Putin’s Ukraine gambit unites Western democracies he sought to divide
President Vladimir Putin has long exploited and exacerbated divisions within and between Western democracies. Through its proxy, the Internet Research Agency (IRA) — a Russian organization with strong Kremlin security services ties — Russia has engaged in “active measures” to destabilize the West and demonstrate democracy’s failure as a governing system to Russians and the world. However, Putin’s threatened invasion of Ukraine is beginning to undo this singular achievement.
Rather than deepen the fissures in the West that Putin so painstakingly cultivated, stepped-up aggression against Ukraine is repairing some of them.
In the U.S., Congress is uncommonly unified as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle rapidly draft legislation aimed at deterring Russian aggression and ensuring that if an invasion occurs, the consequences for Russia will be dire. As co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) observed, “we have been unified as Republicans and Democrats in standing up to what Russia has done.”
Putin has inadvertently drawn NATO troops closer to his border and given the alliance renewed purpose and vigor. Currently, the alliance is demonstrating cohesion and resolve unseen since the months following 9/11, silencing questions about its relevance. NATO allies have committed troops, advisers on the ground, and weapons to bolster Ukraine and the alliance’s eastern flank.
For months, the UK has helped Ukraine develop its naval capabilities and recently flew defensive weaponry to Ukraine. Beleaguered British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Kyiv sas a show of solidarity, and the UK also has plans to deepen its already robust sanctions regime against Russia in the event of an attack. The Netherlands and Spain have dispatched fighter jets to Bulgaria, and the Netherlands has joined Ukraine in an International Criminal Court action against Russia. Denmark has earmarked aid to Ukraine, promising arms in the event of a Russian attack. The U.S. dispatched advisers and defensive weapons and has deployed 3,000 troops to the region, with another 5,500 on standby.
Even Turkey, which enjoys a strong bilateral relationship with Russia, sent armed drones to help with Ukraine’s defensive effort as President Erdogan headed to Kyiv to sign a trade agreement with Ukraine President Zelenskyy.
Germany is conspicuous in its reticence to commit or permit the transport of defensive weapons to Ukraine; however, Chancellor Olaf Scholz reportedly has privately agreed to suspend Nord Stream 2 operations in the event of a Russian attack. Meanwhile, Finland and Sweden, which have historically kept NATO at arm’s length, are mulling accession.
The impending conflict has not distracted Russians from Putin’s domestic failures — chronic economic malaise, escalating assaults on freedom and demographic challenges — as ordinary Russians view a war with Ukraine as a “war against our brothers” that undermines Russia’s ability to tackle its domestic problems.
Putin’s popularity was strongest in Ukraine’s Donbas region but has plummeted since 2014, and popular support for Russia generally, which was evenly split in 2014, has eroded. Ukrainian nationalists are the overwhelming majority, and few aspire to become part of Russia. Ukrainian support for NATO accession, an aspiration codified in law and added to the Ukrainian constitution in 2019, was weak just a decade ago — now a majority of Ukrainians seek membership in the alliance.
Putin’s Ukraine gambit has had a unifying effect among and within the democracies of the West, which now have the opportunity to capitalize on this rare moment by repairing national social fabrics. Likewise, NATO can demonstrate its renewed cohesion at the upcoming Summit in Madrid by resolving to defend sovereign democracies.
Karla Jones is senior director for federalism and international relations at the American Legislative Exchange Council.