The last decade looked like a good one for authoritarian regimes and a challenging one for democratic ones. Cybertools, drones, facial recognition technology and social networks seemed to make efficient authoritarians even more efficient and democracies increasingly ungovernable.
The West lost self-confidence — and both Russian and Chinese leaders rubbed it in, putting out the word that these chaotic democratic systems were a spent force.
And then a totally unexpected thing happened: Russia and China each overreached.
Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and, to his surprise, invited an indirect war with NATO and the West. China insisted that it was smart enough to have its own local solution to a pandemic, leaving millions of Chinese underprotected or unprotected and, in effect, inviting a war with one of Mother Nature’s most contagious viruses — the Omicron mutation of SARS-CoV-2. It’s now led China to lock down all of Shanghai and parts of 44 other cities — some 370 million people.
In short, both Moscow and Beijing find themselves suddenly contending with much more powerful and relentless forces and systems than they ever anticipated. And the battles are exposing — to the whole world and to their own people — the weaknesses of their own systems. So much so that the world now has to worry about instability in both countries.
Russia is a key supplier of wheat, fertilizer, oil and natural gas for the world. And China is the origin of, or a crucial link in, thousands of global manufacturing supply chains. If Russia is locked out and China is locked down for a prolonged period, every corner of the planet will be affected. And that is no longer a remote possibility.
Let’s start with Putin. He lulled himself into thinking that because his army had smashed a bunch of ragtag military opponents in Syria, Georgia, Crimea and Chechnya, it could quickly devour a country of 44 million people — Ukraine — that over the last decade had been moving to join the West and was tacitly being armed and trained by NATO.
It’s been a military and economic debacle for Russia so far. But just as important, it has exposed precisely how much Putin’s “system” is built on both lying upward — everyone telling superiors what they want to hear, all the way up to Putin — and drilling downward, tapping Russia’s natural resources, enriching a few Russians, rather than unleashing the country’s human resources and empowering the many.
Putin’s Russia is basically built on oil, lies and corruption, and that is not a resilient system.
You could see it right from the eve of the war when Putin conducted a nationally televised meeting of his top national security advisers, and none other than Sergei Naryshkin, chief of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, appeared confused over which lie Putin wanted to be told.
Putin said the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk should be allowed to become independent states, and then he polled these advisers for confirmation. But Naryshkin seemed to think Putin wanted to be told that the two provinces should be annexed to Russia. As Naryshkin stammered over the wrong answer, Putin, without a hint of irony, twice snapped at him to “speak directly” — as if that were possible anymore in Putin’s Russia. Only after Naryshkin gave Putin the lie he obviously wanted to be told did Putin snarl, “You can sit down now.”
How many Russian military officers watching that humiliation were ready to tell Putin the truth about Ukraine once the war started going badly? When the Russian military was up against foes in Georgia, Syria, Crimea and Chechnya, Russia could just indiscriminately bomb its way out of any problem. But now that Putin’s military has found itself in a war with Ukraine’s highly motivated army and its homegrown weapons industry, backed with some of NATO’s best precision weapons and training, the rot has really started to show. Russia’s tank and logistic forces were mauled into multiple junkyards of burning hulks in western Ukraine.
And it is impossible to exaggerate how incompetent the Russian Navy had to be to allow the command warship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva missile cruiser, to be so badly damaged, reportedly by two Ukrainian-made anti-ship cruise missiles, called Neptunes, that the Moskva sank into the sea off Ukraine last week — the biggest loss of a naval ship in battle in 40 years.
For the Russian flagship in charge of coordinating all of the air defenses for the flotilla, and itself carrying 64 S-300F Rif air defense missiles, to be taken out by enemy anti-ship missiles had to have been the result of a cascade of systems failures in detection and response to an attack.
Moreover, Neptune missiles are not necessarily “ship killers.” They were more likely designed to be “mission killers” — to disable the radar and electronics of sophisticated destroyers like the Moskva — not specifically sink them.
So I pity the commander who had to tell Putin that Russia’s meanest, monstrous warship in the Black Sea, rumored to have been his favorite, had been sunk by a Ukrainian missile fired in war for the first time.
China is a much more serious country than Russia: It is not built on oil, lies and corruption (though it has plenty of the latter), but on the hard work and manufacturing talents of its people, directed by a top-down, iron-fisted but eager-to-learn-from-abroad Chinese Communist Party. At least, eager in the past to learn, but less so lately.
China’s economic success, and the sense of pride it has generated, seems to have lulled its leadership into thinking it could basically go it alone against a pandemic. By producing its own vaccines, rather than importing better ones from the West, and by repurposing its highly efficient system of authoritarian surveillance and control to curb travel, do mass testing and quarantine any individuals or neighborhoods where Covid-19 appeared, China bet on a “zero Covid” policy. If it could get through the pandemic with fewer deaths and a more open economy, it would be another signal to the to the world — a big signal — that Chinese communism was superior to American democracy.
But Beijing, while scoffing at the West, became shockingly negligent about vaccinating its own elderly. That did not matter as much when China was able to stem the spread of earlier variants of the coronavirus with tight population controls. But now it matters, because China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines appear not nearly as effective against Omicron as the mRNA vaccines made in the West, although they still are effective at reducing hospitalization and death. In China today, more than 130 million people “aged 60 and above are either unvaccinated or have received fewer than three doses,” putting them “in greater danger of developing severe Covid symptoms or dying if they contract the virus,” The Financial Times recently reported, citing a University of Hong Kong study.
This has led Beijing to opt for that total lockdown of Shanghai, which has been so poorly managed that residents have reportedly had to scramble for food.
Dr. David L. Katz, a U.S. public health and preventive medicine expert who wrote one of the most prescient early guest essays in this newspaper about managing Covid at the onset, explained to me that the problem with having the kind of draconian lockdown policy that China maintained is that you are guaranteeing that your population develops little native immunity from having acquired and survived the virus. So, Katz said, if the virus mutates globally, as it did with Omicron, and you have “a less than effective vaccine, virtually no natural immunity in the population, and millions of elderly unvaccinated, you’re in a bad place and there is no easy way out.”
You can’t fool around with or propagandize away Mother Nature; she’s merciless.
The moral of this story? High-coercion authoritarian systems are low-information systems — so they often drive blind more than they realize. And even when the truth filters up, or reality in the form of a more powerful foe or Mother Nature slams them in the face so hard it can’t be ignored, their leaders find it hard to change course because their claims to the right to be presidents-for-life rest on their claims to infallibility. And that is why Russia and China are both now struggling.
I am worried sick about our own democratic system. But as long as we can still vote out incompetent leaders and maintain information ecosystems that will expose systemic lying and defy censorship, we can adapt in an age of rapid change — and that is the single most important competitive advantage a country can have today.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: email@example.com.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.