As of February 21 2022, Russia has once again invaded and occupied areas in sovereign Ukraine. What is known thus far about this particular invasion is that it occurred after Russia recognized two self-proclaimed sepratist states in the Donbas region, “Donetsk” and “Luhansk,” and the Russian military has since progressed westward toward the capital city Kyiv. With context, this invasion appears to be another example of Vladimir Putin’s contributions to democratic erosion in both Russia and, perhaps more importantly, its neighboring nations in Eastern Europe.
There is a developing pattern of Putin capitalizing on concentrated sepratist sentiment in sovereign states and then justifying his military annexations with improvised referendums or claims of liberation, completely regardless of democratic norms. The current regime in Russia under President Vladimir Putin is one fueled by demagoguery and military prowess that seeks to undermine sovereign democracies through conflict– seemingly as an attempt to restore Russia’s imperial presence to that of the Soviet era.
It is well-known amongst those in the realm of global politics that Vladimir Putin’s erosion of democratic norms begins within the confines of his own nation’s government. The Russian state promotes an authoritarian subversion of sorts by silencing opposition amongst media and activists, blacklisting political rivals, and regularly performing political gymnastics in order to manipulate the post-Soviet institutions of Russia and ensure his power is preserved. This authoritarian subversion results in rigged elections and minimal dissent from people about the status quo under Putin, emboldening and empowering him. While this is certainly troubling for Russian citizens who value democratic tenets, the implications of Putin’s ambitions outside of Russia should trouble anyone who holds such values. His foreign policy alone provides enough substance to argue that this erosion of participatory government truly is pervading into areas outside of Russia’s borders. This persistence of Vladimir Putin’s destructive methods and its progression into neighboring democracies is cause for valid concern amongst Europeans and their allies.
This most recent invasion by Russia in the Donbas region is far from Putin’s first military-led pursuit in the sovereign nation of Ukraine. One can recall almost exactly eight years prior in late February 2014, Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea, a region officially recognized as independent Ukrainian territory. Since then, Russia has illegally occupied the region, having cited self-determination of the ethnic-Russian majority as justification. Despite a contentious referendum and evidence suggesting that a majority of Crimeans do indeed support Russia in their “accession” of Ukrainian territory, the military seizure of Crimea by Russia is absolutely unauthorized by the Ukrainian democratic government and a clear violation of official sovereignty (BBC 2014). Moreover, following the illegal annexation, the Russian executive appointed leadership in Crimea to usurp the existing regime with Sergey Askyonov serving as Head of the Republic of Crimea since its conquest. Askyonov was born in the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR of Moldova) and eventually became involved in Russian geopolitics forming the Russian Unity Party (Britannica 2022). This is an exemplary instance of Putin using demagoguery to justify his invasion of a sovereign nation and eroding its democratic institutions by replacing their regimes with his own.
Similar to the Crimean crisis, President Putin is currently using populist rhetoric in the Donbas region to justify his most recent encroachment. He is once again exploiting separatist support in eastern Ukraine, only now to propagate the narrative that he is “denazifying” and “demilitarizing” the nation of Ukraine when in fact, Ukraine’s executive is a duly elected man of Jewish faith named Volodymyr Zelensky. Zelensky’s perseverance as the Ukrainian President has become a large topic of discussion since the recent invasion because of the Russian state’s history of displacing existing elected leadership. There is concern that if Zelensky is intimidated enough to force him out of Kyiv, Ukrainian leadership could be replaced by Russian nationals who sympathize with the state’s imperialistic tendencies, as it was and still remains in Crimea. Contrary to Putin’s claims of liberation and peacekeeping, Russia has since engaged in an attack on Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, reportedly killing a large number of civilians indiscriminately. This once again demonstrates how Vladimir Putin is not only catalyzing democratic backsliding in Eastern Europe, but also masking his actions with false posturing and populist propaganda, all whilst holding out on established leadership and testing their fortitude.
Russia’s utilization of conflict to sow discord in Eastern European democracies is however not limited to the borders of Ukraine. Russia, especially under Vladimir Putin, has a history of responding negatively to the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and resisting the emergence of democracies in nations formerly under Soviet or Soviet-adjacent jurisdiction (such as former Yugoslavia). Since the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992, a number of conflicts between ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians in the nations of Kosovo and Serbia have been ongoing. Throughout the ongoing strife, Russia has had several conflicts with NATO troops and has seemingly remained in support of ethnic Serbs and opposed to the realization of Kosovo as an independent democracy despite its recognition by a significant majority in the United Nations in 2008.
The imperialist nature of Russia under the administration of Vladimir Putin has been and continues to be a major geopolitical threat to European democracies, especially for Ukraine and other former Soviet territories in the East. The Putin regime regularly neglects sovereign borders, destroys democratic norms domestically and abroad, and propagates false liberal agendas to provide grounds for imperialism. These however are merely the most explicit and obvious of the various sinister strategies that Putin’s regime continues to employ. There are certainly factors undisclosed to his critics that shine more light on how President Vladimir Putin and his administration utilize demagoguery and military conflict to erode independent democracies and occupy territories as satellites of a still-ambitious Russian Empire.
BBC News. 2014. “Crimean referendum: Voters ‘back Russian union’.” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26606097 (accessed March 1 2022)
Britannica. 2022. “The crisis in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.” https://www.britannica.com/place/Ukraine/The-crisis-in-Crimea-and-eastern-Ukraine (accessed March 1 2022)