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Putin Has Assembled an Axis of Autocrats Against Ukraine

Russia’s war is receiving critical assistance from authoritarian regimes around the world. 

By , assistant editor of the Journal of Democracy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov walk as they attend a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Council of Heads of State in Bishkek on June 14, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov walk as they attend a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Council of Heads of State in Bishkek on June 14, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov walk as they attend a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Council of Heads of State in Bishkek on June 14, 2019. VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s War in Ukraine

Russia isn’t fighting Ukraine alone. Alongside its soldiers are African conscripts, supported by Iranian drones and partly funded by stolen gold and diamonds. They may soon be joined by “lethal support” from China, according to U.S. officials.

Russia isn’t fighting Ukraine alone. Alongside its soldiers are African conscripts, supported by Iranian drones and partly funded by stolen gold and diamonds. They may soon be joined by “lethal support” from China, according to U.S. officials.

For these vital contributions, Russian President Vladimir Putin can thank his fellow autocrats. And he’s returning the favor: Despite the invasion’s heavy toll on Russia, he still sends resources to other embattled dictators. Autocrats, like democrats, are finding that war offers them new opportunities to cooperate. And dictators’ inherent interest in staying in power means that their collaboration will continue regardless of whether Ukraine prevails.

These networks weren’t created overnight but reflect prolonged efforts by Russia, China, and likeminded regimes to make the world safe for autocracy—particularly following the Western response to Putin’s first Ukraine invasion in 2014. Their activities include neutering international civil society, spreading disinformation, and exporting surveillance technology. Today’s war in Ukraine illustrates the power of these networks—coalitions not of the willing but the wanton—to not only sustain authoritarianism where it already exists, but to export it by force.

These networks have impeded Western attempts to isolate the Kremlin and starve its war machine. Within days of the invasion, Western diplomats made Russia the most sanctioned country in the world. At first, these penalties appeared to be working: They erased Russia’s post-Soviet development gains, and more than a thousand international companies left the country. But Russia built new ties. For instance, as oil exports to the West fell in 2022, purchases from China and India—countries that did not condemn the invasion—made up the difference, contributing to Russia’s record $227 billion trade surplus. Russia used these funds to pay for the war and blunt its economic consequences for ordinary Russians. On the diplomatic front, Russia has been heavily courting African nations.

Belarus’s Aleksandr Lukashenko has aided Putin the most, hosting Russia’s troops and allowing missile launches from Belarusian territory, but these authoritarian networks stretch much farther than neighboring countries. Take, for example, Sudan. When sanctions sent the value of Russian rubles plunging to record lows, the Kremlin turned to its gold reserves to prop it up. In order to fill those reserves—which had tripled in size since Russia’s 2014 invasion—the Russians have been colluding with Sudan’s military dictatorship to smuggle billions of dollars’ worth of gold out of the country. One shipment, hidden under boxes of cookies, was scheduled to depart Khartoum just days after the invasion.

Russia’s Sudanese gold-mining front is called Meroe Gold. It began operations in 2017, weeks after the country’s then-dictator, Omar al-Bashir, asked Putin for help staying in power. Russia dispatched advisors from the Wagner Group, the ruthless Kremlin-linked mercenary group fighting in Ukraine and around the world. Wagner’s advice lived up to its reputation: During Sudan’s 2018 protests, its personnel told al-Bashir to execute individual demonstrators to set an example. After pro-democracy protests ousted al-Bashir in 2019, Wagner cozied up to Sudan’s military, which toppled the country’s nascent democratic government in 2021. In return, Wagner was given free rein of the mining industry. It has eliminated the competition by massacring dozens of miners near Sudan’s border with the Central African Republic (CAR).

The Central African story is depressingly similar to Sudan’s. Besieged by rebels, in 2018 the country’s president appealed to the Kremlin for arms and to Wagner to train his troops. Unlike in Sudan, in 2020 Wagner began to fight the insurgents directly. As payment, the government ceded control of the diamond industry. Wagner forces artisanal miners to sell only to its shell company, Diamville, through intimidation and violence. The blood diamonds are then smuggled out of the country and sold unofficially on Facebook and Instagram and officially through dealers in the West in order to fund Wagner’s operations.

In addition to money, Wagner—facing heavy losses in Ukraine—is drawing manpower from the CAR and its neighbors. It has recruited imprisoned murderers, rapists, and even rebels convicted of killing CAR soldiers (Wagner’s ostensible allies), promising freedom and cash to anyone willing to fight in Ukraine. In March 2022, Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Haftar agreed to send mercenaries to fight for Russia, and Syrians are reportedly joining them.

While deployed in Africa, Wagner personnel have behaved with impunity: pillaging, raping, and trafficking women. Nevertheless, when asked, many Central Africans back Moscow or credit Wagner for bringing peace. Sixteen African nations, including the CAR and Sudan, abstained or voted against the February 2023 United Nations resolution calling on Russia to exit Ukraine. This is a testament not only to public opinion (or indifference) about Ukraine’s plight, but also to the appeal of what the Kremlin offers Africa’s autocrats. Leaders of poor but resource-rich countries are effectively giving Wagner bits of their sovereignty—and ignoring any resulting human rights violations—as payment for keeping them in power. And more are interested: Ghana’s president alleged that Burkina Faso’s leadership requested Wagner’s help, offering a mine in return.

Not every case of support for Russia’s war machine is so brazen or features a private military-mafia straight from a James Bond movie. Take the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Its willingness to look past shady financial transactions has allowed billions of dollars to flow to the Kremlin, as much of Sudan’s gold and the CAR’s diamonds are sold illicitly there. The UAE also bills itself as a haven for sanctioned Russian oligarchs, making it easy for them to come, buy Emirati citizenship, and park their yachts, planes, and ill-gotten gains. Turkey has become an entrepôt for European businesses seeking to continue trading with Russia. Chinese defense companies are supplying the Kremlin with crucial navigation, radio-jamming, and fighter jet components.

Armaments are also a growing part of Russia’s dealings with Iran, another embattled, sanctioned autocracy. Iranian drones have played a “central role” in attacks on Ukrainian civilians. And more are coming: The two countries are planning to build a factory in Russia to produce at least 6,000 of them. Iran, for its part, should receive around 24 Russian fighter jets by March. It also turned to Russia for counsel on defusing the protests sparked by Mahsa Amini’s death, so the Kremlin reportedly dispatched advisors. These actions are leading Moscow and Tehran toward a “full-fledged defense partnership.”

Not all autocrats are moving toward Putin. In principle, Venezuela’s regime consistently supports Russian imperialism: It took Russia’s side against Georgia in 2008, recognized Crimea as Russian, and blamed the West for the Ukraine invasion. And Putin helped Venezuela’s dictator to sell oil as democracies recognized the opposition government-in-exile and imposed crushing sanctions. But now, in practice, relations between Venezuela and the West are normalizing: Maduro wants to sell oil, and the West wants to stop buying it from Russia.

Venezuela shows that these coalitions of the wanton are as easy to make as they are to break, for they are held together only by self-interest. Nevertheless, these ties are bound to proliferate as autocrats turn to each other amid crisis. The Kremlin in particular views these networks as fundamental to maintaining power at home and waging a perceived existential struggle against the West. In other words, autocrats already see their struggles against democracy—whether in Iran, Sudan, or Ukraine—as interconnected and act accordingly. Democracies must learn to do the same.

Justin Daniels is assistant editor of the Journal of Democracy. Twitter: @JustinMDaniels

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