Ukraine invasion spotlights delicate state of democracy
The secretary-general of the United Nations opened the most recent annual meeting of Earth’s leaders with a bleak assessment of the planet’s state of affairs. Humanity, he said, faced “a moment of truth.”
“Peace. Human rights. Dignity for all. Equality. Justice. Solidarity. Like never before, core values are in the crosshairs,” Antonio Guterres said. “A sense of impunity is taking hold.”
Guterres’ message to the U.N. General Assembly takes on even more relevance with the Russian military’s invasion of Ukraine. Those things he outlined? They are bedrock principles of democracy – a once-on-the-upswing method of human governance that in recent years has been taking body blows across the world.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion advances the anti-democratic trend – one that has seen strongmen, some elected, prod their nations toward dictatorship and ignore once-solid democratic norms. In doing so, they are collectively pounding at the door of democracy’s always-delicate house.
The invasion is “surely a watershed moment for the future of global democracy,” says Stephen E. Hanson, a professor of government at William & Mary College in Virginia and author of “Post-Imperial Democracies,” which in part examines Russia after the Soviet Union dissolved.
In recent years, the ascent of a group of what some consider dictators within democracies – Putin, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Narendra Modi of India, Viktor Orbán of Hungary – has gradually chipped away at the outer boundaries of democratic systems while still talking the talk of democratic principles. Appearing democratic, it seems, is the new democracy.
In the United States, Donald Trump has produced similar concerns, stoked by his ongoing claims of a stolen election. That has helped inspire efforts to change state laws to limit access to polls, and to stock election administration roles with allies, stoking fears that a free and fair vote may be overturned in a nation that was, until recently, a beacon for the world’s democracies.
The rub: Each of these leaders has been chosen by their people – or, at least, by democratic-style systems. “Globally, populists that undermine democratic norms have gained more traction in elections over the past 20 years,” says Douglas Page, a political scientist at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.
This gradual rebranding of democracy for the 21st century has been exacerbated by leaders of more traditionally authoritarian governments who call their systems democratic, too. Even China’s Xi Jinping, never a democrat, has maneuvered his nation’s hybrid of communist tenets and market economy into a personality-driven rule that is presented as a form of democracy.
So when Putin orders the invasion of Ukraine in a manner that tacitly invokes democratic principles even as he circumvents them, he offers up a face of democracy as viewed through a glass, darkly. Experts say this is designed to give him cover as a democratic leader at home while allowing him to do pretty much what he wants elsewhere.
“The space he holds on the democratic scale, he is not a full-blown authoritarian leader. He doesn’t have the same means available to oppress his people. He still has democratic elements, even though they’re vanishing,” says Stefanie Kasparek, an assistant professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania who studies international political institutions.
Not that Putin has worried excessively about appearing democratic. At home, he has spent years harshly stamping out both public dissent and political opposition, targeting rivals and jailing opposition party leader Alexei Navalny, whom the Kremlin declared a terrorist last month. Nevertheless, says Kasparek, “There are democratic elements that he can’t fully ignore.”
That was illustrated Tuesday when Russia’s upper legislative house, the Federation Council, voted unanimously to allow Putin to use military force outside the country. Yet the ask – largely pro forma, given Putin’s level of authority – gave him cover to say that his actions were endorsed by democratic systems within his own nation.
“Democracy led to Putin being in power in the first place and has served him considerably as a tool to keep power,” Crystal Brown, a political and social scientist at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts who studies the effect of institutions on global political systems, said in an email.
Why is the appearance of democracy – or, at least, the surface reliance on it even when a leader’s actions seem undemocratic – so important? It’s a complex question.
In Putin’s case, while his through-line may be a glorious re-aggregation of the Soviet Union, he is playing to a domestic audience that includes many who turned their back on that same communist-era collection of republics – and in some cases did so using democracy as a North Star. To them, the principle is important.
So Putin deploys raw power externally, in everything from his approach in Crimea to the online attacks on U.S. elections – and thus is able to flout the West, which holds itself up as democracy’s standard-bearer. Internally, he is constrained by the support he needs from those inside Russia wary of dictatorial authority being used against them.
This two-pronged approach to democracy – making a show of upholding the very tenets one is violating – is hardly limited to Putin. It has played out in other nations, with sometimes chaotic outcomes.
In the United States, for example, Trump’s baseless allegations of fraud in the 2020 election won by Joe Biden – an attempt to wipe away a democratic process – helped fuel the rage that produced the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters trying to overturn the outcome. Through it, Trump insisted he was the champion of democracy, not the one getting in its way.
“Everywhere these men make the same basic argument: The ‘neoliberal’ order merely pretends to be democratic, when in fact it is run by representatives of the ‘deep state’ who conspire to steal from ordinary people and undermine social order through the destruction of traditional moral values,” Hanson says.
“They portray themselves as the unique saviors of the traditional nation, and demand unconditional personal loyalty from all who serve them,” he said in an email. “That such a recipe for the destruction of democratic institutions has proven to be so potent around the world is one of the most remarkable developments of the early 21st century.”
What, then, might the unfolding of the Ukraine saga mean for democracy writ large? Biden insists the outcome is certain: “In the contest between democracy and autocracy, between sovereignty and subjugation, make no mistake: Freedom will prevail,” Biden said in an address Thursday.
He made it sound obvious. But given recent years’ events – including those leading up to his inauguration – reality is less definitive. Democracy doesn’t always prevail. And even when it does take hold, its permanence isn’t guaranteed – a lesson that, just like during the Cold War, goes far beyond what’s happening in eastern Europe right now.
“The world does not want to enter into a large-scale conflict. That gives a lot of leeway for leaders to push those boundaries of democratic appearance without actually being democratic,” Kasparek says. “It’s effectively a game of chicken.”
In that metaphor, democracy itself is the car. But the problem with a game of chicken quickly becomes obvious: Eventually, inevitably, you crash.