Over Christmas, self-isolating with Covid, I rewatched Ian Kershaw and Laurence Rees’s classic BBC documentary series The Nazis: A Warning from History. It is a gripping production that looks at the rise of the Nazis and Adolf Hitler, their plunging of Germany into war and genocide, and their subsequent fall.
One episode in the series examines the Nazi obsession with order, represented by mass rallies and carefully synchronised set pieces for the cameras at events such as the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Yet, as documented by Kershaw and Rees, much of this was a façade. The Nazis only created an illusion of perfect order. Scratch the surface and administrative chaos prevailed.
It’s not only the Nazis that fooled the world into accepting their state was both stronger and more orderly than the reality. Virtually nobody in the West predicted the peaceful fall of communism. To most Western observers, the Soviet Union appeared to be a mighty military power right up until its demise. Even the intelligence agencies were caught wrong-footed. As Robert Gates, the director of the CIA admitted in the months after the final Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev resigned, it was not until 1989 that the agency began “to think that the entire edifice might well collapse”.
I suspect we are labouring under similar illusions about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. There is of course every chance that the aggressive, chauvinistic kleptocracy built and sustained by the Russian president over his 22 years in power will lumber on for many years to come. The Kremlin sits on vast natural resources. It can assassinate political opponents overseas and has the capability to launch bloody wars of imperial expansion. It also possesses nuclear weapons.
Many in the West seem to accept – at least on some level – that democracy is inherently more vulnerable to subversion and collapse than dictatorship. “Has China discovered a better political system than democracy?” asked the Atlantic a few years ago. Figures on both the left and right frequently warn against Western politicians “poking the Russian bear”. Dissatisfaction with democracy is increasing across the globe in light of institutional scandals amid a Western democratic malaise.
Superficially at least, the notion that democracy is in an unfavourable position vis-à-vis its challengers feels like a plausible proposition. A rising China, an aggressive Russia, and that populist discontent our own democracies are mired in seems to lend credence to this narrative.
A lack of democratic accountability is more often a source of weakness than an indication of strength, however. Subordinates in dictatorships survive by telling their superiors what they want to hear instead of the truth. This is true of all such systems, whether communist or, as in the case of Russia, nationalistic and chauvinistic. Accurate information is discouraged by a system that rewards obedience and loyalty. Yes-men thrive, while whistle-blowers are ruthlessly purged.
Russia has not yet lost the war in Ukraine; however, there can be little doubt that the conflict is unfolding contrary to how the Kremlin had hoped it would. As Lawrence Freedman writes for the New Statesman, “Russia has now committed well over 90 per cent of the tremendous force that was gathered around Ukraine before 24 February, and is still unable to take its early objectives.” According to the Ukrainian government, Russia lost 11,000 troops in a little over a week of fighting.
It seems increasingly clear that one of the reasons Putin’s war in Ukraine is going badly is because Kremlin courtiers are feeding bad information to their increasingly isolated president. In the lead-up to the invasion, Putin was clearly badly informed about the strength of Ukrainian resolve and its sense of national identity.
[See also: Putin’s war is in disarray]
Evidence has now emerged that shows just how damaging such systematic lying can be. A whistle-blower thought to be from the FSB, Russia’s security apparatus and the successor organisation to the KGB, has described the war as a “total failure” in a leaked 2,000-word document that appeared over the weekend. The document paints a picture of a country under the iron grip of a leadership that has deliberately shut itself off from reality.
This is a feature, not a bug, of dictatorships. In our interconnected, increasingly online world, authoritarian governments can no longer strive for omnipotence. Instead, they pretend that there is no objective reality, only competing visions. As Gleb Pavlovsky, one of Vladimir Putin’s early spin doctors, has written of Putinism: “everyone invents their own ‘normal’ humanity, their own ‘right’ history.”
This has proved to be an effective strategy when it comes to generating fear in the West about so-called information wars. The idea that democracy is being undermined by a climate of “post-truth” has been a central theme in numerous books and op-ed columns that have appeared in recent years.
Yet post-truth is a less useful basis on which to sustain one’s own rule, especially during a crisis. The Soviet Union collapsed because information about the economy was systematically distorted by a system in which the telling of uncomfortable truths was severely punished. In the absence of open and democratic public life, the mechanisms by which clear signals about the health of the economy could be transmitted were non-existent.
This resulted in endemic levels of corruption, waste and, ultimately, the demise of the system itself. As Mikhail Gorbachev’s prime minister-equivalent, Nikolai Ryzhkov, writes of the final decade of Soviet rule: “[We] lied in the reports, in newspapers, from high podiums, wallowed in our lies, hung medals on one another, and all of this – from top to bottom and from bottom to top.”
Systematic lie-telling is a feature of the contemporary Russian system too. Ordered to assess the impact of Western sanctions, FSB officers were reportedly encouraged to keep a lid on bad news. “You have to write the analysis in a way that makes Russia the victor… otherwise you get questioned for not doing good work,” the leaked document says. “Suddenly it happens and everything comes down to your completely groundless analysis.”
Judging by the unfolding Russian debacle in Ukraine, it seems clear that Putin’s war strategy was based on just such groundless analyses. One wonders how the Kremlin’s courtiers will break the news that the investment bank Morgan Stanley is predicting Russia will experience a Venezuela-style default by mid-spring as a result of sanctions.
It is easy at times to view our divided democracies as hopelessly inept when faced with the apparent unity and single-minded resolve of an undemocratic foe. Yet the unfolding Russian military debacle in Ukraine goes to show that dictatorships can be paper tigers once you strip away the veneer of power and prestige. An army of flatterers is not conducive to an effective battlefield army. Strong political and economic systems depend on accurate feedback – something only democracy can provide.