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If Ukraine wins the war, democracies must help keep the peace

The city center damaged by Russian shelling in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 10, 2023. Writing on the wall reads “Bakhmut loves Ukraine”. (AP Photo/Libkos)

As we approach the one-year anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s war of atrocities against Ukraine, it is easy to assume this conflict will drag on for years. However, we have consistently underestimated both Ukrainian resilience and ingenuity, as well as the international community’s willingness to defend the democratic order. Resilience is the very definition of the Ukrainian spirit that has captured the world’s attention and planted the nation’s flag in front of so many homes across the U.S. 

The time has come to ask: What happens if Ukraine wins? Will the fierce commitment to freedom and democracy, which the Ukrainians have so clearly shown since the outbreak of the war, prevail? Will the world’s democracies reinforce Ukraine’s democratic trajectory by putting in place an expanded Marshall Plan for reconstruction — including both U.S. and European contributions — to support the transition to post-war political life? Or will they pack up and go home? This is a question just as important to consider today as the provision of tanks, military equipment and humanitarian assistance.

Notwithstanding the brutal conditions on the ground, Ukraine’s decades-long process of democratic reform continues at an impressive clip. In the midst of war, Ukraine’s people and government are more committed than ever to democracy. 

According to a recent poll conducted by our organization, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), 95 percent of the Ukrainian population say it is either “important or very important” that Ukraine be a fully functioning democracy. That near-unanimous support has gone up, not down, in the year since the war started. Among those polled, freedom of speech, equal justice for all and free and fair elections were top priorities. 

The Ukrainian love for democracy is reflected in debate. Amid power outages, Ukrainian MPs are discussing parliamentary reform. Political parties are meeting with civil society to determine how best to provide humanitarian aid, help internally displaced persons (IDPs) and ensure that the needs of women and marginalized people are taken into account. In addition to documenting war crimes, civic groups are providing input on draft laws designed to protect economic competition, guarantee a free media and address corruption.

Ukrainians are hungry to learn from the experience of other democracies, particularly on how to protect public integrity and secure transparency and accountability. In July, the Ukrainian parliament created an opposition-led commission tasked with providing parliamentary oversight over the use of arms provided to Ukraine by foreign partners. Using barcode technology, the commission monitors the entire supply chain of weapons to Ukraine, from the moment of entering the warehouses of foreign partners to its final destination. Recent dismissals and resignations of officials tied to corruption allegations reflect the demand of the Ukrainian people to forge a new path going forward, in which state resources are utilized on behalf of the nation, not the individual.

Ukrainians are innovating to strengthen democratic governance. The government has adapted its service app (Diia) to allow over 5.9 million IDPs to register in new communities, and to give nearly 8 million refugees access to important identification documents. A coalition of NGOs with government partners (RISE Ukraine) is focusing on leveraging new technologies to ensure that reconstruction and recovery are transparent, inclusive and resilient to corruption. 

In all of these efforts, NDI and many international partners have been providing strategic advice and support — building on three decades of democracy assistance provided to the Ukrainian people since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Still, the question remains: If Ukraine wins, what happens next? 

First, the narratives that warn that the Ukrainian people will inevitably revert to old Soviet patterns of corruption, squander away reconstruction assistance and gravitate towards autocratic rule are off the mark. They are out of touch with the changes that have taken place over the last decade. According to a recent poll, 84 percent of Ukrainians are ready to report corruption today, compared to 44 percent before the war started. The people are fighting for democracy, accountability and freedom. 

Second, the coalition of nations standing behind Ukraine must begin planning now to solidify the peace. They must grant Ukraine timely accession into NATO and the European Union to ensure military and economic integration with a community of democracies. They must hold firm on the principle of accountability by requiring Russian reparations for launching a wholly unjustified war of aggression against Ukraine — and the deliberate targeting of civilians and infrastructure. To uphold the sanctity of human rights, they must ensure that war crimes are speedily investigated and perpetrators punished. They must support reconstruction efforts that are responsive to the priorities and needs of citizens, including marginalized groups. This means strengthening local government and decentralizing decision-making. They must create incentives for businesses to invest in the country, including championing measures to address corruption and promote transparency. Finally, they must support Ukrainians in fostering post-war political pluralism, and free and fair elections.

Ukraine is poised to be a democratic bulwark in the heart of Europe. Ukraine’s victory will transform the whole region, including Armenia, Moldova, Georgia and eventually Belarus and Russia — the very outcome Putin fears most. 

If Ukraine wins this war, the world’s democracies must unite to win the peace. When the Berlin Wall fell, the West prematurely declared victory and the end of the Cold War. The world cannot make that mistake again. A democratic Ukraine is key to a more democratic, more peaceful and more secure region.

As the Ukrainians continually remind us, their fight is our fight.

Eva Busza, Ph.D., is NDI’s regional director for Eurasia. Previous appointments include vice president, research and programs at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and director of policy and strategic planning for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Jerry Hartz is NDI’s chief government relations and communications officer and oversees all external affairs outreach. Before joining NDI, Hartz served as a top leadership aide in the U.S. House of Representatives for nearly three decades, including as senior adviser and director of legislative floor operations for former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Tags National Democratic Institute Politics of the United States Reactions to the 2021–2022 Russo-Ukrainian crisis Russo-Ukrainian War threat to democracy

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