US response must match the stakes in Ukraine

AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka

President Biden’s remark that Vladimir Putin should lose power in Russia may have delighted some of Ukraine’s most zealous supporters, but it appalled the cautious foreign policy establishment. The White House quickly walked the statement back, saying that the president meant only that Putin should lose the power he now exercises over his neighbors. 

The controversy about the president’s remarks is overblown. Biden appealed to God, not the Pentagon, to remove Putin from power. And even if he were making regime change a goal of U.S. foreign policy, he would have only been reciprocating Vladimir Putin’s effort, backed with the vast resources of Russia’s intelligence agencies, to achieve regime change in the U.S.

Nonetheless, regime change in Moscow is a matter for the Russians, not for us or even for the Ukrainians. 

Yet whomever leads Russia, the stakes in this war are enormous. That is obviously true for Ukraine, but it is true for the rest of the world as well. Over the past two decades, Putin has made Russia a potent force undermining democracy and promoting the ugliest forms of nationalism and oppression. 

Many have recognized that if Ukraine loses or is pressed into making territorial concessions, Taiwan will face an almost certain attack from mainland China. Supporting Ukraine against the vicious but corruption-sapped Russian war machine is infinitely easier than aiding Taiwan would be. 

But more broadly, Putin has made Russia the nerve center of destructive nationalism throughout the world. His aggressive meddling to disrupt democracies, including our own, is a constant, on-going threat to democracy’s viability the world over. Although he has favored candidates he believes will serve his interests, his primary focus has been destroying social cohesion, turning people against one another. 

New revelations show Russia financing and partially directing Italy’s neo-fascist League party and deeply involved with propping up Marine Le Pen’s far-right party in France. His operatives even pondered creating a “Alt-Right International” in Moscow, modeled on the Communist International that supported communist agitation around the world on behalf of the Soviet Union. All this is likely the tip of the iceberg. The far-right parties Russia supports revive many of the worst aspects of 20th century fascism, very much including antisemitism

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The parties Russian is supporting have been fabulously effective. Far-right parties hold substantial blocks in the parliaments of several European countries, including Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and even Sweden. Several have forced their way into governing coalitions. Le Pen was runner-up in France’s last presidential election and is favored to make the second round again next month. Hungary, a member of NATO, is ruled by a self-described apostle of “illiberal democracy” — authoritarianism with thin trappings of elections. Far-right parties now form a large bloc in the European Parliament.

To divide and weaken the West, interests with Russian connections contributed heavily to the narrow success of the referendum that pulled the United Kingdom out of the European Union. 

Putin’s Russia is not only trying to destroy democracy where it currently exists, it also helps suppress oppressed people’s efforts to oust autocratic leaders in favor of democracy. After Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko brazenly stuffed the ballot boxes to ensure his re-election, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protest. When Lukashenko’s regime appeared to be tottering, Putin intervened to block democratic change. Russia’s security was in no way threatened: the Belarusian opposition said it did not desire to affiliate with NATO or the EU, and the West wisely kept its distance from the protests. 

Putin’s Russia also played a crucial role in breaking the pro-democracy Arab Spring movement, particularly by turning Syria’s and Libya’s democratic uprisings into bloodbaths. In return, despots have defied the U.S. to purchase Russian weapons.

During the Spanish Civil War, the deaths of more moderate democratic politicians helped ensure that Western governments would not intervene against Franco’s fascists: With survivors increasingly representing far-left factions, the U.S., Britain and France stayed on the sidelines. Russia is now suspected of following a similar strategy to buttress Syria’s brutal dictator Bashar Assad: killing secular democratic members of the opposition until only repellant Islamists remain. 

Russian figures close to Putin organize the laundering of billions of dollars. Although we cannot know these efforts’ specific purposes, laundered money facilitates assassinations and illicit attempts to manipulate the politics of democratic countries. Russia has applied its wealth to building ties with senior officials in key democratic countries, including our own

In theory, advanced Western democracies could steel themselves against corrupting foreign influences, exposing and punishing those who facilitate foreign interference. In practice, Putin’s Russia covers its tracks just enough, while masterfully exploiting divisions within the West, to keep its malign efforts effective.

Russia’s financial and hacking resources are simply more than democracies’ internal structures, which prize openness, are built to resist. This is a cynical twist on Lenin’s prediction that capitalists would sell him the rope to hang them. And vulnerable new democracies — to say nothing of fledgling democracy movements in hostile environments — have little hope of defending themselves adequately against Russian-backed destruction

Putin’s overreach has finally made him vulnerable. But unless we provide Ukraine the means not just to blunt Russian offensives but to expel Russia from its lands — and unless we maintain sanctions until Russia actually leaves all the Ukrainian territory it vowed to respect in 1994 — democracy everywhere will remain under attack.

Whether or not Putin still leads it, a humiliated and economically isolated Russia will lose the prestige to lead the transnational far-right movement and will have less financial capacity to do so. 

The whole world recognizes what is on the line in Ukraine. Authoritarians around the world recognize the stakes in Ukraine, undermining efforts to isolate Putin despite their reliance on the U.S. for security.  Conversely, neutral democracies have provided unprecedented support to Ukraine. 

The price Ukrainians are paying in this war is tragic. Wasting this opportunity to undermine Russia’s malign influence the world over would be even more tragic, as it would guarantee that this carnage will be repeated again and again.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DavidASuper1 

Tags Alexander Lukashenko Antisemitism autocrats Biden Bucha Budapest Memorandum Chinese aggression Corruption in Russia countering Putin countering Russia Democracy democracy promotion Far-right politics foreign interference Grozny Joe Biden Kharkiv Mariupol military aid to Ukraine Money laundering regime change Russian aggression Russian bombing Russian disinformation Russian hackers Russian invasion of Ukraine Syria Taiwan Vladimir Putin War crimes during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine

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