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Beware of Fuehrer states

By Wolfgang Ischinger and Sebastian Turner

Spies are not supposed to betray their own power apparatus. But precisely exactly what the head of Russian foreign espionage Sergei Naryshkin has done on February 23, unintentionally and conspicuously. At a meeting of the Russian Security Council, his answers not only revealed how the pretexts of Russian imperialism change on a whim. As Vladimir Putin humiliated his top spy in front of the world, he revealed: The Russian Federation has become a Fuehrer state. The autocrat has absolute power. He is not controlled by any public, any party, any parliament, any judiciary, any cabinet, or even any officials or secret service clique – on the contrary, he controls them all. One day after Naryshkin’s embarrassing revelation, the world witnessed what Fuehrer states are capable of: Russia invaded Ukraine and has been killing thousands and terrorizing millions ever since.

The absolute power of the autocrat

Those familiar with Russia saw the metamorphosis from the dysfunctional post-Soviet Yeltsin years to Putin’s Fuehrer state coming. Of course, there is no longer a Politburo, which in the old USSR appointed or removed the General Secretary of the CPSU as a controlling body. The Duma and the Federation Council are claqueurs, and the diversity of the press has almost completely disappeared. The business community is also subservient, from the show trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2005 to the sudden deaths of business representatives who opposed the Ukraine invasion. Even Putin’s aggressive rejection of the democratic world during his historic appearance at the 2007 Munich Security Conference was not taken seriously enough in Washington, Brussels or Berlin.

Anyone who looks from the declining superpower Russia to the rising superpower China will find disturbing similarities. China’s strongman Xi Jinping has eliminated almost all opposing forces in his one-party state to ensure his election for life at the next CP congress starting on October 16. He has replaced the top intelligence officers several times and holds a firm grip on the military. He personally rules all organizations of the state, party and society. Anyone who disagrees with him ends up in the interrogation rooms of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. The economy is also kept on a short leash, from Jack Ma’s house arrest to laws that turn data collection into a state monopoly. In this, Xi far outdoes his ally Putin. With social credit points and facial recognition, Xi holds totalitarian power over everyone: Citizens, institutions, and hierarchies.

Xi’s totalitarian power over everyone

Fuehrer states are to be feared because even the country’s staunchest fundamental interests can be overruled by the personal priorities, visions, whims and sicknesses of its leader. The yes-men also create a false reality for the autocrat, allowing him to decide irrationally despite many years of political experience – and no one to stop him.

There have always been autocrats who were able to subjugate an entire society. Nuclear powers as one-Fuehrer states, however, are a new geostrategic challenge to which the world needs to adapt to. They represent a new type of risk, especially for democracies, and should therefore be categorized and treated as such.

Germany relied on “change through trade” – from the European Coal and Steel Community and Ostpolitik to its current approach to Xi Jinping’s China. Reducing political risks through mutual economic dependencies, however, has proven to be completely ineffective with Fuehrer states. Any form of dependence on a Fuehrer state is counterproductive by definition – it can even tempt the autocrat to unpredictable behavior and thus exacerbate strategic vulnerabilities. Accordingly, the G7 and the EU should classify countries according to whether they are approaching the Fuehrer state form of government, similar to credit ratings. With each step toward autocracy, measures should be taken to reduce strategic vulnerabilities and influence the autocrat’s deliberations.

Reducing strategic vulnerability with rankings

We can learn from the Russian attack on Ukraine and the effect of the current sanctions against Russia, as they change the strategic behavior of the opposing side at best in the medium and long term and harm everyone.

We must rely on prevention through credible deterrence instead of punishment ex-post vis-à-vis Fuehrer states. NATO is rightly switching over to the Baltic States: Rather than thinking along the lines of a possible retaking of occupied territory, the strategy is to put itself in a military position where no one in Moscow can even think of implementing attack plans. Similar questions now arise about Taiwan – a possible test of strength for the democracies!

Democracies require independence from Fuehrer states and credible deterrence. Consequences need to be declared in advance, as was the case with rearmament in the 1980s, so that they ideally do not have to be applied at all. But they are only believable if the democracies truly stand behind them. To this end, they must be aware that they are dealing with particularly dangerous countries – the Fuehrer states.

Wolfgang Ischinger is the President of the Board of Trustees of the Munich Security Conference Foundation.
Sebastian Turner is the founder of Table.Media and publisher of China.Table.

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