Why the Cold War Never Ended: Kleptocracy vs Democracy in Ukraine

Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine, like that in Georgia some years ago, and ex-Yugoslavia before that, has made people wonder if the Cold War has resumed. There is a sense in which the Cold War never ended.[1]

The Cold War, ostensibly a struggle between communism and capitalism, was just one long campaign in a broader, longer war, still ongoing, between liberal and authoritarian modernity. That conflict is currently cast, by some, in terms of a struggle, over Ukraine, between the autocratic kleptocracy of Russia’s Eurasian Union, and the liberal democracy of the European Union. That conflict within modernity is, in turn, part of an older struggle between modernity and pre- and anti-modern ideas.

Assuming here that we are on the side of liberal democracy, let us place the current conflict in Ukraine in historical and economic context, to see what, if anything, we can or should do about it.

First, let us see how the conflict between liberalism and authoritarianism relates to the Cold War, and to its sequels in the Balkans, Georgia and Ukraine. The Cold War was fought in two main theatres: geopolitical and ideological. Geopolitically, it confronted groups of nation states: the Warsaw Pact vs NATO; China vs the US and its Asian allies – for short, East vs West. Ideologically, it pitted communism vs capitalism. Communism stood for authoritarianism, capitalism for liberalism. While there were geopolitical and ideological exceptions and nuances on both sides, this was the broad overall array of forces.

Capitalism is held by many to have won the Cold War. But, as Madeleine Albright rightly points out, ‘we didn’t win it: they lost it’. For the Soviet Union imploded geopolitically from within, while China adopted capitalism in practice, although not in theory.

It is indeed a misleading oversimplification to say that capitalism won the Cold War, if one sees the real, underlying Cold War, still ongoing, as one between authoritarianism and liberalism. This is because the deeper Cold War is not over; and, what is more, capitalism comes in two forms: free-market and state. Free-market capitalism goes with liberalism. State capitalism goes with authoritarianism.

Free-market capitalism needs the rule of law to work. It therefore works best in liberal democracy. This is because liberal democracy, unlike authoritarian autocracy, in based on the rule of law. The rule of law, to be enforced, needs an honest, independent bureaucracy. Such a bureaucracy, while often irritating, even to liberal democrats, is positive anathema to autocratic kleptocrats.

Autocrats prefer either communism or state capitalism, both of which are easier to control. Authoritarianism uses a subservient bureaucracy to rule, and keeps it obedient through a mixture of intimidation and corruption. While most state capitalist nations, and all communist states, are authoritarian, no communist or state capitalist nation is liberal or truly democratic.

So the supposed outcome of the Cold War must be redefined. The Cold War was thought to have ended with the triumph of relatively free-market capitalism over communism. This is true for Western and Central Europe. But Russia, after a bout of free-market capitalism without the rule of law, and China since Deng, remaining communist in name only, have espoused different forms of state capitalism. Although different in theory, both in practice lead to kleptocracy. Thus the struggle in Ukraine, in a sense and at one level, is a new stage of the Cold War, played out now between democracy and kleptocracy, free-market capitalism and state capitalism, liberal and authoritarian modernity.

At a deeper level, however, the ideological struggle between liberalism and authoritarianism overlays other, older geopolitical and cultural conflicts: among nation states, and among ethnicities within them. Seen from an historical perspective, conflict among ethnicities, rooted in basic cultural elements, including language and religion, is pre-modern. Conflict among nation states is, like nation states themselves, a product of early modernity. And conflict between liberalism and authoritarianism is between two alternative forms of present modernity.

Modernity as such, including liberalism and authoritarianism, is also simultaneously involved in struggle with pre- and anti-modern ideas. Pre-modern ideas include the doctrine of supremacy of church – or mosque – over state, and the notion that sovereignty over a given state is absolutely vested in monarchs or other kinds of autocrats. Anti-modern ideas include religious fundamentalism of all sorts, as well as anti-globalisation, and related forms of irrational nostalgic populism.

The struggle between modernity and pre- and anti-modern ideas, which began at least five hundred years ago, may be summarised in terms of modernity’s preference for knowledge over belief, reason over emotion, and achievement over tradition. Seen in those terms, modernity is clearly gaining ground, both in global culture, and in international relations, although with occasional setbacks.

The outcome, however, of the struggle within modernity, between liberalism and authoritarianism, is far less clear. This struggle has been going on for at least two centuries, and looks set to continue. Liberalism and authoritarianism share the preferences of modernity as such for knowledge over belief, reason over emotion, and achievement over tradition. They differ in that liberalism prefers the rule of law over will; authoritarianism that of will over law.

The struggle between liberalism and authoritarianism is conducted not only, or even mainly, between nations, but within them, as the conflict in Ukraine shows. It involves other distinctions and conflicts: that among ethnicities and nation states; and that between modernity and pre- and anti-modern ideas. These become confused with it, making it difficult to understand. Let us try to disentangle some of these confusions, so as better to understand what is going on in Ukraine, in order to see how best to respond to the challenge of its present conflict.

The name Ukraine means ‘borderland’, and it lives up to it in many ways. The current conflict in Ukraine, while at one level cast between liberalism and authoritarianism, involves and includes pre-existing and related struggles and distinctions, on three levels: ethnic, national, and ideological.

Among ethnic distinctions are those between speakers of Russian and Ukrainian, and between members of the Orthodox and Catholic churches. Russian and Ukrainian are languages so closely related that groups of opposing soldiers, each using their own to shout at each other in a standoff, understand each other well enough to manage to avoid coming to blows, or alternatively to provoke each other to fight. Orthodoxy and Catholicism are closely related religions, long estranged by hierarchy and theology, compounded with language and nationality, but facing a common enemy in Islam, as well as in secular modernity.

Historically, in terms of the development of nation states, and so of international conflicts, Ukraine, in the form of the mediaeval Kievan Rus’, is the fountainhead of Russian culture and polity; so of the current Russian state. Western Ukraine has been a march of the Lithuanian, Polish, and Austro-Hungarian empires. Eastern Ukraine and Crimea have been ruled or led by various Asian empires, including the Persian, Mongol, Tatar and Turkish. Sometimes East Ukraine has dominated West, sometimes vice-versa. Both were ruled by Cossacks before falling to Russia in the eighteenth century. These early modern conflicts have resulted in a complex current ethnic distribution.

Ethnically, both sides of Ukraine, east and west, are mainly Slavic, with significant non-Slavic minorities, including Rumanians in the west, and Tatars in Crimea. That peninsula, held by Russia since 1783, was ceded to Ukraine by the Soviet leader Khrushchev in 1954. It has an ample majority of Russian speakers, and continues to house the Russian Black Sea fleet, by a treaty between Ukraine and Russia, signed after the breakup of the Soviet Union. By another such treaty, signed then by Russia, Britain and America, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in return for guarantees of territorial integrity within its current internationally recognised borders.

This treaty is what Russia breaches in invading and annexing Crimea, something which it mendaciously, for a time denied doing. (It subsequently chose not only to admit it, but to brag about to its own people.) In thus breaching international treaties, Russia shows its authoritarian preference for will over law.

The current conflict over Ukraine looks like, and is, at the level of international relations, a continuation of the Cold War’s geopolitical struggle. That is a struggle over who will dominate Europe: Russia, or the West, the latter meaning NATO and the European Union. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the West has pushed the sphere of Russian influence, extended westward after the Second World War, back to and beyond the borders of the Soviet Union, right up to those of Russia itself.

Ukraine’s possibly joining the EU and NATO represents yet another defeat for Russia. Seeing it loom, Russia is moving to salvage what it can: Crimea, and possibly some of Eastern Ukraine. The stakes involved are not only ethnic, military and political, but economic: Ukraine, though recently driven by its politicians to the verge of bankruptcy, has enormous agricultural and industrial potential.

Against the background of these ethnic and national struggles and distinctions, involving them all in various ways, the ideological conflict in Ukraine is between liberalism and authoritarianism. Seen economically, however, that conflict is between kleptocracy and democracy. Liberal democracy is represented geopolitically by the European Union; authoritarian kleptocracy by the Eurasian. The European Union is an established political reality. The Eurasian Union is still only a project, proposed by Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, and espoused by Putin’s Russia as a rival alternative to Europe.

As much as and more than ethnic, religious, linguistic, historical, national, geographic or geopolitical, the difference between these two unions is ideological and economic. On the one hand lie the hoped-for benefits – to the Ukrainian people – of liberal democracy and a relatively free market economy, as well as the drawbacks – to their rulers – of political and economic accountability. On the other – a far more pleasing prospect to autocrats – lie ‘managed democracy’ and state capitalism.

Of course for their respective detractors, the European Union is open to the charge that it merely tries to make the world safe for bureaucracy; the Eurasian that it aims to keep the world safe for kleptocracy. But European bureaucracy, however irksome, is at least in theory designed to keep relatively free-market capitalism honest. There is no such check on kleptocracy.

While strategically both sides pursue opposed geopolitical goals in Ukraine, at the level of tactics, there is a basic asymmetry in how they do so. That asymmetry reflects differences in ideology. The West offers inducements to Ukraine, the East combines inducements with threats. The West’s inducements are economic and ideological, aimed at encouraging a calculus of enlightened self-interest among Ukrainians. It offers economic support, but demands legal, economic and political compliance with standards of liberal modernity. The East, aware that its ideology and economic record have less popular appeal, speaks more to underlying ethnic, linguistic and religious tensions: to belief, emotion and tradition, rather than to knowledge, reason, and the chance of achievement. Using classic authoritarian scare tactics, alleging outside threats, while making real threats of its own, it seeks to encourage its natural allies and bully its natural adversaries among Ukrainians.

Different groups of Ukrainians, some identified by geography, language or ethnicity, others by class and education, yet others by vested economic and political interest, naturally wish to join one or the other rival union. (Those, if any, who wish to join neither have not yet been heard from.) Broadly speaking, with exceptions, Ukrainian speakers in the west are attracted to Europe; Russian speakers in the east to Russia. Again, more prosperous and educated Ukrainians, many of whom are in the west, tend to prefer Europe, while workers in rust-belt industries, mostly in the east, prefer Russia. Among older Russian speakers, nostalgia for the Soviet Union is widespread, since it represents a time when they dominated other ethnicities, and thus enjoyed a prouder sense of identity.

In the Ukrainian political elite, all the generation of leaders till the very present, whether proponents or opponents of the Orange Revolution of a decade ago, are tainted with accusations of corruption. Those, like Yanukovych, wishing to continue to practice kleptocracy as usual, prefer association with Russia and Eurasia. Those, like Timoshenko, prepared, however reluctantly, to submit to the discipline of political and economic accountability, are willing to embrace the European Union.

The new generation of leaders emerging from the protests on the Maidan is now being tested by the twin temptations of autocracy and kleptocracy. If they survive, and get a chance to manage the vast sums of foreign money pledged by Europe, America and the IMF to save the Ukrainian economy from meltdown, we shall doubtless see how they fare in this regard. If they do not survive, and Russia succeeds in imposing its will on all Ukraine, then autocratic kleptocracy as usual will continue. If Ukraine splits between East and West, each side may go its own way.

Thus, by this analysis, Ukraine is the current geopolitical focus of the ongoing ideological struggle within modernity, between liberalism and authoritarianism. But there are elements within Ukraine, specifically the Tatars of Crimea, who are mainly Muslim, among whom it is possible that pre- and anti-modern ideology could take hold, and revive that older, deeper struggle, between modernity and its alternatives.

These, in this context, are theocracy, and theologically sanctioned autocracy: the supremacy of mosque over state, and the absolute sovereignty of caliphs. If Tatars become radicalised and espouse jihad, the outcome of the Ukrainian crisis is even more unpredictable.

What, if anything, given the foregoing analysis of the situation, can and should the West do?

The answer depends on the level at which one approaches the question. At the level of ethnicity, language, religion and related pre-modern elements, there is nothing the West can or should do. That game is the East’s, and if the West tries to play it, it will fail miserably, because it goes against its own beliefs. Fortunately, there is, so far, no evidence of any such initiative tempting the West.

At the geopolitical level of Realpolitik, that of the continuing Cold War, the West must play to its own strengths: military, political, economic and ideological, and exploit its enemy’s corresponding weaknesses. Specifically, it must continue to offer and deliver the benefits of liberal democracy and free market economics. And it must stay the course, especially when the going gets rough, as it will.

Russia has amply demonstrated that it regards its energy supplies as a weapon. As an urgent matter of self-defence, independently of whatever happens to Ukraine, the West must wean itself from energy dependency on Russia. If this means fracking Europe, reluctant Europeans must ask if they prefer to submit to Russian domination, which is clearly Putin’s goal, or have to fight it off, in some cases yet again.

The West must also continue to respond militarily to Russia’s military threat and consummated aggression. Troops must be stationed near the Russian border with the rest of Europe. Missile defence must be revived and implemented. The Black Sea must be patrolled by NATO warships. Cyber defences must be strengthened, and attack strategies and tactics defined and developed. The name of the game is containment, yet again. Indeed it always was.

At the ideological level, the West must speak firmly with one voice: it must offer a clear choice between liberal democracy, however fettered by bureaucracy, and autocratic kleptocracy. Given that choice, most Ukrainians will choose democracy. Those who don’t will deserve what they get.

Whatever the outcome of the Ukrainian crisis, the deep Cold War goes on, and the West must be prepared to fight it indefinitely till it wins. This means taking the ideological battle to Russia itself. While this is hard within Russia, due to the preponderance there of underlying pre-and anti-modern elements, like those in Crimea but on a much larger scale and more complex, there is nothing inherent in Slavic ethnicity or culture to prevent its embracing and achieving liberal modernity. Poles, Czechs and Slovaks, as well as many Ukrainians, have shown that this is possible.

Our duty in the West, to ourselves and to them – for Putin now clearly aspires to reconstitute the Soviet Empire – is to encourage and support, by all means possible, those elements within Russia wishing to point it away from authoritarian, towards liberal modernity. Although outnumbered and persecuted, such elements do exist, and can form a kernel of resistance, struggle, and eventual triumph in Red Square, just as have their counterparts, so far at least, in the Maidan.

This is what Putin fears most. If Ukraine is allowed to join the West, and succeeds in achieving liberal modernity, Russia may follow. He will do all he can to stop this, at whatever cost to Ukraine, and to Russia. The reason he will do so is that, far from being a Russian patriot, seeking Russia’s enlightened self-interest – in which case he would seek to join, rather than resist, liberal modernity – he wishes to keep it mired in autocratic kleptocracy, with partners like Yanukovych, Nazarbayev and company. So Ukraine’s success in embracing liberal modernity is precisely what the West must actively and steadfastly encourage, not only for its own sake, but for that of the long-suffering, and often self-defeating, Russian people.

One line of geopolitical, as opposed to cultural or ideological strategy and tactics must involve China. Although China’s leadership is itself a model of autocratic kleptocracy, and should thus be expected to sympathise ideologically more with Putin and his Eurasian clique than with the West, China has geopolitical interests in preventing an unpunished breach of international treaties and the territorial annexation of a neighbour, on the pretext of ethnicity, at least on its own western front.

While China may itself be planning annexationist moves in East Asia, on like or unlike pretexts, its northern and western border is with Russia, and with several Muslim states aspiring to join Putin’s Eurasian Union. China has its own restive Muslim Uighur population in Sinkiang, who could provide a handy excuse for Eurasian intervention, should latent hostility between Russia and China, long fomented by history and geography, erupt. Let us not forget that it did so, even at the height of supposed Sino-Soviet ideological partnership, during the 20th century phase of the Cold War.

China, moreover, has huge agricultural investments in Ukraine. Its state capitalist leaders must know that these are likelier to produce profits for themselves if managed under the rule of enforceable contract law and international accounting standards, than if left to the tender mercies of non-Chinese kleptocrats. It is all very well to practice kleptocracy at home, with people whom one can bully or exterminate if necessary, but sensible kleptocrats invest their golden parachutes abroad, in places where they can rely on others to obey, more or less, the rule of law, and practice free market capitalism. That, indeed, is why there is so much Russian money in London, and Chinese in New York.

We have already seen China fail to support Russia wholeheartedly at the UN in its current Ukrainian adventure. This is welcome prudence that must be encouraged. Conversely, when it comes time to contain China itself, this example will help us to remind it of its own exposure on its North and Central Asian borders. Thus, little by little, with firmness tempered by sagacity, the liberal West must deal with these two authoritarian giants, playing them off against each other, consolidating liberalism’s gains in the ongoing Cold War of the 21st century.


[1] Originally published in Tribune, March 28, 2014. Updated March 28, 2017.