This past week, Russia has continued to move men and materials to the borders of Ukraine, and has not backed down from its threats to take direct action if its demands on the United States and NATO are not met. The Biden administration has engaged President Putin and the Russian side both in bilateral talks, and in multilateral discussions involving NATO and the OSCE. To date, the administration has taken a relatively tough position: it has rejected Russian demands to never expand NATO in the future, has upped the amount of military hardware promised to Kyiv, and has prepared a detailed list of sanctions, including forcing the abandonment of the Nord Stream II pipeline, in the event of a Russian attack. The Europeans, and particularly the Germans, have been much less resolute: cracks have appeared in the new coalition government between the SPD and the Greens, with Green Party leader and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock taking a much clearer stand against Russia than Chancellor Olaf Scholz. None of this, however, has led to any signs that Putin is looking for a way out of this self-created crisis.
With an invasion possibly imminent, this is a good time to put forward the case for why Ukraine’s sovereignty and survival should mean a lot to other liberal democracies.
Ukraine is a country to which I have dedicated a huge amount of time and effort over the past seven years. At the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford, we have had a long line of Ukrainian Draper Hills Summer Fellows—people like Mustafa Nayyem, Svitlana Zalishchuk, and Serhiy Leshchenko—who went on to play important roles both in the 2013–14 Revolution of Dignity (or Maidan Revolution) and in subsequent reform efforts. (Serhiy was key in exposing Rudy Giuliani’s nefarious activities in Ukraine, for which he was castigated by the Trump crowd.) With the support of the Center for International Private Enterprise and the Ukrainian Catholic University, we have taught a series of Leadership Academy for Development courses in different Ukrainian cities, and at this point have well over 150 alumni. And five years ago we started the Ukrainian Emerging Leaders program, in which we bring three mid-career Ukrainians to Stanford for a whole academic year.
There is one fundamental reason why the United States and the rest of the democratic world should support Ukraine in its current fight with Putin’s Russia: Ukraine is a real, but struggling, liberal democracy. People are free in Ukraine in a way they are not in Russia: they can protest, criticize, mobilize, and vote. In 2018 they voted for a complete outsider to be president, and turned over a majority of their parliament. On two occasions, during the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, Ukrainian civil society came into the streets in massive numbers to protest corrupt and unrepresentative governments.
This is the real reason that Vladimir Putin is preparing to further invade Ukraine. He sees Ukraine as an integral part of a greater Russia, as he indicated in a long article last summer. But the deeper problem for him is Ukrainian democracy. He is heavily invested in the idea that Slavic peoples are culturally attuned to authoritarian government, and the idea that another Slavic state could successfully transition to democracy undermines his own claims for ruling Russia. Ukraine presents zero military threat to Moscow; it does, however, pose an alternative ideological model that erodes Putin’s own legitimacy.
Ukraine is at the same time a highly flawed democracy. Its economy and politics are dominated by a handful of oligarchs, each of whom acquired a key industrial sector, also own a media company and TV station, and can buy the support of deputies in the parliament. Corruption is endemic in many parts of the Ukrainian political system, beginning with its judiciary and extending through much of its bureaucracy and political class.
Since 2014, there have been major efforts at reform: authority was devolved to provinces and cities; there was an effort at land reform; an anti-corruption agency was established, and the central bank and parts of the health system were modernized. But each advance has been bitterly resisted by politicians and officials who profit off of the current system and have been largely unaccountable. The hopes engendered by Volodymyr Zelensky’s election have been betrayed as the newcomers in his own party have been swallowed up by the system. Even in the midst of an existential crisis for his country, the Ukrainian president is pursuing a campaign to prosecute his immediate predecessor for treason.
It is reasonable to ask whether it is worthwhile investing time and effort in protecting such a flawed democracy. I personally have no reservations whatsoever about this. My view has been shaped by the young Ukrainians I have met and worked with over the past few years. There is a younger generation coming up that does not want to be part of the old corrupt system, that believes in European values, and that wants nothing more than for Ukraine to become part of Europe. These Ukrainians are extremely well educated and highly motivated. They are the ones who have led the Maidan Revolution and who are at the forefront of the effort to make Ukraine part of Europe. Their generation will gradually come to power, and will hopefully exercise power more democratically than their predecessors.
Ukraine today is the frontline state in the global geopolitical struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. Europeans who value liberal democracy for themselves need to understand that they cannot be bystanders in this conflict. Putin has ambitions well beyond Ukraine; he has made clear in recent weeks that he would like to reverse the gains to European democracy since 1991 and create a Russian sphere of influence throughout the territory of the former Warsaw Pact. Beyond Europe, the Chinese are watching how the West responds in this crisis very closely, as they calculate their prospects for reincorporating Taiwan. This is why the defense of Ukraine should be of urgent importance to anyone who cares about global democracy.
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