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. [Continue reading…]