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For and Against the Russian Opposition

Anti-Putin liberals are right on a great deal. But they would lead America somewhere it cannot go.

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Alexei Navalny, his wife Yulia, opposition politician Lyubov Sobol, and other demonstrators march in memory of Boris Nemtsov in downtown Moscow on February 29, 2020. (Kirill Kudyravtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Since the start of the Russo-Ukrainian war, one voice that has been greatly amplified in the West is that of the Russian liberal opposition. This is understandable, for many of its leaders are admirable, relatable, and intriguing at the same time. Many of these Russian liberals, both in the West and in Russia itself, are vocal opponents of Russia’s invasion. Unfortunately, no matter how sympathetic Americans might find these opposition figures, our interests diverge. 

Russians of all stripes see Ukrainians as brotherly people living at the birthplace of Russian civilization, the Kievan Rus. To Russian liberals, a failure to help Ukrainians—to supply them with weapons they demand or to prop up their busted economy—is a moral failure. It doesn’t matter that many other wars are, sadly, flaring up around the world right now; this is the one that matters. The liberal opposition sees opportunity and promise in the Ukrainian experiment, and they are willing to push the conflict very far. On a wide variety of issues, I tend to agree with them, but when it comes to this war, their reasoning for its protraction needs to be met with skepticism, and their motives must be examined closely. 

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Russian liberals are not like American progressives. Ideologically, many fall within a pro-Enlightenment, pro-Westernizing fold. More importantly, they are not virtue signalers. They cling to their ideals bitterly, and like Alexey Navalny, who returned to the country after being poisoned by a mysterious chemical agent only to be booked into prison shortly after his arrival, often display remarkable courage.

Russian opposition is like any other opposition: it is in conflict with the regime, and its members have excellent reasons to despise Putin. They have not met with many successes, though. Boris Nemtsov and his colleagues failed to implement their programs in the 1990s and lost connection with ordinary Russians. Out of desperation, the liberal opposition allied with nationalists. During the 2007 wave of protests, former chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov teamed up with the National Bolshevik co-founder Eduard Limonov, but the union was unable to achieve tangible results. 

The inability to move the country in a liberal democratic direction spawned a real sense of frustration among liberals in Russia, not just with the regime but with the character of the nation itself. In a widely circulated 2010 essay, Yuri Nesterenko argued that Russia is predestined to reproduce totalitarian regimes because of the slavish character of its people. Like many others, he left the country. 

Ten years later, Russian liberals are looking at the war in Ukraine and nurturing dreams of a revolution. Along with other Ukraine boosters, they are practically salivating over the idea of a 2022 Bolshevik Revolution look-alike. But a minor force in the country’s politics, liberals remember that Bolsheviks were an extreme minority party that nonetheless managed to seize the day as soldiers called up for World War One revolted and the Empire spun out of control. And so, like liberal policymakers in the West, they imagine that a combination of external economic pressure and domestic dissatisfaction with mobilization will result in regime change.

The 2014 Maidan Uprising came shortly after the unsuccessful 2011-2013 wave of anti-government protests in Russia. The Russian opposition watched Ukrainians assemble in central Kiev and quickly achieve their goals. “They turned out,” Russian liberal media insisted, because Ukrainians rejected the USSR and refused to be slaves. They are the good, freedom-loving eastern Slavs, unlike, the thinking goes, the slavish Putinists to the east. Nevertheless, the thought continues, if liberal democracy can happen in Ukraine, then it can also spread to Russia. After all, the countries share history, culture, mentality, and, to a very large extent, language.

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To Russian liberals, a Ukrainian victory in the war with Russia is a prerequisite for a democratic Russia. Or, at the very least, it allows them to live vicariously through the European Ukraine. The problems with this line of thinking are aplenty. First, in recent memory, the Russian people have shown themselves perfectly able to turn out in defense of democracy if they want to. I am thinking, first and foremost, of spontaneous protests in Moscow when Communist hardliners attempted to depose the last Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev. Second, the success of Ukrainian Maidan in 2014 can be attributed to the weakness of then President Viktor Yanukovich who failed to contain the protests until it was too late, a luxury Russians do not have. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, Ukraine’s success was covered in foreign fingerprints, suggesting that the liberal revolutionaries weren’t acting alone.

Most importantly, a democratic society is not created by deposing a regime by the force supported by roughly half of the country. Democracy is nurtured by cultivating grassroots institutions of civil society, which corrupt Ukraine notoriously lacks. For Russian liberals, the repressive nature of the Ukrainian regime is a giant blind spot. Ukraine operates, for instance, with a semi-official kill list called Myrotvorets, on which it puts both foreigners and its own citizens. The list includes persons who expressed opinions outside the very narrowly defined approved range and who acted in a manner Ukraine considers contrary to its interests. In 2015, shortly after being added to the database, dissident writer Oles Buzina and former parliamentarian Oleg Kalashnikov were assassinated. 

Ukraine is so vital to Russian interests that the threat of nuclear war can justifiably enter into their calculations, just like we in America would feel about Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. This is why, for instance, Kasparov recently sparred with Elon Musk. Musk proposed—purely as a theoretical matter—a peace deal for Ukraine. The peace deal involved a territorial compromise that Musk argued was inevitable and the only question was how many more lives will be lost before the settlement. He also noted the prospect of nuclear weapons use, which for him was unthinkable. 

Kasparov acknowledged the threat of nuclear war, but prioritized achieving Ukraine’s war goals and meeting Ukrainian needs as defined by Ukraine:

The cost is huge but Ukraine is paying this cost. So why are people sitting in the comfort of their mansions in Silicon Valley telling Ukraine how to conduct their own affairs? It's moral idiocy and geopolitical blindness.

It is neither. Rather, Musk’s point of view is not informed by an internal necessity to oppose Putin at all times. Musk does not appear to believe either that Russia is an all-powerful hegemon threatening the world or that one’s moral worth is defined by unquestioning support of the Slavic brothers from Kiev. 

Had I been unable to leave the former Soviet Union, I would have moved to Moscow or Saint Petersburg and joined the ranks of their liberals. I would vote for Kasparov, rally for the freedom of Navalny and oppose the war with Ukraine. And, as mobilization was announced, if I had draft age sons, I would send them out of the country, too, just in case.

But I am a citizen of the United States, and I must think about the future of my American children. My country has different goals and interests in this conflict, chief among them should be to avoid an escalation that might lead to a nuclear crisis. The faint prospect of democracy in Eastern Europe justifies neither the risks of such escalation nor the next Bolshevik revolution. On issues ranging from Stalin’s legacy to government corruption, I find the Russian liberal opinion to be spot on. On war in Ukraine, however, I see only divergent interests and a wishful thinking that verges on apocalyptic psychosis.

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