Ukraine’s real-life challenge for democracy
One hundred countries joined President Biden’s Summit for Democracy in December to affirm global commitment to democracy during a period of decline and rising authoritarianism. Lofty pledges were made, and the White House announced 2022 as a “year of action” during which countries will hone their commitments to democratic reform. Meanwhile Russian bombardment of Ukraine is underway with the aim to “reclaim” a democracy under authoritarian rule.
The very aims of the Summit are being tested in real time. The threat of autocratic takeover is not a theoretical thought exercise; it’s happening.
Putin’s big fear is democracy at his border.
Democracy is contagious, after all, and Putin does not want folks at home getting any ideas.
His invasion attempts not only to strip Ukraine of its sovereignty as a democratic nation but also to signal globally the strength of the authoritarian grip. If the world allows such capture, the message will be clear to other authoritarians who are eyeing power grabs of their own.
It remains to be seen whether the democratic community will follow through on the pledges made at the Summit to Defend Democracy.
Will we fail the test?
The summit correctly identified three key threats to democracy: rising authoritarianism, malign finance and corruption, and human rights abuses — all of which are part of Russia’s Ukraine strategy.
Ukraine’s struggle with Russian state-sponsored destabilization has been waged online for many years. Using domestic and international state media outlets, troll farms, and useful idiots, the Kremlin has flooded the information space with narratives declaring that Ukraine and the West are planning a false flag operation, that Ukraine is a Nazi state, and that Russia has a humanitarian duty to protect Russian speakers from Ukrainian genocide. During the 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine, a series of gruesome stories claiming the death of children at the hands of the Ukrainian army were disseminated by Russian state media channels. The Kremlin coopted and cloaked itself in the language of democracy and defense of human rights — to obliterate both.
The response to information warfare this time has been swift and preemptive. Ukraine and European and American allies have vocally called out the information playbook, pre-bunking narratives by foreshadowing Russia’s next steps.
Ukraine has established itself as a leader in countering disinformation, hybrid warfare, and cyber-attacks with media initiatives like Euromaidan Press and StopFake.org. The U.S. has released intelligence, embracing a more transparent approach than in the past, to fortify this exposure. While it was a setback for the Kremlin’s information strategy and the world is now more fully aware of Russian lies, it was not enough to deter an autocrat who cares less for global public opinion than for domination.
Russia uses finance to infiltrate and thwart democratic practices. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week, “Russian intelligence services, mainly the Federal Security Service (FSB), a U.S. sanctioned entity, have been recruiting Ukrainian nationals in key positions to gain access to sensitive information. The FSB leverages these officials in an attempt to create instability in Ukraine.”
Russia also launders money through oligarchs and businesspeople to support influence operations, including advocacy and destabilization campaigns, as well as attempts to capture political leaders.
Human rights have been systematically violated in Russian-occupied Crimea, with any dissent suppressed. Since the occupation of the Crimean penninsula in 2014, the Kremlin has prosecuted and imprisoned 130 Ukrainian citizens, including journalists. Sevastopol journalist Oleksiy Bessarabov, deputy editor-in-chief of the Black Sea Security Journal, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for his pro-western views and activities, as was his colleague Dmytro Shtyblykov. Vladyslav Yesypenko, a freelancer of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was arrested and tortured last year.
Despite these tactics, Ukraine’s democracy, albeit shaky, has proved resilient.
So, Russia has resorted to war.
President Biden warned at the Summit that democracy is under threat and the world must act. Since those words, Burkina Faso, one of the many fragile yet promising new democracies, suffered a military coup, following others in West Africa. Sudan and Myanmar have sunk into more violence after the military tightened their grip on power. China used the Olympics as a glossy PR cover-up of the genocide of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. And Russia is attacking democratic Ukraine.
If the entire point of the Summit for Democracy is to protect democracy, Ukraine should be the rallying cry to make good on the commitment.
Democracies must use the most aggressive tools in our arsenal. This includes banning Russia from the SWIFT banking system, blocking Russian airlines and ships, and embargoes on Russian oil and gas and state-owned companies such as Rosatom, Rosneft and Surgutneftega. The West should supply weapons and equipment, financial assistance and humanitarian aid, enforce a no-fly zone, and ban Russian state media.
Russia must be fully isolated, including in the Council of Europe and OSCE. Public diplomacy is needed to make the case to Americans and Europeans that Ukraine matters. This is particularly needed in the U.S., where Fox News stars parrot Kremlin talking points and Republicans view Putin more favorably than Democratic leaders.
Autocrats are watching closely. If Putin fails in Ukraine, others like him will not dare to attack democracy and the international rule of law.
Hanna Hopko, is an expert in advocacy, media and political communications and head of the Ukrainian Board of National Interests advocacy network “ANTS.” She is a former journalist who, from 2014 to 2019, served as a member of the Ukrainian parliament, where she was head of the Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Laura Thornton is director and senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
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