By Dan Sally
Advocates of Ranked Choice voting believe changing the incentives of those seeking office will change their behavior once they get there. In the United States, our first-past-the-post plurality of elections has created an environment where politicians are incentivized by dividing the electorate and increasing polarization, leading to gridlock and dysfunction in government.
Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has presented a critical test of whether the fault lines of American politics would completely rupture under the pressure of the most extreme international crises.
Thankfully, the nation is enjoying a period of political unity around the war in Ukraine, proof that while American democracy may be flawed, when democracy itself hangs in the balance we can still unite to defend it. Russia’s disregard for national sovereignty and human rights has shown that the fundamental strength of America’s political alliances at home and abroad still endures.
While we tend to think of political incentives when discussing democratic leaders, autocrats like Vladimir Putin have their own political constituencies to keep happy if they want to remain in power. As policy makers reflect on how to best bring an end to this conflict, it’s important we look at the internal forces guiding Putin’s decision making as Russia continues its assault on the Ukrainian people.
I had a chance to sit down with political theorist and University of Cambridge PhD, Ben Studebaker, to discuss these incentives, and have included my three biggest takeaways below. (You can listen to the full conversation here.)
Lesson 1: Autocrats have constituents, too.
We often think of autocratic governments as monoliths directed by one leader. In the case of the war in Ukraine, the word “Russia” is often replaced with “Putin”.
Russia has a long history of political patronage, where a central authority maintains power by granting money and power to a network of allies. In modern Russia, this network consists of the oligarchy—a mix of individuals who amassed wealth during the privatization of Russia’s economy, Putin allies from his time in the KGB, and high-ranking military officials known as the “siloviki.”
Putin maintains power by allowing Russia’s oligarchy to continue to enrich themselves, often via state contracts or—in the case of the military—via outright embezzlement.
Inasmuch Russia has elections, Putin’s voters generally live in the mineral and oil producing regions of the country.
Lesson 2: Liberal democracy threatens these constituents
The Maidan Uprising of 2014, where citizens of Ukraine deposed Russian-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, posed a direct threat to Russia’s political order. Not only had Ukrainians removed Yanukovych from office after his decision to forgo a trade deal with the EU in lieu of closer ties with Russia, but their protests also led to a political movement designed to bring an end to government corruption, human rights abuses, and the influence of Ukraine’s oligarchy.
Not only was this a direct challenge to Russian control over the region, but it also raised the possibility a similar movement could gain traction in Russia—posing a direct threat to Putin and his political base.
Shortly thereafter, Russia annexed Crimea and began a period of hostility culminating in the current war.
Lesson 3: The world can’t afford not to trade with Russia
While the Russian economy has been hurt by the current wave of sanctions, the bulk of Russia’s economy—and the wealth of its oligarchy—is held in sectors the global economy depends on. Russia and Ukraine lead the world in the production of nickel, copper, and iron, export vast amounts of corn and wheat, and produce the bulk of the raw materials necessary in the manufacture of semiconductors.
For sanctions to truly have an impact on Russia’s decision-making process, the world would have to endure a global economic downturn of its own.
With democratically elected leaders in the West being far more vulnerable to economic uncertainty than autocracies, Western leaders have as much to lose politically as those in Russia.
While protests in Russia’s more cosmopolitan cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg are encouraging to see, these are also regions that have historically opposed Putin. Those in the areas where Putin derives the bulk of his electoral power aren’t as affected by Ikea or Spotify closing up shop as they are in the continued demand for raw materials in the West.
There are no easy answers to this conflict. Putin’s political support within Russia will be secure as long as the country’s business elites are served and the military remains on his side. In order to maintain military support, Putin has no choice but to win in Ukraine by whatever means necessary.
What has become clear is that there are inherent frictions that risk dangerous conflicts when autocracy and democracy exist side-by-side. While globalization has had numerous benefits, it’s also made much of the world beholden to regimes with little regard for human rights who are directly threatened by any neighbor who might choose to expand democratic freedoms for their people.
We should keep this in mind as we look for answers, and be thankful that—despite the fear Americans were turning away from each other and from democracy—that in this defining moment, on the issue of standing with Ukraine while taking pains to avoid another World War, our leaders have chosen unity and defense of self-governance.
Dan Sally serves on the Digital Strategy Council of Rank the Vote and is host of the podcast ‘You Don’t Have to Yell’, which discusses today’s most pressing issues without the partisan spin.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rank the Vote, its members, supporters, funders, or affiliates.