Democracy has been on the decline worldwide for more than 15 years
With major organizations like NATO and the United Nations not being able to put an end to the senseless invasion and unprovoked violence in Ukraine, one may wonder whether these systems ever work. Sanctions upon sanctions have still not been able to discourage the Kremlin, with Putin's violent intentions peaking by putting Russia's nuclear forces on immediate alert.
Ukrainians have taken cover in underground metro stations as bomb shelters with little to no food. Foreign students are scrambling to get flights home while any are available despite airspace restrictions due to heavy air combat. Thousands of locals have crossed borders into neighbouring countries such as Poland and Romania. With men between 18-60 required to stay in Ukraine to fight, the majority of these migrants are women and children, some of whom were personally and tearfully escorted by their husbands and fathers, not knowing when they will meet the next time, or if they will ever meet again. Casualties are mounting, with low official counts and thousands yet to be officially tallied. The nation's key internet backbone was damaged, leading to a loss of connectivity across entire regions. Upon request, Tesla's Elon Musk swiftly reconnected them via his Starlink satellite systems. Oil tanks and gas pipelines have been attacked and burn away as we speak, setting the stage for an ecological disaster for years to come. The Chernobyl nuclear facility, the site of one of the worst nuclear disasters in history, particularly Reactor #4, is now reporting higher levels of radiation due to the presence of heavy military vehicles on the surrounding soil. While no nation in the world would ever be keen to engage in nuclear warfare, Putin's latest warning has sparked international concern, increasing the possibilities of a nuclear attack.
While Putin had estimated overthrowing the Ukrainian government within 72 hours, Ukrainians' belief in their President and the army has skyrocketed, with the majority of Ukrainians in favour of Ukrainian President Zelensky, with men and women both eagerly signing up to fight, patrolling the street with rifles in their hands. Pictures and videos can be seen online of regular civilians trying to push back and stop Russian tanks from rolling into their neighbourhoods with their bare hands. While the spirit of victory is high amongst Ukrainians with civil forces giving the Russians a ferocious resistance despite a slow international response providing ineffective diplomatic sanctions that didn't meet the moment where they should have, a significant delay in providing arms and ammunition with initial refusals leaving Ukraine to defend themselves alone in the first days of the invasion, and a failed United Nations Security Council vote aimed at holding Russia accountable which was vetoed by Russia themselves, the majority of Ukrainians still believe they will win, with all major cities, especially the capital of Kyiv, which was (and still is) being bombarded the most with actor-turned-President Zelensky and his family being the primary target, still in full Ukrainian control.
As the world watches from the sidelines, there is much to learn - from how to handle diplomatic relations better to developing more secure and environmentally-friendly energy policy. Most importantly, the world can also take leadership lessons from President Zelensky. As Zelensky, for the people of Ukraine, has reluctantly decided to engage in peace talks with Russia at the Ukrainian-Belarus border by the iconic river despite knowing the likely outcome, Belarus, a Russian accomplice which has now been sanctioned as well, still fires missiles as Ukraine despite providing reassurances that such things won't happen until the peace talks take place.
But how did we end up here, and how has the situation escalated so viciously?
Democracy has been on the decline worldwide for more than 15 years. One major reason is the growing ruthlessness of authoritarian leaders, particularly Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, geopolitical trends of the past two decades can help explain Russia's barbaric invasion of Ukraine.
As per the NYTimes, Putin has spent more than two decades consolidating power, rebuilding Russia’s military, and weakening his enemies. He has repeatedly undermined democratic movements and popular uprisings, including those in Syria and Belarus. He has meddled in Western elections. And he has deployed Russian troops to enforce his will, including in Georgia and Crimea.
The invasion of Ukraine — the largest war in Europe since World War II — is a significant escalation of this behavior. The country’s fall would mark a violent end to one of the world’s democracies.
Maneuvers like Putin’s, as well as insufficient pushback from other governments, have fostered this global democratic decline, experts say. Just one in five people now live in countries designated as “free,” down from nearly one in two in 2005, a new report from Freedom House found.
The invasion of Ukraine is “a taste of what a world without checks on antidemocratic behavior would look like,” Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, told NYTimes' German Lopez. He remains hopeful that democracies will rally to impose serious penalties on Russia, signaling that they will not tolerate Putin’s behavior. But, he warned, “if they don’t, this is going to set the world back in a major way — not just for democracy, but for the rule of law.”
The collapse of the Soviet Union more than three decades ago gave birth to democracies across Eastern Europe — and to Putin’s grievances. He once described the Soviet breakup as “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” — a time period that included two world wars and the Holocaust. He has suggested he wants to reverse that collapse.
Putin’s complaints are less ideological — he is not a communist, and has not ruled like one — and more self-interested: He wants to protect his hold on power as well as further Russia’s global reach, which would increase support for him at home.
But the effect of his rule has been to undermine democracy globally. After Georgia moved to join NATO, with the support of voters, Russia invaded in 2008 and has meddled in the country’s politics ever since. Russia has worked with autocratic leaders to help crush democracies and protests where Putin believes that his country has security or economic interests, including in Kazakhstan and Venezuela.
He has also tried to destabilize democracies in the West — by interfering in elections in the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, among other nations.
In Ukraine, Russia’s meddling in the 2004 presidential contest helped spawn protests against corruption and for fair elections, a movement known as the Orange Revolution. In another round of protests a decade later, Ukrainians overthrew a pro-Russian government and replaced it with one closer to Europe and the West.
Russia responded by invading and annexing Crimea, in southern Ukraine, and by backing separatists in the east, who have fought a grinding war against the Ukrainian government ever since. Now, Putin is trying to seize control of all of Ukraine.
Democracy has also declined globally because democratic leaders have done too little to stand up for themselves, the Freedom House report argued.
As is now clear, the world’s response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula was not enough to deter Putin from going further. Even the sanctions imposed on Russia after its full assault on Ukraine this week stopped short of maximum punishment, sparing much of the Russian energy sector that Europe’s economy still relies on.
At the same time, autocratic governments have increasingly worked together, using their collective economic and political power to create a cushion against punishments from other governments. China approved Russian wheat imports this past week, effectively softening the impact of the West’s new sanctions.
Authoritarians have also abandoned pretenses of democratic norms. Putin, as well as rulers in Nicaragua, Venezuela and elsewhere, once tried to at least maintain the appearance of free and fair elections, but now they regularly jail political opponents, denying the opposition the ability to campaign.
All of these moves have shown other leaders with authoritarian aspirations what they can do as the liberal democratic order loses its sway.
In that context, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is part of a broader test: whether the global erosion of democracy will continue unchecked.