Ukraine War Marks Watershed Moment for Democracies
As the world marks the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we can ask, are liberal democracies finally waking up to the challenges posed by autocratic revisionists, and how prepared are they to defend the liberal democratic order in the face of Putin and Xi’s intensifying authoritarianism?
The stark moral clarity of Ukraine’s plight and the existential security threat posed by Putin have made Russia’s invasion a decisive moment for the global liberal project to emerge stronger and more invigorated. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock spoke of the invasion as a “transatlantic moment”, a shared sentiment which led to the creation of the Munich Security Conferences “Transatlantic To-Do List”. The need for democratic states to strengthen multilateral efforts to protect the liberal rules based order is more critical than ever - Freedom House’s 2022 report on The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule recorded 16 consecutive years of democratic decline, and concluded that global freedom was under dire threat from the enemies of liberal democracies. Russia’s war on Ukraine is another brutal assault on democracy and a threat to global freedom.
Effectively, in an ever deepening democracy-autocracy binary, the war in Ukraine represents a broader battle between liberal democratic and autocratic power blocks. The strategic balancing of democracies against Putin is suggestive of a more values-based commitment to democracy and a tighter nexus between geopolitical and operational levels of democracy-related issues within the international system. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Joe Biden captured this binary when he said “we are engaged anew in a great battle for freedom. A battle between democracy and autocracy. Between liberty and repression.”
This reinvigorated commitment to defending the liberal order and democratic norms is also evident in the EU’s new Strategic Compass which affirmed that the European Union was “more united than ever” in its commitment to “intensify[ing] support for the global rules-based order” through multilateral cooperation with NATO, the UN and regional partners such as OSCe, AU and ASEAN as well as bilateral partners that “share the same values and interests”.
Russia’s aggression and Ukraine’s response have also forged a new sense of purpose into intergovernmental democratic groups such as the G7 and NATO. As indicated by the 2023 Munich Security Report, which was released earlier this month, in what NATO Secretary General Jens Stolenberg describes as “the biggest overhaul of our collective deterrence and defence since the Cold War”, NATO members have announced more forward-deployed combat formations and prepositioned equipment on the Eastern flank with the aim to increase forces from 40,000 to 300,000 troops.
Whilst Europe’s ability to respond to Putin’s aggression was hampered by Russia’s deep integration into the European economy, with Russia being the fifth largest partner for EU exports of goods and the third largest for EU import of goods in 2021 and the continent relying on Russia for about a third of its energy in 2020, European nations have mostly been unified in their pushback against Putin. Across Europe, traditionally neutral Finland and Sweden have provided lethal weapons to Ukraine and have greatly increased defence spending, and Italy - despite being heavily reliant on Russian energy - came out in support of sanctions and exported weapons to Ukraine.
To mark the one year anniversary of the invasion, the United Kingdom issued export bans on every item Russia has used on the battlefield and placed import bans of iron and steel goods in addition to already crippling economic sanctions. Germany, initially reluctant to support sanctions against Russia because of its heavy dependence on Russian energy, has agreed to provide military aid to Ukraine. Outside of Europe, forty countries have formed a Ukraine Consultative Group to demonstrate visible support for Ukraine and coordinate the supply of military equipment. Promisingly, there are suggestions of enhancing democratic support at the operational level with democracy funds. The United States has launched a $320 million European Democratic Resilience Initiative to address immediate and medium-term needs in Europe and Eurasia.
The invasion, having diminished Russia’s global status, has also led to the fracturing of the ‘authoritarian international’ which largely centres on the informal alliance between China and Russia and includes autocrats in smaller nondemocracies. This authoritarian coalition is fraying: pro-Russia and anti-immigrant Orbán, for example, treads a fine line, with Hungary’s dependence on EU financial assistance and the country’s own experience of a Soviet invasion in 1956 forcing the Hungarian Prime Minister to do a ‘180 degree turn’ on several issues. Alongside Burma and Serbia, Hungary also voted for the March 2 UN resolution demanding an end to the Russian invasion and, overall, the UN condemnation of the invasion was supported by 140 countries with just Belarus, North Korea, Russia and Syria voting against it. The war has also tested the strength of Xi and Putin’s “no limits” friendship. Xi, Putin’s “best friend”, must balance countervailing geopolitical and economic imperatives, resulting in rhetoric heavy but substance light support for Russia. As the war continues, it will be harder for Xi to sustain his balancing act, especially given that the legitimacy and growth of his regime depends on the US dominated global economy and access to markets, resources and technology. An expected meeting between Xi and Putin later this year may be an indication that Xi intends to abandon this balancing act, and to become more actively involved in Ukraine. US intelligence assessments suggest this closer involvement may include providing Russia with weapons and other military aid in order to prevent Russia’s total defeat and collapse.
Ukraine’s plight against Russia has provided an impetus for the world's democracies to unite and defend the rules based order against authoritarian regimes. Often, differing visions for the future of the international order and its principles are theoretical and clouded by jargonistic and abstract policy. Russia’s war in Ukraine has highlighted that the clash of these visions can become a matter of life and death.
Isabella Baker is a Dalyell scholar at the University of Sydney studying a Bachelor of Arts and Advanced Studies in Global and International Studies. She is interested in global affairs, national security and human rights with a particular focus on Australia’s relationship with China and the Indo-Pacific.