Home Geopolitics The Clash of Autocratic Russia and the Liberal States : Positioning and...

The Clash of Autocratic Russia and the Liberal States : Positioning and Prospects – Paul Tolmachev

Dichotomies are the existential maxim of all things, at least so far known or understood by man. Physical differences like different poles, imperative dichotomies like good and evil, ethical-moral differences like honesty and falsity, functional antagonists like gender in nature, and many other differences constitute an absolute basic pattern of the physical state of matter.

In nature, all elements interact with each other either cooperatively or in conflict. This means that we can also include to the fundamental natural dichotomies the antagonistic notions of conflict and cooperation, two general types of states of interrelated or interdependent objects.

Descending to a practical level from this generalization and looking at the geopolitical and, apparently, already ethical conflict between today’s authoritarian Russia and the market liberal democracies of the world, we can assess its prospects in relation to a variety of political, economic, cultural and other, narrower aspects. But the basis for any assessments and conclusions must be the fundamental notion of the benefit-cost ratio. The consideration of perspectives, no matter how multifactorial, becomes more constructive and realistic when it is guided by fundamentals and basic properties.

Let us assume that we were asked to answer the question: how do you assess the prospects and conditions of future negotiations between certain adversaries, as a change in the dynamics of the conflict state towards weakening, i.e. an increase in the cooperation intentions of at least one of the parties?

To answer this question it is necessary first of all to keep in mind the scattered multifactoriality with different probability coefficients of each of the many factors. It is also worth keeping in mind that some factors have not yet emerged in principle, some will be irrelevant when change begins and continues, and some, while already existing, are simply unnoticed or unmarked by observers.

At the same time, we must remember that any extrapolation, assumption or expectation must be more or less rational, that is, based on existing actual or potentially estimable input factors and conditions, regardless of the fact that conditions may change and factors may disappear or new ones may appear. Otherwise, any rational expectation turns into guesswork or irrational forecasting, where extrapolations are made based on randomly presented and actually random potentials.

In this regard, if we begin to reason rationally about the prospects for changing the current conflictual state of relations between Russia and the civilized world, we need to start from the actual, evaluated and labeled inputs and base on holistic approaches, regularities and causalities.

In this case, the high variability is ordered and reduced, and we can talk about more or less rational forecasting with a further weighing of the probabilities of one or another scenario.

So, we are faced with a conflict of two subjects. Each of the subjects can increase or decrease escalation under the influence of three basic factors. First, their subjective assessment of opportunities, costs, and, consequently, potential benefits and costs of the opponent in relation to their own state. Second, the parties evaluate the possibilities of strengthening their own position to the opponent’s position in order to gain an advantage in the conditions of further inevitable positive interaction. Third, the parties always seek to avoid extreme limits and forms of conflict, as carrying intense maximization of costs and risks that exceed or kill any benefits or significantly reduce them. Within these three drivers, strategies and tactics for behavior in conflict can be highly varied, as illustrated in detail by game theory.

Increased escalation can indicate a losing strategic position of the actor – and then the actor increases the risks to convince the opponent of the extremity of his intentions and to demonstrate his willingness to take exceptional costs only to make the costs of the opponent even greater. Or it is indicative of the exceptional resilience of the opponent under the actor’s strategic advantage, when the actor needs to increase pressure on the resilient opponent and raise the costs of both sides of the conflict to a new level in order to achieve a positive final result of his strategic advantage.

Escalation de-escalation can also have two basic reasons. The first is the assessment of one side’s costs as extreme in excess of any benefits. The second reason is the willingness of one side to signal its willingness to accept mutual cost-cutting to lower the temperature of the conflict as the optimal solution for both sides, even though neither side may be ready for a settlement right now and may have further escalation in mind. That is, de-escalation may not always be a favorable sign.

Any conflicts develop between these vectors, passing through various stages of tension, returning to them again, until the decreasing utility of the conflict costs of one of the parties falls to a minimum relative to the costs of the other party.

Nevertheless, it is worth bearing in mind that the task of any party to any rational conflict aggravation is this future positive interaction, i.e. the opposite state of the conflict – cooperation – with the opposing side on the most favorable conditions for itself. Absolute maximization of the conflict utility for any of the parties is impossible in principle because of the already incurred and future costs due to the opposition side’s opposition. Therefore, due to high transaction costs, rational conflict always predetermines the existence of a future inevitable compromise. In reality, it is for the reduction of the degree of future compromise that the parties fight and strategize tactics of behavior. Of course, the degree of compromise is determined by the current position in the conflict, by external and internal mediating factors, and by the variability of the goal setting. Maximum transformation of these conditions in their favor is the goal of each party. In fact, each side tries to increase the degree of compromise for the other side through influencing these factors.

In general, it is possible to imagine the end result of any conflict as a ratio of benefits-costs of one side to benefits-costs of the other side with different degrees of forced compromises on each side.

Now let us make a cursory attempt to look at the current state of the conflict between Russia and the coalition of liberal democracies of the world in the proposed paradigm.

Russia is obviously not successful in its aggressive militaristic expansion, in particular in taking control of Ukrainian territory and changing its government: the resistance of the Ukrainian population, a more or less qualified army, and increasing arms supplies and funding from the Western coalition neutralize Russia’s potential for aggressive occupation of Ukrainian territory.

Among other things, the authoritarian-rent model of political structure in Russia is inevitably associated with corruption and nepotism, which sharply reduces managerial efficiency, quality and volume of extracted and reproducible resources necessary for the development of active military aggression.

Finally, information distortions and inadequate strategic assessment characteristic of authoritarian power due to verticalization and encapsulation of information flows prevent the Russian regime from gaining a qualitative strategic advantage.

In essence, the Russian autocracy is left with three disposable types of resources: natural resources, human physical resources, and nuclear weapons. These resources, as success factors, may have tactical utility and allow Russia to gain positional advantages. Strategically, however, these resources do not have “high added value”: metaphorically, they represent non-technological hardware in a world of high-tech software. Simply put, with resources such as substitutable natural resources, a physical population with low human capital value, an isolated economy, and low technology and high end production, Russia clearly has a losing strategic position.

As for nuclear capabilities, this factor should not be overestimated and given too much practical importance. Nuclear capability still fulfills its function of maximum deterrence from extraordinary barbarism and mutual total destruction. Its use is highly unlikely, because even in the case of a crazy voluntaristic decision to use it, this decision is implemented in several stages, which gives various elite groups the opportunity to exclude the actual execution of the order.

“The good news” is that any actors in autocracies and tyrannies are ordinary rational individuals who seek to maximize their own utility and minimize their costs. Different individuals and elite groups have different understandings of benefits and costs, but the difference is summarized by unambiguous categories of benefits and costs: maximum power, maximum wealth, death, long-term imprisonment, etc.

This means that the use of nuclear weapons would be seen by any interest groups as a threat to the realization of maximum risk, completely nullifying any utility.

The coalition of Western countries quite adequately assesses Russia’s positioning, which determines a condemnatory and actively negative rhetorical position, and at the same time a rather restrained practical one. The main potential threats to the Western world (excluding the use of nuclear weapons) are further military-territorial expansion of the Russian regime and a potential shortage of raw materials in the event of a sharp decline in exports from Russia.

Both threats are virtually irrelevant today. First, because for the Russian autocrat, increasing costs in the current situation of a viscous positional war increases the risks of his stability in the already established disequilibrium of elite interests and chosen policies, which practically limits him in developing his aggressive expansion in other directions. Second, the reduction of natural resource exports from Russia has not had a critical impact on the supply and distribution of basic commodities on the global market due to the substitution of production and production by other countries and the actual recirculation of flows, where Russia still participates in global market exchanges, albeit in smaller volumes.

Having no critical threats from Russia, the West assesses other costs created by the war unleashed by Russia as quite acceptable and covered by the current policy of indirect participation. In terms of tactical positioning, this policy looks reasonable and rational. The main calculation is that the gradual and inevitable weakening of the Russian regime through economic isolation and political pressure, the decline in technological support, the decline in the quality of human capital, the reduction and primitivization of consumer opportunities will accumulate discontent and tension, primarily among key social groups of influence, namely elites – big business, the bureaucracy and part of the security forces.

In other words, the West justifiably believes that in Russia, as in most tightening autocracies, regime change will occur by deposing the authoritarian domain and its closest groups by co-opted elites, who are then most likely to seek negotiations with the global community to remedy the situation – reducing their personal costs and restoring opportunities and prospects. At the same time, for the overthrow of the authoritarian domain and the beginning of negotiations it does not matter which new groups will begin to control power – the security forces, the bureaucrats, etc.
etc., the main thing is that any new group will in one way or another try to strengthen its stability within the country, which will certainly entail the need to reduce the costs generated by a virtually unsuccessful war and isolationist pressure from the developed and most developing countries.

In this case, there is no need for a sharp escalation by the West in the form of intensified and forced arms supplies to Ukraine, increased political pressure and isolation initiatives, such as total sanctions on the export of any goods to Russia, as well as complete technological encapsulation of Russia, for example by disabling all possible information and other services. The conditionally soft pragmatic position of the West leaves it room for diplomatic maneuvering and control of its costs so that they do not exceed the acceptable level, which allows the democratic power elites to satisfy the needs of voters.

The weakness of this approach is that, strategically, its effectiveness is reduced by the high probability of stretching the timeline for success.

First, Russia is economically resilient due to the existence of a market economy and the beginning of a liberalized environment for small and medium-sized businesses, as well as expanding channels of alternative imports to replace Western consumer goods.

Second, the Russian population has so far been more or less united in approval or indifference to the regime’s policies due to concentrated and total propaganda, as well as consumer stability. Taking also into account the intensification of repressive pressure, which signals the high costs of active civil protest, one can say that the likelihood of a change of power through popular will is extremely low, indeed, as in the overwhelming majority of transformations of authoritarian regimes.

Third, elite groups of various interests, despite the obvious loss of many opportunities and the rise of various personal costs, find it difficult to articulate a clear goal of replacing the autocrat and his closest affiliates for several simple reasons. First of all, the discontent of the elites must be transformed into a clear intention to bring down the supreme power. Next, elites need to identify this intension as a consensus goal.  Finally, the elites need to coordinate their efforts and identify specific activities to achieve the goal. All of this is long and difficult to implement in an environment of tightening autocracy and the expansion of the powers of all possible security agencies.

Such an environment implies very high risks of participation in a “conspiracy,” which encourages potential actors to pursue less risky strategies of behavior, such as supporting regime policies and making the most of them, or emigration. The effective protest activity of elites can increase only when the costs of all other strategies become higher than the risks of “participation” in the conspiracy.

All of the above factors can significantly extend the transformation of the Russian authoritarian regime and the change of the supreme power, which makes the political positioning of the West strategically less effective relative to the tactical targeting.

Nevertheless, in both strategic and tactical terms, the overall positioning in the conflict between the two sides shows the unconditional dominance of the Western coalition: its current and potential costs are significantly lower than those of the Russian side, and its resources are incommensurably greater, while the goals do not require mobilization of all resources and involve the possibility of long-term achievement. For Russia, by contrast, the goals are short-term and carry with them a growing need to accelerate their achievement, the costs are steadily and spirally rising, and resources and capabilities are irreversibly declining.

Even in the event of a weak strategic scenario for the West in the form of turning Russia into a dictatorial autarchy like Iran or North Korea, this will not have any revolutionary consequences for the global world. Even in its best years, Russia’s share of global GDP did not exceed 2%, but as the isolation and sanctions pressure intensifies, this figure will decrease.  There are no opportunities and resources to fully occupy the European territories of the former Soviet Union, as already seen, and potential intensions to occupy territories in the East and Asia will undoubtedly be suppressed by China, as the unconditional dominant in the region, in relation to which Russia is an obvious and unconditional satellite. As for the export of natural resources, Russia will be forced to export them one way or another in any case, since the natural rent is the basis of the Russian economy and the source of the budget.

Overall, the Western coalition has no need to escalate the conflict and accelerate its conclusion by absorbing its costs. In fact, the West is in a strategic superposition where it can afford a long horizon of expectations with controlled and relatively low risks, avoid direct involvement in military action, progressively provide support to Ukraine without assuming extraordinary costs, expand isolation mechanisms against Russia and regime interests to increase their costs and change preferences in favor of Western conditions, and, overall, have high probability prospects of deposition over time of the current authoritarian

Thus, there are as yet no realistic potentials where the Western coalition could be a party to defeat in the current and escalating conflict with Russia.

At the same time, the strategic defeat of Russia and its existing authoritarian regime led by the current domain has the highest degree of probability.

Why, then, do the Russian dictator and the regime elites continue their losing game? Is this related to the continuing inadequacy of the assessment of what is happening, its capabilities, costs, and their correlation with these same parameters of the opposing side? Or do the Russian authorities understand the fallacy of the decisions they have made and are trying to find ways to minimize the obviously enormous degree of compromise they will have to make in the end? And what about humanitarian issues as a factor of strategic decisions: hundreds of thousands of people have become victims of the war on both the Russian and Ukrainian sides? What is their real or possible weight in political decision-making? What awaits Russian society when the normalization of violence and aggression becomes an ethical basis, when force becomes an axial social institution, when law becomes null and void, and when ideological collectivism exacerbates the primitivization of individual self-consciousness?  Finally, to what extent do Western democracies realize their responsibility in the maturation of authoritarian dictatorships that the West has actively woven into globalization and thereby enabled them to flourish and exacerbate tyranny? Does Western society realize that leftist discourse and the unrestrained expansion of the state are taking government policies so far that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the decisions of authoritarian dictators and those of democratic governments, so identical in essence?

I will talk about this in a series of forthcoming essays.