedom. If recent history is any guide, these authoritarian regimes are unlikely to survive in the long term – and they likely understand this reality. Have we really forgotten the lessons of the Cold War?

If the authoritarian axis prospers, its aim will be to rewrite the rules governing foreign policy. However, the vastly more likely outcome is that, if the West organizes itself to deal effectively with this challenge, perhaps we will see in this generation the last gasp of authoritarianism. Central to this strategy is the United States, which cannot be silent as authoritarian states inflict harm.

Sadly, this outcome is by no means certain if the West continues to show weakness and indecision. The West, after all, has a long and storied history of ignoring problems until the democracies are, figuratively if not literally, kicked in the teeth. But having won the Cold War only a generation ago, do we really want to pay for the same political and economic terrain twice?

Prof. William C. Martel is Associate Professor of International Security Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He is the author of Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Strategy.