The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and the unexpectedly fierce Ukrainian resistance have had a transformative effect on world politics no less profound than the fall of communism in Central Europe in 1989. The invasion came at a moment of deep and widespread pessimism about the future of democracy. In an article published in the Journal of Democracy just a month before the invasion, Larry Diamond warned, “This is the darkest moment for freedom in half a century,” with democracy imperiled by a “global resurgence of authoritarianism” and increased collaboration to advance authoritarian norms and interests. This apprehension peaked on February 4 when Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping signed a joint statement that formally established a “no limits” strategic partnership between Russia and China to expand their global influence in what they called—ironically, as it would soon turn out—“a new era … of profound transformation.”
That transformation has not exactly turned out as intended. As Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told a joint session of the U.S. Congress in March, Russia’s aggression unleashed “a terror that Europe has not seen for 80 years.” The invasion transformed the geopolitics of Europe. It revitalized the NATO alliance, whose defensive raison d’être had been questioned since the end of the Cold War. It united the United States and its European allies on an agenda of aiding Ukraine, imposing sweeping financial and economic sanctions on Russia, and ending Western dependence on Russian oil and gas. And it impelled Germany to break with almost seven decades of military diffidence and perpetual rapprochement with the Soviet Union—and later with Putin’s Russia—by dramatically increasing its defense spending and agreeing to provide Ukraine with heavy weapons and other military equipment. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___
Alongside renewed American and European resolve, Ukraine’s courageous resistance has had the effect of reviving Western morale after an extended period of democratic crisis and seemingly inexorable authoritarian advance. Instead of appeasement and backsliding, which had become the norm, the Ukrainian people stood up and fought back with far more courage, resilience, and success than anyone had expected. Just two weeks into the war, Francis Fukuyama boldly, if perhaps a bit prematurely, predicted in these pages that Ukraine would win and that “a Russian defeat will … get us out of our funk about the declining state of democracy. The spirit of 1989 will live on,” he wrote, “thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians.”
Diamond’s hopes were also raised. He said the present moment “could represent a possible hinge of history” as significant as 1989 and “launch a new wave of democratic progress.” Lucan Way, writing in the Journal of Democracy, proclaimed that the war “could ultimately strengthen the liberal world order.” The optimism in the air was such that Alexander Cooley took to the pages of Foreign Affairs to warn against a new “irrational exuberance” that overlooked many continuing obstacles to liberal reform.
Zelenskyy quickly emerged as the most powerful and eloquent voice linking Ukraine’s struggle for survival to the defense of universal democratic values. “This is not a war of two armies,” he said. “This is a war of two worldviews.” He has spoken about this war in universal terms, telling the U.S. Congress that “the Ukrainian people are defending not only Ukraine; we are fighting for the values of Europe and the world, sacrificing our lives in the name of the future.”
Armies of Fortune
The war has now dragged on for five months, and we need to ask if Ukraine is, in fact, winning and if it will be able to expel the Russian aggressor over the longer term. It’s widely agreed that Ukraine didn’t just win the first three months of the war but that Russia lost it, in what Anders Åslund called “one of the most spectacular failures in contemporary military history.”
For the Ukrainians’ part, they have benefitted from eight years of training by at least eight NATO countries following Putin’s seizure of Crimea and intervention in the Donbas, as the Wall Street Journal reported recently. Ten thousand troops have annually absorbed the principles of empowering soldiers to think for themselves so that they can adapt quickly to the situation on the ground, employing noncommissioned officers as links between commanders and ground forces, and devolving tactical decisions as far down the chain of command as possible. In short, Ukraine’s military was transformed over the last eight years from a rigid, top-down, Soviet-styled army into an agile force that has been able to outmaneuver the Russians. Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhii calls this transformation “the miracle on the Dneiper” that produced “an army that no one ever knew existed fighting the most feared army in the world and winning.”
The heroic story of Ukraine’s military should not let us forget the country’s almost unimaginable suffering in this war. It has lost thousands of soldiers, many of them the most devoted of its youth who embodied hope for the country’s future. Tens of thousands of civilians have also been killed, and many millions of others have become refugees or been internally displaced. Ukraine’s economy has been shattered and is expected to contract this year by almost one-half. Yet the Ukrainians’ will to resist hasn’t flagged. There is a thirty-day waiting list of people wanting to enter military service and the country is having difficulty training all the new recruits. In addition, there are now more refugees returning to Ukraine from Poland than there are Ukrainians fleeing to Central Europe.
Facing Ukraine’s determined fighting force is a Russian army whose poor performance has shocked even keen military observers. The British military estimated the number of dead Russian soldiers after four months of fighting at twenty-five thousand, almost twice the number of troops the Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan over an entire decade. A searing briefing on the war in The Economist described “just how rotten” the Russian army has been, noting that much of Russia’s large defense budget is “squandered or stolen;” that senior army officers were kept in the dark about Putin’s invasion plans, “reflecting a crippling lack of trust;” that “disaffected troops … have deserted their vehicles;” that “units have tortured, raped and murdered only to be honored by the Kremlin;” and that Russia’s frustrated generals, “wallowing in corruption” and “unable to foster initiative or learn from their mistakes,” have fallen back on the barbaric practice of “flattening cities and terrorizing civilians.”
An astonishing twelve generals have been killed since the war began because, lacking a noncommissioned officers corps, Russia had to deploy top military officers to the front lines. It is this inept and criminal war that led the Russian diplomat Boris Bondarev to resign his post last month, saying that he had never been “so ashamed” of his country, and that Putin’s aggressive war “is not only a crime against the Ukrainian people, but also … against the people of Russia.”
Ukraine’s conduct of the war stands in sharp contrast with Russia’s assault on civilian targets like hospitals, schools, apartment buildings, and theaters, such as the recent Russian missile attack on Vinnytsia, which the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell called a “barbaric” war crime. Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Yevhen Yenin alleges that Russia has carried out over seventeen thousand strikes on civilian objects, many times greater than the attacks on military targets, which is why Zelenskyy has called for the United States and Europe to designate Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. Doing so would significantly increase sanctions on Russia and set the stage for eventual war crimes tribunals.
Putin’s gambit to regroup and concentrate his forces in eastern Ukraine under Aleksandr Dvornikov, aka the “butcher of Aleppo,” has also failed. Despite having an overwhelming advantage in artillery, Russia has not succeeded after three months of renewed fighting to encircle the Ukrainians, and whatever success it has had in pushing them back has cost the Russians dearly. In May Putin dismissed Dvornikov amid reports of his excessive drinking and lack of trust among Russian forces. According to former U.S. general and CIA director David Petraeus, Russian losses every day in the Donbas have been greater than the losses suffered by all U.S. and coalition forces during the worst month of the surge in Iraq in 2007. Brookings military specialist Pavel Baev has said that Russian tactical gains may actually “bring strategic defeat closer.” Petraeus shares that view: He predicted on CNN recently that Ukraine would launch a counteroffensive after Russia had spent its forces in the Donbas and that Ukraine would ultimately win the war.
Meanwhile, Putin has still not ordered a general mobilization to replace heavy losses because such a move would be extremely unpopular. He has instead resorted to a “stealth mobilization” by seeking recruits from impoverished ethnic minorities, offering cash bonuses for volunteers many times the $700 average monthly salary, raising the age of eligible service, and other measures. There have been dozens of arson and Molotov cocktail attacks on military enlistment centers, and Russian military bloggers have documented judicial proceedings against soldiers and officers who have deserted or refused orders to fight.
Such severe manpower and morale problems raise questions about Russia’s ability to sustain a war of attrition. Though Ukraine is much smaller and has suffered grievously, it can sustain such a war because it is fighting a whole-of-society struggle for national survival. Its frontline troops are backed up by partisan warriors in occupied areas in the south whose acts of sabotage and assassination include even a seemingly friendly old lady in Izyum who (according to an Economist report) killed eight Russian soldiers by feeding them poisoned pies. Ukraine also has a vibrant civil society that is doing everything from documenting war crimes to coordinating humanitarian assistance. Early in the Donbas siege, when many wounded Ukrainian soldiers were dying of blood loss, one activist got ahold of NATO standard first aid kits, taught medics how to use them, and thereby helped reduce Ukrainian losses.
The war could now be reaching a turning point. Russia’s current strategy of advancing incrementally in the Donbas under cover of massive artillery has created a stalemate. For Ukraine to regain the momentum it had in the conflict’s initial phase, the West will have to provide it with the heavy weapons it needs—especially High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), long-range artillery, and electronic warfare equipment—to take the offensive and expel Russia from the territories it has occupied. While training is a factor in the speed of weaponry transfers, strategic considerations are paramount: The West needs to decide that Ukraine’s winning the war is necessary, and that it will be much harder for this to happen—and for Ukraine to rebuild afterwards—if the war is allowed to become a bloody and devastating stalemate.
The Ukrainians have only just received—and been trained to use—the first of twenty HIMARS, which will finally give them the ability to target and destroy fixed Russian artillery as well as ammunition depots, troop concentrations, command posts, and air defenses. All reports indicate that they’ve used these weapons with great effectiveness to dislocate Russian forces, degrade Russia’s ability to use mass artillery strikes to clear the way for advancing infantry, and enable more Ukrainian aircraft to fly sorties into occupied territories.
With the HIMARS, howitzers, and other new weapons that it is receiving, Ukraine is now in a position to retake Kherson, which is the economic and administrative center of the land bridge Russia wants to establish between the Donbas and Crimea. Liberating Kherson, which has experienced Bucha-like atrocities, would restore Ukrainian momentum and signal that a future offensive can begin liberating all the territories that Russia has occupied in the south. This is a feasible objective if the West decides that any outcome short of expelling Russia from the territories occupied since February 24 will only prolong the war.
By giving Ukraine candidate status, the European Union is now tied as never before to its success. The EU would much prefer that Ukraine join not as a broken country crippled by frozen conflicts in Russian-occupied territories, but as a secure, sovereign, and democratic state. While it will take years of negotiations before Ukraine becomes a member state of the EU, its formal candidacy is already a major defeat for Russia. Its integration into Europe will transform the entire region and could also have an important impact on events elsewhere.
When I attended a conference in Ukraine in 2014 shortly after the Maidan Uprising, I was struck when the Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt called Ukraine “the epicenter of the global struggle for democracy.” He didn’t elaborate on the point, but I’ve quoted it many times since and think it’s even more relevant today than it was then. Ukraine’s vote for independence in December 1991 precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin and the current Russian establishment hope to reverse that “catastrophe” and restore the Russian Empire—perhaps even to expand it. As Putin once said, “the borders of Russia never end.”
Which Russia, Which Future?
The restoration of the Russian and Soviet empires in the postcolonial era seems like a wildly unrealistic goal. Russia is not only a shrunken power compared to the Soviet Union but is politically isolated, economically in decline, militarily far weaker than had been previously assumed, and facing an existential demographic crisis intensified by the recent flight of hundreds of thousands of young people and middle-class professionals. While it still remains a danger to its neighbors and has used the weaponization of energy and food resources as well as nuclear bullying to paralyze opposition to its expansion, there are signs that its threats are backfiring. For example, though Kazakhstan is part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led rival to NATO, it immediately ruled out sending troops to support the invasion of Ukraine, has refused to recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics as independent states, and has announced that it will send more oil and gas to Europe to lessen its dependence on Russian energy.
An imperial Russia cannot survive if it does not control Ukraine and have the ability to impose its will on the entire region and beyond. There is simply no compromise solution to end this war with an imperial Russia that is controlled by Putin and like-minded Russian nationalists. If Russia is allowed to remain in control of any territories it has occupied since the invasion, this would negate the principles that aggression doesn’t pay, that might does not make right, and that rules and laws matter. A Russian-controlled grey zone in Ukraine would be a launching pad for future acts of aggression, and not just against Ukraine.
A Russian defeat, on the other hand, would have broadly positive political implications for the future of democracy. It would weaken Russia, which Lilia Shevtsova once called “an advance combat unit of the new global authoritarianism.” It would set back, if not cripple, the axis of autocracy between Russia and China. It could possibly set in motion changes within China itself. Confidence in the Chinese Communist Party’s performance is now being eroded by a sharp drop in economic growth, and Xi is coming under criticism in the lead-up to the 20th Party Congress in November for his “no limits” deal with Putin and the harsh isolation procedures of his “zero-Covid” policy.
Ukraine’s successful resistance could also embolden democrats in other regions, and it could even reverse the sixteen-year decline of democracy that has been chartered by Freedom House. Samuel Huntington noted in his famous book, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late 20th Century, that the Second Wave began in 1943, when the tide of battle in Europe began to change in favor of the Allies. Major wars can have that effect, since they shift the political and geopolitical currents in the world that affect the struggle for democracy. This war truly has the potential to be, as Diamond suggested, a “hinge of history.”
A new report from the European Council on Foreign Relations, based on a pan-European opinion poll, suggests that Europe’s break with Russia is irreversible. The hostility toward Russia built up over decades in some countries has been vividly expressed by the messages inscribed on munitions provided to Ukraine. Those on the missiles from the Czech Republic read, “For the execution of the Prague Spring of 1968.” The Dutch have written “Revenge for MH17” on the shells they’ve sent. And the Poles have signed ammunition with the bitter rebuke, “For Katyn.”
Of course, we have to leave open the possibility that Russia can change and that its traumatic defeat, which is a precondition for such change, would lead to a new reckoning with history and the enduring legacy of Russian imperialism. Is it not possible that Russians can come to the realization that continuing to stoke the “embers of empire,” in the words of Kenya’s ambassador to the UN Mbugua Martin Kimani, would lead to the country’s total ruin? I realize that the prospects for positive change in Russia are now very dim, and that they have been made even darker by the flight of so many who reject Putin’s suicidal course. But I think it would be a mistake to abandon dissidents like Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza who have defined moral courage for a new generation of Russians. They believe that they and other Russian democrats can play a role in shaping a different future for their country, and they deserve our continued support.
Such hopeful possibilities and the security threat that Russia continues to pose indicate the enormity of the stake that the West has in the outcome of the war. British war studies expert Lawrence Freedman said recently that Western commitments are now such that “a Ukrainian defeat would look like a NATO defeat.” It would also be a defeat for democracy and the preservation of a stable world order. Putin is counting on the resolve of the United States and EU to weaken in the months ahead as energy prices rise and inflation and food shortages get worse. The danger of “Ukraine fatigue” is real. But given the stakes, and the fact that it is Ukraine that is paying the ultimate price to defend our values and security interests, this is a test that the West can and must meet. The alternative would be moral and strategic disaster.
Carl Gershman is the former president of the National Endowment for Democracy. This essay is adapted from the author’s Ralf Dahrendorf Memorial Lecture at the Estoril Political Forum in June.
Image: A firefighter carries books away from the remains of a house following a Russian attack in Chernihiv, Ukraine, April 22, 2022. (Flickr: Manhhai)
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