Why democracy matters in the Ukraine crisis
President Biden has called the competition between democracy and autocracy a “defining challenge of our time.” Many observers have dismissed that framing as mere rhetoric or foolhardy idealism in a dangerous world. Ukraine should serve as Exhibit A about why the president is correct.
To the detriment of Ukrainians and Western policymakers, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been able to frame Ukraine as a matter of Russian pride, geopolitics and security. This framing has been picked up by media pundits, which serves Putin well. He understandably would much prefer it not focus where it belongs: on Ukraine, the Ukrainian people, and their rights and dignity.
As president of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), I’ve had the privilege of getting to know a range of Ukrainian politicians, civil society leaders, activists and citizens. No matter their political persuasion — whether they come from the east or west of the country, or what language they speak at home — they are united by a common identity as Ukrainians and an unrelenting resolve to build an independent, sovereign and democratic Ukraine.
The message delivered by Ukrainian politicians echoes NDI’s own survey findings, soon to be released, in which more than 75 percent of Ukrainians want Ukraine to become a “fully functioning democracy.” This number is fairly consistent across six years of biannual public opinion research, and throughout the country.
Moreover, it is consonant with the actions of the Ukrainian public, who have reiterated their commitment to democracy time and time again. In 2004, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians camped in sub-zero temperatures to peacefully protest flawed presidential balloting, ultimately forcing new elections.
A decade later, over 800,000 Ukrainians again took to the streets to protect their democracy in the historic Revolution of Dignity, despite state violence that took more than 100 lives. A peaceful transfer of power in 2019 most recently testified to Ukraine’s national strength, and the Ukrainian people’s firm commitment to democratic change, despite continued hardship.
At the communal level, the Ukrainian people have suffered economic and territorial losses as a result of their insistence that Ukraine remain independent, sovereign and democratic. At the personal level, more than 14,000 Ukrainians have died since Russia invaded Crimea and the Donbas, and an estimated 1.5 million have been displaced by Russian occupation.
Why are Ukrainians willing to sacrifice so much? The answer lies in democracy itself, which Ukrainians understand is the system most likely to deliver the unity, stability, development and protection of national sovereignty and personal dignity they crave.
At the Kyiv Security Forum in early December 2021, Ukrainian politicians from across the political spectrum spoke about their country’s future. Even when differing on matters of domestic policy or reform, a diverse group of party leaders delivered the same message: Democracy is our future, and key to our security and identity as a nation. They called democracy their “best defense” from internal and external threats, and the feature that linked them to the West and differentiated them from Russia.
It is no surprise, then, that Putin considers Ukraine a fundamental challenge. His view of a cultural “East” distinct from the “West” falls flat when faced with the example of Ukraine — or Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Moldova and Belarus, for that matter — just as Taiwan’s successful democratic society fundamentally threatens the Chinese communists in Beijing. A functioning and prosperous democracy on Russia’s (or China’s) doorstep poses a specific challenge to the autocratic model.
If democracy can succeed in a place with which ordinary Russians have a cultural, linguistic and historical affinity, then it could succeed in Russia itself. There is no greater threat to Putin than a prosperous, pluralistic and democratic Ukraine.
In the end, autocrats who must rely on repression at home to preserve their position will naturally act the same beyond their borders. What they cannot achieve through persuasion they must achieve through aggression. That is why Putin’s Russia uses espionage, cyber attacks, disinformation operations, and outright military invasion to exacerbate divisions and undermine Ukrainian society.
And as we all have seen, what happens in a place such as Ukraine does not stay in Ukraine; tactics tested there are refined and applied elsewhere. Democracy anywhere is a threat to autocracy everywhere.
So let’s not fool ourselves: The Ukraine crisis is not only — or fundamentally — about NATO encroachment, spheres of influence, or U.S.-Russian mistrust. It is about Russia’s disrespect for Ukrainian independence and dignity, and the threat Ukrainian democracy itself poses to the “authoritarian dream.”
Whether Russia re-invades the country militarily or not, those who cherish freedom and democracy must stand by the 44 million people of Ukraine, give them the tools necessary to defend their lives and liberties, and not flinch in the face of 21st century aggression. Democratic values of free speech, rule of law, and dialogue have underwritten peace and stability within and between nations for decades. We must not be complacent about the stakes of failing to defend those values now when under brutal assault — in Ukraine and beyond.