Pushing back against the authoritarians: everyone can play a part, not just the military


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Since Russia invaded Ukraine almost a year ago, the media focus has largely been on helping Ukraine resist through military means. Thousands of articles and commentaries have been devoted to tanks, artillery, armoured personnel carriers and, more recently, the merits of giving Ukraine advanced Western fighter jets such as F16s. Meanwhile, NATO has been ramping up its military spending, calling for its rapid response forces to be increased from 40,000 to 300,000 and reinforcing its troops and equipment along its eastern flank.

This week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was in South Korea and Japan, asking both countries to increase their military assistance to Ukraine and break taboos regarding sending weapons into war zones, while saluting the defence spending increases and ambitious military modernisation programmes of both countries. Stoltenberg echoed a theme that has become deeply rooted in the current crisis with Russia: allowing Moscow to win a military victory in Ukraine would increase Putin’s appetite for further military aggression and make a future conflict between Russia and NATO more likely. In the meantime, United States Air Force General Michael Minihan warned his command about war between his country and China breaking out in 2025 already. The US has been stepping up its military support to Taiwan and sailing its ships through the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea to demonstrate its freedom of navigation against Beijing’s attempts to make these vital waterways its own exclusive military zones.

All these activities reinforce our sense that the competition between democratic and authoritarian states is increasingly a military one. Higher defence budgets, more emphasis on deterrence and military containment strategies along the lines of the Cold War are the ways to assert democratic principles and push back against authoritarian advances. While the military establishments mobilise to take each other on and prepare for the next battle, civil society is left on the sidelines wondering what role it can play in making Russia pay a price for its aggression against Ukraine. What can it contribute to persuading the Russian population to turn against an increasingly repressive and reckless regime in the Kremlin? Does everything hinge on inflicting a bloody nose on the Russian army and blunting its capacity for future aggression, or is there scope to use the civilian space to discredit Putin and his acolytes, isolate them on the world stage and bring home the reality of isolation and moving backwards to the average Russian? Could civilian pushback against Russia help rein in other authoritarian regimes contemplating aggression elsewhere?

Allowing aggressive regimes to [win] sports events or [stage] cultural activities […] is not a recipe for long-term peace

Stalin, who doubted the existence – let alone the effectiveness – of civilian power, used to quip: “How many divisions does the Pope have?” As the Soviet Union discovered when Pope Jean Paul II visited Poland in 1979 and preached the values of freedom and human dignity to over a million of his fellow countrymen outside Krakow, the answer was: “A very large amount, indeed.” Spiritual power proved more than a match for the martial law imposed by the Polish Communist leader, General Jaruzelski.

Three particular stories in the news this past week have made me ponder the potential of civilian soft power to puncture the culture of corruption, material interest and cynicism in which authoritarian regimes thrive.

The first concerns the International Olympic Committee (IOC). After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, the IOC initially banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing in international athletics events. Yet, last week, it supported a proposal by the Olympic Committee for Asia to allow these athletes to compete in events in Asia, which could also serve as qualifiers for the next Olympics in Paris in 2024. It is prepared to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete under a neutral banner with no national flags or anthems. This turnaround has predictably angered the Ukrainians. The Ukrainian Minister of Sport, Vadym Huttsait, said that this was about “lives, not medals” and that Ukraine would lobby for international support to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from the Paris Olympics. He asserted that 220 Ukrainian athletes and coaches had died in the war thus far and that Russia has destroyed or severely damaged 340 Ukrainian sports facilities. The head of the Russian Olympic Committee, Stanislav Pozdnyakov, was unapologetic, saying that Russia would not accept any further restrictions on its athletes. Ukraine is now threatening to boycott the Olympics. There will be of course calls not to punish individual non-combatant athletes for the sins of their political leaders and to keep politics out of sport – as if authoritarian and even some democratic governments have ever done that.

France, as host of the Paris Olympics, will want the maximum number of top athletes to perform. In this regard, a precedent was set in 1980 when then-president Jimmy Carter took the US out of the Moscow Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, greatly reducing the prestige that the Soviet Union was hoping to extract from hosting the games. Is the IOC being faithful to its founding principles and to its earlier decision regarding the ban? And more fundamentally, should athletes or other citizens of a belligerent state be let off the hook simply because their government is misbehaving? If societies and populations do not feel the pain or consequences of unlawful acts committed by their leaders, then will those leaders ever be deterred from aggressive action? It is not an easy question to answer, but allowing aggressive regimes to break out of their isolation and gain prestige and power by winning sports events or staging cultural activities, thereby pretending that everything is business as usual, is not a recipe for long-term peace. Authoritarian governments like to pursue the narrative that it is Western leaders who are being unreasonable and out of touch, whereas they want only to go back to normal life while we acquiesce in their crimes and agree to move on.

Aggressors develop a narrative to justify their actions or confuse the public with ‘alternative realities’

Another example of civilian leverage this week concerned the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). It has over 600,000 members from 187 journalists unions and operates in 146 countries. Yet, this week, the journalists unions of Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland all announced that they were leaving the organisation. The Swedish Union of Journalists said that it was considering the same move. Scandinavian journalists were protesting at the fact that the IFJ has allowed Russian state media and press associations in two territories illegally occupied by Russian forces – Donbas, Ukraine and Abkhazia, Georgia – to join its ranks and had failed to take action to expel them, despite promising to do so. The Scandinavians accused the IFJ management of lack of transparency in its decision-making and failure to uphold the principles of press freedom and diversity. They also criticised the IFJ for holding its last world congress in Oman, a country not known for its press freedoms.

Again, like the Olympic bans, the protests of the Scandinavian journalists are not going to bring Putin to the negotiating table and end the war in Ukraine. Yet, by exposing the Russian lines of influence in international bodies and the way Moscow corrupts the leadership and principles of these bodies to press its case, the protesting journalists have made it harder for the Kremlin to operate in the shadows. They have put pressure on other journalist associations to demand the same accountability from the IFJ. It is a needed reminder that state media that simply relay the propaganda of an authoritarian regime cannot have the same status as true journalism and claim the same protections. Aggressors develop a narrative to justify their actions or confuse the public with ‘alternative realities’. So, pushing back against lazy complicities with propaganda media masquerading as journalism is a good means to narrow the space in which alternative realities can operate and take hold. A small, but not insignificant step towards blunting the capacity of the authoritarians to undermine democracy.

The third example comes from the United Kingdom, where the Conservative government has adopted a new property registration law to crack down on illicit money from abroad being laundered on the UK property market, especially to purchase mansions in London’s upmarket Belgravia district and high-rise apartments overlooking the Thames. The law also targets Russian oligarchs under sanctions or tied to the Kremlin. It requires disclosure of the ‘beneficial owners’ of these properties in a new public register by 31 January, a date that passed this week. The UK was proud of this law when it was adopted just after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The then-prime minister, Boris Johnson, declared that it would give Russian oligarchs “no place to hide”.

Ask not what democracy can do for you, but what you can do for democracy

Yet, according to UK government officials quoted last week by the news agency Reuters, the results have been “rather disappointing”. According to data from Companies House, which operates the new register, more than 19,000 companies had disclosed ownership of UK property, but few names of actual individuals appeared on the list. One third of all the property-owning companies, according to the UK Land Registry, had not made a declaration despite the threat of fines running up to £2,500 per day, a five-year prison sentence or the imposition of restrictions on the future sale of the properties. More than a quarter of the disclosures did not name any individual owners. They hid the names behind trusts, shell companies or other types of entities often headquartered in places known for their business secrecy, such as the British Virgin Islands, Panama or Cyprus. Only four Russian nationals currently under sanctions appeared on the register: Vladimir Potanin, the Chairman of Nornickel; Igor Shuvalov, former deputy prime minister of Russia and now Chairman of the VEB state investment bank and his wife; and Alexander Frolov, the CEO of Evraz, a Russian steel and mining company. Absent were many Russian oligarchs with well-known links to the UK property market, such as Roman Abramovich, the former owner of Chelsea football club; Oleg Deripaska, the aluminium tycoon; and billionaire Alisher Usmanov. Transparency International has calculated that since the year 2000, £8.3bn of illicit funds from abroad have been invested in the UK property market, of which £1.5bn by Russian oligarchs.

The UK government is aware of the difficulties in implementing the property ownership law. It has promised an extra £20mn to ensure enforcement and Companies House is working with the UK police to prepare cases against those not complying. The UK Parliament already produced a report back in 2019 that identified many of the loopholes in this type of exercise. For instance, trusts are not obliged to reveal individual owners, so that is an obvious place to hide. Only those owning more than 25% of a company are obliged to register. Disclosure is not required for properties purchased before 1999 and no addresses of properties need to be provided. UK MPs have recommended lowering the threshold for disclosure. The UK experience clearly shows the challenges to governments trying to increase transparency to combat the flows of illicit funds.

These are just three case studies and no doubt there are hundreds of others, just as worthy: the NGOs that are supporting the gathering of evidence of over 80,000 Russian war crimes in Ukraine or of the torture of Ukrainian prisoners of war, the civic support groups across Europe that have welcomed, fed and housed the 6mn Ukrainians who have fled their homeland, companies in Europe and North America that have helped Ukraine restore its electricity grid, telecommunications and internet access, or the city of Liverpool hosting this year’s Eurovision Song Contest on behalf of Ukraine, last year’s winner. All these efforts will not stop Putin or other aggressive dictators determined to impose the use of force over the rule of law tomorrow. Yet, taken all together, they progressively narrow the political space in which dictatorships can thrive by creating transparency, shaming organisations that are compromising their democratic values and standards, and not allowing the criminal, corrupt and mercenary to whitewash their image and pose as respectable citizens of the global community.

These civilian actions, whether by sports personalities, journalists or parliamentarians in democratically elected assemblies, also underscore that protecting liberal democracy is not just the responsibility of the military and security community, but the responsibility of all of us to act within the circles of our expertise and influence. Given the situation that Ukraine now faces, only its army – equipped and trained by the Western allies – can save it from subjugation, but wars of this kind do not come out of the blue. They begin with hybrid warfare tactics, grey zone corruption and campaigns to mock Western values and transfigure reality, as we saw Russia employ in Ukraine from the turn of the century and in so many other countries. Healthy and resilient democracies are far less vulnerable to this type of infiltration than fragile or corrupt ones. So, civilian initiatives at all levels of civic society are our first line of defence today. John F. Kennedy expressed the idea eloquently back in the early 60s: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Today, we may be tempted to rephrase this notion as ‘ask not what democracy can do for you, but what you can do for democracy’. Our military forces, with hopefully less work to do in the future, will be grateful for all of our efforts to push back the authoritarian tide.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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