Today’s Russia is witnessing a lamentable but inevitable convergence of domestic and external aggression. The country’s expansion into Ukraine is accompanied by the adoption of new, repressive laws and increasing police crackdown on the political opposition and civic activists within Russia. According to author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek, given this familiar trajectory, Russian society should expect a further “tightening of the screws,” while the international community should prepare for new military conflicts with Moscow.
A government’s aggression against other countries and repression against its own citizens are naturally interconnected, like two sides of the same coin. Both reflect the leadership’s contempt for legal norms and constitute an attempt to prove one’s uniqueness at the expense of others.
Columnists, journalists, and political analysts have noted the Russian State Duma’s increasing pace in adopting repressive laws. Opposition and civil society activists, who often come into direct contact with law enforcement bodies, talk of an escalating police crackdown on protestors.
Some people consider domestic and external aggression to be unconnected; others see the connection only when it’s too late; still others hope beyond hope that one will not lead to the other. People residing in an externally aggressive country often hope that external expansion will not result in domestic problems. People residing in states that have not yet been attacked maintain that repressive regimes in neighboring countries are those countries’ internal affairs.
History shows that everything is interconnected—and that if we ignore these connections long enough, there will eventually be nowhere to run. The classic example is Nazi Germany, which began by unleashing repression on its own citizens who disagreed with National Socialism, and then proceeded to suppress other countries that disagreed with its attempts at a global dictatorship. Even after the Nazis’ aggression switched from internal enemies to external ones, Europe’s political leaders did not relinquish their desire to quietly sit out the storm. In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was convinced that he had achieved a lasting piece with Adolf Hitler by sacrificing Czechoslovakia (not to mention by accepting the continued dictatorship in Germany itself).
The Stalinist terror in the Soviet Union in the 1930s was accompanied by an armed intervention in Spain in 1936; a border war with Japan in the summer of 1939 (the Battles of Khalkhyn Gol); and an alliance with Hitler and the subsequent invasions of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and Romania. It is difficult to judge to what extent the intensity of Russia’s domestic repressions was linked to its military aggression against neighboring countries—but it is a fact that these processes unfolded side by side.
The occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact countries in 1968 led not only to the rise of open protests in the Soviet Union, but also to the KGB’s crackdown on the dissident movement. This demonstrates how an external aggression can lead to political protests within a country—which, in turn, lead to a worsening of repressions.
Despotic regimes, in different periods of their history, express their aggression in different ways. Thus, Nazi Germany expressed it primarily through wars with other countries, while Communist North Korea engaged in the cruelest repressions against its own people.
The Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979 immediately impacted the democratic movement in the Soviet Union. Four weeks after the start of the war, academician Andrei Sakharov, a critic of the Soviet regime and a thorn in its side, was sent into illegal internal exile in the city of Gorky. Over the following six months, many well-known Soviet dissidents and activists of national movements were arrested and tried.
Despotic regimes, in different periods of their history, express their aggression in different ways. Thus, Nazi Germany expressed it primarily through wars with other countries, while Communist North Korea engaged in the cruelest repressions against its own people. But they never stop at just one manifestation of aggression. Even Communist Cuba, which lacks both land borders and a navy, has gotten involved in military conflicts in Africa and South America.
North Korea is currently focused on repressing its own citizens, but, following its totalitarian instincts, is engaging in militant rhetoric and continuing with its nuclear project. One day, its priorities will change, and the Communist regime’s natural hatred will be transferred from its own people to neighboring countries—and, given its development of missile technologies, perhaps even beyond its neighbors.
Constant readiness for war is the trademark of a tyranny. This readiness is as integral to the regime as are repressions against domestic enemies who might threaten the stability and irremovability of the dictatorship. There can be no doubt that a country that suppresses its own citizens will one day decide to expand its sphere of influence at the expense of neighboring states. And there can be no doubt that aggressive countries have a poor track record of protecting the civil rights and freedoms of their own citizens.
Russia today occupies a mid-rank position on the scale of tyrannical systems. It has a moderately oppressive regime; selective (not large-scale) political repressions; relative freedom of speech; and nominally existent democratic institutions (a parliament, courts, a constitution, and periodic elections). Of course, all these attributes of democracy have long since ceased to fulfill their functions, and serve merely to imitate a democratic system rather than provide it. But Russia’s current authorities value these pseudo-democratic institutions precisely because of their imitational function.
In the last fifteen years, the realm of freedom in Russia has been systematically narrowing. This process is accompanied by repressions against those who attempt to defend that freedom. It is clear that such a regime can no longer satisfy itself with internal repressions alone. The 2008 war with Georgia brought Russia’s aggressive foreign policy to balance with its repressive domestic policy. Since 2011, the regime has been further increasing pressure on Russian society, which recently resulted in the state’s aggression against Ukraine. A despotic regime cannot terrorize its own people and be friendly to others. Foreign policy necessarily follows domestic policy.
While Putin’s “stability” holds, Russian society can expect a further “tightening of the screws,” and the international community should prepare for new military conflicts spearheaded by Russia. This is inevitable. Such is the nature of despotism. No one can do anything about it—no one, that is, except people with enough determination and strength to overthrow tyranny at its source instead of fighting vainly against its lamentable symptoms and consequences.