Democracy has been on the decline worldwide for more than 15 years. One major reason is the growing ruthlessness of authoritarian leaders, particularly Russian President Vladimir Putin. Today, I will walk through how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine fits into the broader geopolitical trends of the past decade and a half.
Putin has spent more than two decades consolidating power, rebuilding Russia’s military and weakening his enemies. He has repeatedly undermined democratic movements and popular uprisings, including those in Syria and Belarus. He has meddled in Western elections. And he has deployed Russian troops to enforce his will, including in Georgia and Crimea.
The invasion of Ukraine — the largest war in Europe since World War II — is a significant escalation of this behavior. The country’s fall would mark a violent end to one of the world’s democracies.
Maneuvers like Putin’s, as well as insufficient pushback from other governments, have fostered this global democratic decline, experts say. Just one in five people now live in countries designated as “free,” down from nearly one in two in 2005, a new report from Freedom House found.
The invasion of Ukraine is “a taste of what a world without checks on antidemocratic behavior would look like,” Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, told me. He remains hopeful that democracies will rally to impose serious penalties on Russia, signaling that they will not tolerate Putin’s behavior. But, he warned, “if they don’t, this is going to set the world back in a major way — not just for democracy, but for the rule of law.”
A war on democracies
The collapse of the Soviet Union more than three decades ago gave birth to democracies across Eastern Europe — and to Putin’s grievances. He once described the Soviet breakup as “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” — a time period that included two world wars and the Holocaust. He has suggested he wants to reverse that collapse.
Putin’s complaints are less ideological — he is not a communist, and has not ruled like one — and more self-interested: He wants to protect his hold on power as well as further Russia’s global reach, which would increase support for him at home.
But the effect of his rule has been to undermine democracy globally. After Georgia moved to join NATO, with the support of voters, Russia invaded in 2008 and has meddled in the country’s politics ever since. Russia has worked with autocratic leaders to help crush democracies and protests where Putin believes that his country has security or economic interests, including in Kazakhstan and Venezuela.
He has also tried to destabilize democracies in the West — by interfering in elections in the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, among other nations.
In Ukraine, Russia’s meddling in the 2004 presidential contest helped spawn protests against corruption and for fair elections, a movement known as the Orange Revolution. In another round of protests a decade later, Ukrainians overthrew a pro-Russian government and replaced it with one closer to Europe and the West.
Russia responded by invading and annexing Crimea, in southern Ukraine, and by backing separatists in the east, who have fought a grinding war against the Ukrainian government ever since. Now, Putin is trying to seize control of all of Ukraine.
Democracy has also declined globally because democratic leaders have done too little to stand up for themselves, the Freedom House report argued.
As is now clear, the world’s response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula was not enough to deter Putin from going further. Even the sanctions imposed on Russia after its full assault on Ukraine this week stopped short of maximum punishment, sparing much of the Russian energy sector that Europe’s economy still relies on.
At the same time, autocratic governments have increasingly worked together, using their collective economic and political power to create a cushion against punishments from other governments. China approved Russian wheat imports this past week, effectively softening the impact of the West’s new sanctions.
Authoritarians have also abandoned pretenses of democratic norms. Putin, as well as rulers in Nicaragua, Venezuela and elsewhere, once tried to at least maintain the appearance of free and fair elections. But now they regularly jail political opponents, denying the opposition the ability to campaign.
All of these moves have shown other leaders with authoritarian aspirations what they can do as the liberal democratic order loses its sway.
In that context, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is part of a broader test: whether the global erosion of democracy will continue unchecked.
The Latest on Ukraine
Charles M. Blow: The death of Trayvon Martin a decade ago gave birth to a movement.
Ross Douthat: An invasion of Ukraine that Putin views as a success will still undercut his interests.
Sasha Vasilyuk: My family in Ukraine never asked to be rescued by Russia.
The Sunday question: Will Ukraine be Putin’s Afghanistan?
Putin’s invasion could inspire grass-roots Ukrainian resistance and an insurgency, John Nagl writes in Foreign Policy. Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution notes that the Afghan insurgency needed outside funding and weapons, and it’s unclear which countries would provide similar support to Ukraine.
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