The Russian invasion of Ukraine has begun a military crisis in Europe, however, the crisis extends far beyond Ukraine’s borders. Global democracy has been at risk for several years and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is another example that is concise with the global decline of democratic institutions.
Following the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ukraine broke away from Russia and became a sovereign democratic nation. Ukraine, still remaining beside Russian borders, has been recently attempting to join NATO. For Russia, this would mean that Ukraine would be joining a military alliance alongside some of Europe’s strongest powers, as well as running the possibility of having NATO troops in Ukraine, right next to Russian borders. Vladimir Putin has always expressed, even since the time of NATO’s expansion in the 1990s, how he did not want NATO’s troops near Russian borders. Putin also has been claiming to liberate groups of people who are rebelling against Ukraine and want independence, such as the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine. This was, in fact, a Russian-led invasion for the false justification of this attack. Putin doesn’t have a clear ambition for this war, other than restoring Russia’s place in terms of world power and regaining control over Ukraine. Thus, Russia, a hegemonic authoritarian regime, is claiming to overthrow an elected government in Ukraine by invading the whole country.
Putin’s goal is to emulate a pre-Cold War Soviet Union and democracy stands in the way of that, which is why he would start a war unprovoked and risk the lives of his own people (Rubin, 2022). NATO is a threat to Putin’s plans, and he wants to keep NATO troops as far away from Russia (and Europe) as possible (Applebaum, 2022). Which is why Moscow demanded NATO to ensure that Ukraine will never be a part of NATO. Putin fears democracy as it has the potential to limit his power. So long as the United States and NATO is in Europe, Russia’s power is diminished (Rubin, 2022). He has changed his methods in doing so, but the ultimate goal is to increase Russia’s power; Putin is looking to reduce the powers of the U.S. and increase Russia’s sphere of influence. In this case, the extension of power is coming through war.
This attack on Ukraine is not the first instance of Putin going against democratic ideals. His meddling in the 2016 Unites States elections is another example of his discrediting of democratic institutions. Bots were also created during this time to spread fake news about the election to further promote Donald Trump against his opponent, Hillary Clinton (Kirby, 2020). Russia’s efforts were to undermine the democratic aspects of U.S. elections by creating distrust in them, as well as undermining the democratic ideal of freedom of speech. Specifically, he wanted to slander Hillary Clinton because he blamed her for the 2011-2012 Russian protests against him (Marineau, 2022). Following this, Andrei Soldatov, the Russian security expert, has said that Putin also preferred Trump over Clinton because it would not be possible to lift the U.S. sanctions against Russia had Clinton won the election (Burrows, 2016). These efforts ultimately destabilize democracies, feeding into his goal.
Many observers, such as Andreas Schedler, view Russia as an electoral authoritarian regime. By Dahl’s requirements for a democracy, electoral authoritarian regimes grossly violate electoral rules (Ross, 2018). Schedler states, “electoral authoritarian regimes hold regular elections which are, ‘broadly inclusive (they are held under universal suffrage), minimally pluralistic (opposition parties are permitted to run), minimally competitive (parties and candidates outside the ruling coalition, while denied victory, are allowed to win votes and seats, minimally open (dissidence is not subject to massive, but often to selective and intermittent repression)”. Donno, in regard to leaders in electoral authoritarian regimes stated, “Rulers in electoral authoritarian regimes, ‘may place barriers on opposition parties’ ability to campaign; generate a pro-government media bias; stack electoral commissions and courts with their supporters; or resort to stuffing ballot boxes and manipulating vote tabulations” (Ross, 2018). Putin is no stranger to this behavior as another strategy to increase influence and undermine democratic ideals.
Democracy has been at risk for several years. Freedom House stated that global political freedom has been declining since 2006 (Waldner & Lust, 2018). The Russian invasion of Ukraine would be contributing to this pattern of a decrease of democracy with an increase in autocratization. This decline in democratic governments is considered democratic backsliding. Nancy Bermeo defines this term as “the state-led debilitation or elimination of the political institutions sustaining an existing democracy” (Bermeo, 2016) which is exactly what Putin is attempting to do through his invasion of Ukraine and his other instances of attacks on existing democratic ideals. It would be to Putin’s benefit to spread authoritarianism because it would eliminate extraneous threats to Russia’s own regime, as currently, Russia’s borders are surrounded by democracies. Greater authoritarian regimes surrounding Russia not only increases its sphere of influence, but also gives protection to Putin’s regime.
The U.S. democratic system practices checks and balances, which is another ideal that would hurt Putin. His powers remain unchecked, thus explaining how he has been able to exercise them so destructively. Putin described the ending of the Soviet Union as “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” and has since expressed how he longs to reverse this. Globally, the world is facing a decline in democracies (Lopez, 2022). Putin has contributed greatly to this, as he is working to continue to destroy democracies such as Kazakhstan, Venezuela, and now Ukraine. This is one more democratic institution that would be destroyed, concise with the pattern of the global decline of democratic institutions.
Applebaum, Anne. 2022. “The Reason Putin Would Risk War.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/02/putin-ukraine-democracy/621465/ (March 2, 2022).
Bermeo, Nancy. 2016. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy. https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/on-democratic-backsliding/ (March 10, 2022).
Burrows, Emma. Deutsche Welle. 2016. “’Pro-Kremlin Youth Groups’ Could Be behind DNC Hack: DW: 27.07.2016.” DW.COM. https://www.dw.com/en/pro-kremlin-youth-groups-could-be-behind-dnc-hack/a-19430216 (March 10, 2022).
Collinson, Stephen. 2022. “Why a Russian Invasion of Ukraine Would Hurt Americans Too | CNN Politics.” CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2022/02/14/politics/biden-putin-russia-ukraine-analysis/index.html (March 2, 2022).
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Kirby, Jen. 2020. “Yes, Russia Is Interfering in the 2020 Election.” Vox. https://www.vox.com/2020/9/21/21401149/russia-2020-election-meddling-trump-biden (March 2, 2022).
Lopez, German. 2022. “Putin vs. Democracy.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/27/briefing/putin-democracy-ukraine.html (March 2, 2022).
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Sophie Marineau Doctorante en histoire des relations internationales / phD candidate History. 2022. “Fact Check Us: What Is the Impact of Russian Interference in the US Presidential Election?” The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/fact-check-us-what-is-the-impact-of-russian-interference-in-the-us-presidential-election-146711 (March 2, 2022).
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