Autocrats and the Ukraine War: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea

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Autocrats and the Ukraine War: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea

Insights from Raymond Kuo.

Autocrats and the Ukraine War: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea
Credit: Depositphotos

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Raymond Kuo – Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation and author of “Following the Leader” (2021) and “Contests of Initiative” (2021) – is the 355th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain how the Ukraine war is empowering autocratic countries, namely China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. 

I’m going to disagree with the premise of the question. I don’t think Russia’s war is empowering autocratic countries. If anything, the war has highlighted how dangerous revisionist, authoritarian states can be. Personalistic dictatorships like Putin’s regime are typically beset by poor information and groupthink, leading to volatile foreign policies and international conflict. If anything, Russia’s actions have undermined the appeal of this form of government, alongside Moscow’s global prestige and status.

Ukraine’s defense has mauled the Russian military, exposing serious command and operational weaknesses in what was once considered a premier military force. Moscow is one of the top arms exporters but now needs those weapons for its own forces. This limits one of its major diplomatic tools, and their systems’ poor battlefield performance has already prompted India to cancel its purchase of Ka-31 helicopters.

How are these four countries’ actions undermining global security? 

The war has also demonstrated how fragile the global security order can be, galvanizing European and Asian states to bolster their defenses and tighten alliances. Notably, major U.S. partners – NATO, Japan, South Korea, Australia, etc. – have increased their policy coordination against both Russia and China, suggesting a broader concern with global security, with these two regimes being the most prominent challenges.

However, I think there is a limit to how applicable and useful the “democracy vs. autocracy” framing is when understanding the global effects of Russia’s war on Ukraine. While there is little doubt Russia’s domestic political structures facilitated Putin’s decision to launch this war, the violation of territorial sovereignty seems to animate global reaction, not necessarily regime type. 

U.N. member states overwhelmingly voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its attempted annexation of four provinces. A wide variety of regimes voted in favor of both resolutions: democracies, monarchical authoritarian, party-based authoritarian, etc. It is true that those countries abstaining or voting against these resolutions were mostly authoritarian. But they also tended to be pariah states, so revisionism – not regime type – could be driving their positions.

How is the leadership of these autocracies using the Ukraine war to advance their respective agendas? 

The war has tightened relations among Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. Moscow has procured and deployed Iranian and North Korean weapons in Ukraine, and Pyongyang in particular has supported Russia diplomatically, for example by voting against the two U.N. General Assembly resolutions mentioned above. Beijing has also provided diplomatic support and, critically, helped to undermine sanctions imposed by the U.S., EU, and Japan on Moscow. 

Moreover, Washington’s focus on Europe and East Asia has generated understandable concern in other regions about their prioritization in Washington’s foreign policy. That has given China, for example, an opportunity to deepen its relations with Saudi Arabia and other GCC states.

These four countries have been united in blaming the war (at least in part) on the U.S. and NATO expansion. Their framing may have some resonance in Latin America and Africa. However, broad majorities across 28 countries support Ukraine, although an even higher number prefer staying out of the conflict.

This may point to an important limitation on autocratic capabilities. There is significant and justified concern about these four countries’ disinformation campaigns. But Russia’s rationale for invading Ukraine is generally not accepted. These countries may be effective in exacerbating existing cleavages within a target democracy, but they simultaneously have difficulty advancing and controlling their own “positive” narratives, reflecting a broader limit in their soft power.

Analyze how these autocrats’ actions challenge U.S. leadership and influence. 

If Russia had won the war decisively and quickly, we likely would have seen a significant shift among many countries towards Moscow and possibly Beijing. Victory would have consolidated Russian power in or near Europe, elevated its prestige, and humiliated the U.S. for its inability to halt Ukraine’s conquest. It might have also opened the door to wider territorial revisionism, as countries recognized that the U.S. is less able and/or less willing to prevent fait accompli. Some U.S. partners in Europe and East Asia would increase their security preparations, just as they are doing now. But some others would attempt to accommodate Moscow and Beijing, undermining American leadership. 

That of course is not the world we’re in. Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are generally following their pre-existing foreign policies, but they face a more coordinated set of European and East Asian partners. Moscow in particular has achieved everything it wanted to avoid: a reinvigorated NATO, a Europe that is reducing its energy dependency, and economic and military devastation. China’s support for Russia has harmed its relations with Europe, which has recently begun re-evaluating its position on East Asian security.

And these four countries are facing other headwinds. For one, imbalances in China’s economy are threatening its ability to continue funding major infrastructure projects and expand its economic influence. Altogether, we’re seeing a blunting of autocratic efforts to challenge the U.S. and unexpectedly strong support for norms underpinning the international order, like territorial sovereignty.

Assess the implications of autocratic actions in galvanizing the Global South to align with alternative, illiberal governance systems. 

I’ve painted a generally positive picture of the global effects of Russia’s war on Ukraine. However, two things could undermine these effects. First, Ukraine has not secured a decisive victory yet, although, with continuing foreign support, that may change. 

Second, the war and the broader trends I discussed above have reduced somewhat the attractiveness of authoritarian models. But the U.S. and other democratic countries have not necessarily provided a positive alternative. It’s not enough for people to want to run away from something; they must also give be given something to run towards. That’s why I find the domestic transformation outlined in the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy to be its most important component and the one that is most difficult to achieve. Without that, countries – especially those in the Global South – will continue to sit out strategic competition between major powers, as there is little positive benefit for taking a side.