Relax… World War Three is NOT Imminent – at least not yet

Covid Anniversary Blog

What with COVID, the death of the Duke of Edinburgh and a football furore, you could be forgiven for not noticing the recent build-up of 80,000 Russian troops on the Russian-Ukraine border. Unsurprisingly, this has raised alarm within the international community, as an armed conflict between these two nations would have serious and inevitable implications.

Technically, Ukraine and Russia have been engaged in a conflict since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatist forces in Ukraine’s coal and gas rich eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, known collectively the Donbas. This reflects the ethnic and cultural split that emerged from attempts to Russify the Soviet Union through the settlement of ethnic Russians within its 15 republics. In Ukraine, such Russification was enacted in the East where labour was needed to extract natural resources. Consequently, today Ukraine is split between the Russian-speaking so-called ‘red’ areas to the east and the ethnically Ukrainian ‘orange’ areas to the West.

At face-value such a troop build-up looks like Russia is preparing to formalise its incursion into the Donbas by forcibly annexing it. Yet this is unlikely to happen for the following reasons:

  1. In recent months a number of factors have led President Putin to reassert his ‘strong man’ image. He no longer has a friendly ally in the White House. In recent days we have seen the imposition of US sanctions against Russia in response to confirmed Russian interference in the 2020 US Presidential election. At the same time Ukrainian President Zelensky and Turkish President Erdogan held their own summit that condemned Russian aggression, creating (the appearance at least) of a Black Sea axis against the Russian Federation. Amassing troops is a way to counter both this axis, and a more hostile United States.
  2. Russia will hold elections for the State Duma (parliament) in September. While Putin needs a show of force to maintain his image, he does not need another war. The cost of such an incursion would be very damaging to the Russian economy still in the throes of COVID. Moreover, despite being the first country in the world to bring a COVID vaccine to market, domestic take up has been very low. He also faces public unrest in response to the imprisonment of dissident Alexei Navalny. Putin does not need to be fighting a war on multiple fronts as voters go to the polls.
  3. Ukrainian President Zelensky also does not need a war. He was elected president in 2019 on a promise to end the conflict in the Donbas which has created more than 1.4 million internally displaced persons, most of whom are women and children. Escalating this would not be in his interest.

Thus it is unlikely that we are on the cusp of an armed conflict in the Caucuses. Recent troop build-up is much more about domestic agendas than it is about foreign ambition. So we don’t need to hold our collective breath – at least not yet.

Jo Crotty is Professor of Management and Director of the Institute for Social Responsibility at Edge Hill University.

image by Oleg Elkov

You Still Need Society! Authoritarianism and COVID-19

Covid Anniversary Blog

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided us with insights into different political regimes’ responses to what is now a prolonged, unpredictable, and difficult to manage crisis.

Parts of Eastern Europe had initially been considered as the models for how to respond to the pandemic. Nearly a year on, with cases surging and the state struggling to control the pandemic, this no longer holds.

In the Russian Federation, despite bringing the worlds first COVID-19 vaccine to market, the state has struggled to deal with the sluggish domestic take up and so it has failed to make a discernible impact on cases. This might be a surprise given the assumption that in authoritarian contexts, individuals are not only more accepting of restrictions of their individual freedoms but that the state is often more strict at enforcing compliance. One could have assumed that authoritarian regimes might have put to use their expansion of individual surveillance under the guise of combatting COVID-19, to encourage or even enforce vaccinations. Even if this failed, national pride at its scientific achievement would surely have had people queuing up to be vaccinated, but it seems not to be the case.

The nature of state-society relations might help us consider some of the issues impacting vaccine take-up rates. In the Russian Federation, political, legislative, financial and cultural limits impact the ability and reach of third sector groups to mobilise the public. In addition, the state’s, often arbitrary, use of institutions such as the judiciary, is unconducive to building public trust in such institutions.

Yet a successful vaccination programme requires both trust and mobilisation.

This is particularly true for mobilising and engaging hard-to-reach segments of society, a task and role that NPOs tend to perform much better than state institutions. Can third sector groups play a role in this process, given the restrictive context they operate in? If they do, will this enable them to receive concessions from the state with regards to the activities they can engage in? Could this lead to a reshaping of state-society relations?

A year on, answers to questions around the future shape of state-society relations in an authoritarian context remain unclear. It is too early to tell whether or not third sector groups in an authoritarian context such as Russia will be able to take advantage of arising opportunities to reshape their relationship with the state.

The imprisonment of critics such as Alexander Navalny suggests that the Russian state is not overtly open to reshaping state-society relations at the national level. However, as stated a year ago, things might play out different at local and regional levels – and thus present opportunities for change.

Dr Sergej Ljubownikow is a lecturer in Strategic Management at Sheffield Management School. He is an expert scholar in Russian civil society development and an ISR Visiting Fellow.

Photo by Ivan Lapyrin on Unsplash

Who Needs Society? Authoritarianism and COVID-19

The Wall Street Journal recently suggested that ‘western democracies’ should look to Eastern Europe to how it contained the COVID-19 pandemic. With some Eastern European countries first ignoring or diminishing the COVID-19 threat (Russia) or asserting the benefits of ‘alternative’ therapies such as the encouragement of steam baths, eating garlic, and drinking Vodka – the Eastern European approach needs to be understood with more nuance. Of course a key assertion here is not that these ‘alternative’ approaches have merit, but more that is that people in Eastern Europe, because of the legacies of their communist past, are much more accepting of restriction on their individual freedoms. At the core of this assertion is the nature of state-society relations.

State-society relations are a core part of governance arrangements in all sort of political regimes. In western democracies, be they of a liberal-capitalist or social-democratic persuasion, they tend to be open and transparent involving the ability for frequent interaction and open critique. This enables individuals, groups and organisations, often in the form of non-profit organisations to engage in a range of activities to ensure the accountability of government.

In non-democratic regimes, state-society relations tend to be used to reinforce the status quo, rather than challenge it. The current pandemic has thus provided an opportunity for authoritarian regimes to further shape state-society relations to ensure their continued existence.

The academic literature highlights that authoritarian regimes ensure their resilience and survival by adapting their governance arrangements. COVID-19 has already been a godsend for them in terms of their ability to curb individual freedoms (such as freedom of movement or assembly) and a way to justifiably increasing ‘big brother’ tendencies and to further centralise power. Likely they will find it difficult to walk these back when the pandemic is over. Conversely, such regimes may now be more reliant on non-profit organisations to ‘manage’ the response to the pandemic – both in terms of protecting the vulnerable, but also identifying who the vulnerable are in the first place.

A good example is the Russian Federation. Over the years it has used political, legislative, financial and cultural means to limit the ability and reach of NPOs (albeit keeping a few organisations going to maintain a veneer of democracy). At the same time, the state has worked directly with some non-profit organisations to help address key social problems. These have become an important part in maintaining social order, particularly at a local and regional level. In the event of this health crisis, it is likley that state is now reliant on such NPOs to access ‘hard to reach’ vulnerable groups including drug addicts and victims of domestic abuse. Might NPOs be able to take advantage of this opportunity to reshape their relationship with the state? Will the Russian states new abilities to surveille the individual mean that there is less of a need to control what NPOs do? But also maybe less of a need to engage with them? One thing is for sure, state-society relations in Russia and elsewhere are unlikely to be the same again.

Dr Sergej Ljubownikow is a lecturer in Strategic Management at Sheffield Management School and an expert scholar in Russian civil society development.