Supporting Democracy After the Invasion of Ukraine
Ken Godfrey and Richard Youngs
While international attention remains focused on immediate operational events in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the crisis also raises questions about longer-term trends. One part of the war narrative conjures a sharpened contest between democratic values and authoritarian systems of governance beyond Ukraine. Some see Russia’s violence as another and more dramatic challenge to democratic values. Others believe that the democratic community of states could emerge revitalized from the horrendous conflict.
While the war persists, it is premature to reach any firm judgment on such questions, and support to those in need should take precedence given the sheer scale of human suffering. Yet, it is helpful to begin mapping out what trends might take shape, to plan for the near future. One specific dimension of these trends relates to the future of democratic governance and international policies in support of democracy. Will the invasion prompt democratic powers to strengthen their commitments to defend and extend democratic values? Could it have the opposite effect, as geopolitical calculations take center stage? What lessons do decisionmakers need to take on board with regard to the strategies that democracy-support organizations deploy? And what does the war mean for nondemocratic states?
Carnegie and the European Partnership for Democracy asked experts and practitioners prominent in this field to reflect on these questions and offer short comments on how they think the invasion might reshape international policies and democratic support.
Democracy Protection and Its Challenges
Julia Leininger and Staffan I. Lindberg
If there is a silver lining to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, it is that leaders in democracies have woken up. Let us hope that their newfound realization of just how stark the threat to democracy and freedom is across the world lasts.
Geostrategic shifts have put democracy back at the center of global politics. Institutes such as Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) and Freedom House have documented the fast derailment of democracy. Scholars have provided evidence of a “third wave of autocratization,” with more countries than ever since 1900 now turning toward autocracy.
The Russian war against Ukraine may be a game changer. A global power’s military invasion of a democracy is a demonstration to democracies worldwide that autocracies are a danger to peace and are not to be trusted in international cooperation. The dialogue that began with the December 2021 Summit for Democracy now seems to be gaining momentum. This is good, but will it last? And will it mean that the EU and other actors are ready to clean up their acts at home as well? Critically, policymakers and practitioners must be willing to commit to a strategic change from democracy support to democracy protection.
There are opportunities for international democracy promotion, but getting it right will not be easy. Democracy promotion has lost credibility and priority over the past decade. Reviving it requires a strategic turnaround that focuses on protecting against autocratization. The question democracy promoters must ask is no longer simply “How do we support democratization?” but “How can we foster resilient democracies and protect shaky ones from autocratization?”
The answer includes developing strategies that halt or help reverse processes of autocratization, which are typically driven by incumbent governments. This must be done sensitively and will be controversial. Strategies that combine diplomatic and developmental means—sticks and carrots—have proved successful against the reform projects of “wannabe autocrats” in the Global South.
Yet, the situation also presents another critical challenge, and the question here is whether established democracies are ready do their homework. That is because they, too, are part of the global trend toward autocracy. According to the V-Dem Institute’s Democracy Report 2022, 20 percent of EU members are in processes of autocratization. While the EU defends democratic values by supporting Ukraine, the bloc is only just getting to grips with democracy protection within its borders. Hungary has been an electoral autocracy since 2019, but the EU has not imposed any noticeable consequences yet. Although at the end of April 2022 the European Commission triggered the rule-of-law mechanism that will restrict the flow of EU funds to Hungary, it remains unclear what punitive action—if any—will follow from this.
Dealing with flawed and failing democracies openly and seeing Western nations as part of the problem and not just the solution for democracy protection must be parts of the way forward. Otherwise, societies and political elites in the Global South, which are often skeptical of liberal democracy and the promotion of democracy, are not likely to be convinced. But it is vital to defend the achievements of democratization and protect democracy worldwide.
Building Lasting Change out of Appalling Conflict
The Russian invasion of Ukraine violently illustrates what is at stake in the contest between democratic and autocratic governance. Lives are being sacrificed to preserve Ukraine’s freedom. But observers in other democracies now see that their freedoms are at stake, too, and that democratic values are a strategic priority—not a nice-to-have once the business of realpolitik is finished. Universal rights link directly with national well-being, so the West needs to recalibrate its whole approach to security.
Read the democracy indices and you will see that the decline in democratic governance in the world started fifteen years ago. Read them closely and you will see that the decline was not just in Russia but in almost every region, including Europe. But like the frog in the frying pan, the West did not feel the heat until it was almost too late and the risks in the rise of authoritarianism turned out to be higher than previously thought.
Economics was at the heart of this. Those in developed economies had a collective moment of having their cake and eating it too: they strengthened economic links with kleptocrats while ignoring the fact that they were funding a growing threat to their own values. Sometimes it was assumed that globalization would spread democracy without anyone having to do the hard work of supporting, sustaining, and strengthening it. So, what should the West do differently?
First, define the challenge clearly. The fight for democracy is a campaign, not a war. It involves shifting norms and behaviors in whole societies. Western governments need to be persuasive, patient, and persistent by supporting local reformers while shifting the international dial on democratic standards. They will also need to be strategic, as competitors have been active where the West has pulled back; and while every country is important, change in some will shift a whole region.
Second, a long-term campaign means that democracy supporters must be honest about trade-offs and smart about redlines. Western governments cannot shut down relations with every country that falls short of international democratic standards, not least because almost every country falls short in some way. But they can find smart ways of integrating democratic governance into all of their external relations. European governments can use democracy impact audits to consider the effects that actions have on democratic governance and find win-win approaches. For example, it is possible to build the need for legislative oversight into international health programs and integrate the need for a civil society voice into negotiations on trade agreements. In other words, Western governments can do development democratically.
Third, democracy supporters can work directly with the institutions that create resilient democracies: parliaments, political parties, free media, judicial systems, and civil society. That work involves personal engagement, because strengthening democracy requires not only technical fixes but also a democratic culture. Democracy supporters need to share their experiences and help highly skilled leaders in partner countries to find tailored solutions. Soft power—democratic influence through example and engagement—should aim for normative rather than nationalist impact.
This is a moment of opportunity. All the major transatlantic leaders—in the EU, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom—are navigating transitions in their foreign and development policies. If they work together by setting strategic goals and supporting the kaleidoscope of organizations that can engage around the world, they can truly build lasting change out of appalling conflict.
Ukraine and Democracy: The Broader International Impact
It has been said before, but it bears repeating: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is an attack not just on a peaceful, democratic neighbor but on democracy itself. Ukraine may be a flawed democracy, but it is nevertheless a democracy. People can discuss freely and decide through elections who governs them. In Russia, the government decides the outcomes of elections and sets narrow limits on what can and cannot be said in public, with severe punishment for those who transgress. Since Putin’s consistent narrative considers Ukraine an integral, historical part of the Russian motherland, ordinary Russians might wonder why they cannot enjoy the same latitude and rights as their southern brethren. That would constitute a fundamental threat to the regime.
The mistake of the West—and of the rest of the world insofar as it stopped to contemplate deteriorating Russia-Ukraine relations—was to misjudge the rationale behind the war. Of course, the toxic mix of romanticized Mother Russia nostalgia and opportunistic land grabbing was an important driver. But paradoxically, the aggression can also be seen as a sign of weakness: a brutal attempt to stamp out a dangerous example on Russia’s doorstep. Sadly, the devastation in Mariupol, the outrages in Bucha, and the wanton missile attack on the Kramatorsk train station all bear witness to this strategy.
The spectacular ineptitude of the Russian forces and the bravery of the Ukrainian defense may now have saved Ukraine and changed the situation back into a classic though very difficult equation of land and security. Nevertheless, the world now needs to heed the lessons of this brutal experience—for democracy and for the rules-bound international order.
The UN General Assembly resolutions on Ukraine adopted in March and April 2022 were an impressive display of international support for the country, but they point to one of two major challenges ahead. The many abstentions in the votes on the resolutions should serve as a warning: with a few shining exceptions, democracy did not resonate strongly, even among its self-declared leaders in the Global South, like India and South Africa. Sovereignty and territorial integrity took center stage, and too often, the invasion was seen as just another standoff between Russia and the West.
If the Europeans want to stop the slide toward a new cold war between the West and an autocratic bloc, which would jeopardize the fundamental principles of international intercourse, they must reach out more actively and effectively to extend support for these principles, including democracy and fundamental rights. U.S. President Joe Biden’s December 2021 Summit for Democracy initiative provides a timely basis on which to develop and broaden partnerships globally.
The defense of democratic principles is important but must be backed up by vigorous—and generous—support for democratic institutions and practice around the world. This is a time to redouble cooperation on governance, not to let it slip in the face of realpolitik. The EU’s Team Europe Democracy initiative is promising in this respect, as it allows for increased backing for those who seek to strengthen governance and stand up for democracy. Conversely, those who flout democratic principles and ignore UN calls for action should not be surprised to see the EU reduce its engagement or redirect it to civil society and other actors.
The second major challenge that is already visible is the temptation to address constraints, for example on energy supplies, with short-term fixes with awkward partners. This is not a time to go soft on President Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela or on the practices of other ill-governed countries. Autocrats around the world are watching and will draw comfort, even inspiration, from any signs of accommodation. Democracy defenders, rights activists, and other civil society actors are equally watching and hoping they will not lose their sources of inspiration and support. The West’s credibility is at stake. This is not, and never was, a choice between a values- and an interest-based policy; values are democracies’ most fundamental interest.
A Fork in the Road
History books of the future will mark the period from late 1989 to early 2022 as one chapter, titled “The Building of Democracy and European Stability” or something similar. Horrible things happened in this period, too—such as the wars in the former Yugoslavia—but the trend pointed toward a continent in democratic peace. Borders were largely respected, and for EU citizens they became almost invisible.
The decline started in the 2010s. The United Kingdom voted to leave the EU, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ruled in a manner that made EU accession impossible, extremist governments in the EU started destroying the rule of law, many Europeans followed their American friends down the cultural warpath toward extreme polarization, and Russian President Vladimir Putin started his attacks on Ukraine.
When Russia launched its full assault on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, it closed the chapter. Russia’s imminent threat upends all ideas of a common European home. Europe’s primary peace project, the EU, is suddenly mobilizing weapons to help Ukraine defend itself. Pan-European norms and bodies like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe or the Council of Europe played no role in preventing the onslaught.
What will the war in Ukraine do to democracy and human rights around the globe? If Russia loses fast and Putin falls from power, democracy will rebound. Russia is the most aggressive authoritarian state, meddling in dozens of countries in support of allied strongmen. Putin’s fall would send a powerful signal of the failure of dictatorship. Democracy would gain a breathing space.
The other plausible scenarios—a prolonged war or an uneasy ceasefire between Ukraine and Russia—would present a fork in the road for democracy. Yes, Putin’s reputation and ability to project power have suffered already, but they will not disappear. Europe’s extreme right is not discouraged; it has hardly been bothered by the Russian war. These scenarios would present a choice between two schools of thought for those who stand for democracy: hard-power advocates and democratic realists.
The hard-power advocates would argue: Our aim is to keep Russia weak. We must build up our defenses to deter the Kremlin from more attacks on Ukraine or other European countries. We will work with any government around the world that helps us against Russia. We will work with any dictatorship that can sell us gas, oil, or other resources we need to reduce our dependence on Russia.
The democratic realists would say: Sure, we need to deter Russia, but this is the twenty-first century and we cannot just repeat the Cold War. We need to take people’s agency seriously and care about what is going on in other countries. Democracy and human rights are not nice-to-haves; they are part of global security. They are as much hard-power issues as is the number of missiles a government has. Countries that slide into dictatorship are a present danger for all.
Democratic realists would support and care about people. They would not mistake today’s world for a nineteenth-century chess game among governments. But they would also understand that many threats, especially the climate emergency, need the cooperation of all governments, even authoritarian ones. People’s well-being requires it. The early skirmishes of these schools of thought are appearing in newspaper opinions and political declarations, and it will become a noisy battle. I hope the democratic realists will win.
Sharpening the Case for EU Democracy Support
Against a backdrop of democratic deterioration around the world, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine suggests a different kind of dynamic: when democracy takes root—albeit imperfectly—in one country, this can present a serious threat to authoritarianism in another. This dynamic underscores the strategic importance of supporting democracy systematically, steadily, and with a long-term perspective.
The current crisis in Ukraine needs to give democracy-support efforts a shot in the arm. The war is the latest in a chain of tragic political events. Myanmar, Mali, the Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Guinea, and Tunisia have all received significant democracy-support assistance, yet they all suffered autocratic regime changes in 2021. The invasion of Ukraine is unfolding just when many have raised questions about the very idea of democracy support.
These crises foreground the difficulties involved in responding to short-term humanitarian needs while maintaining a long-term commitment to supporting democracies worldwide. Achieving a balance between these imperatives is impossible without better coordination among donors. In other words, democracy support is functioning in increasingly difficult circumstances and is unlikely to achieve results unless all actors involved work together more systematically and strategically.
To address these complexities, in November 2021 the European Commission launched the Team Europe Democracy (TED) initiative as an attempt to improve the democracy-support efforts of the EU and its member states by working better together. The initiative aims to have a transformational global effect on democracies by targeting traditional areas of democratic development, such as political and civic participation, the rule of law, and accountability, as well as newer and increasingly relevant fields, like media and digitization. The TED initiative needs to lead to more efficient and coordinated democracy-support actions worldwide.
TED provides an inclusive and flexible platform for EU institutions, member states, and civil society organizations to exchange information, coordinate actions, and create joint narratives about democracy’s benefits. Fourteen EU member states are now involved in the initiative, including the EU’s biggest democracy-support donors: Germany, France, and Sweden.
Just as TED is being set up, the invasion of Ukraine dramatically raises the stakes for EU democracy support. The fact that TED was already in the pipeline gives the union a tool with which to respond to the crisis. But it also means that the initiative will need to adapt and prove itself relevant in a context in which urgent short-term priorities could easily displace attention on democracy support.
The new context makes TED even more important in many ways. As European donors redirect funds in the short term to cover humanitarian needs related to the invasion, they will need to ensure maximum impact from each euro they spend on democracy support. The crisis in Ukraine is evidence of the dangers of authoritarianism to international peace and security. As such, fighting authoritarianism by increasing democracy-support efforts should be a strategic priority. TED offers a space in which to discuss democracy support in such strategic terms. The conflict is an incentive for some EU member states on the front line, like Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland, to be more active in this area. The crisis could also prompt improvements in the ways that democracies are supported.
There are risks as well. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will create further international antagonism along geopolitical lines. This tension will emphasize the political aspects of democracy support and could drag it into complex strategic rivalries. Ultimately, the effectiveness of initiatives such as TED, especially in the context of crises, depends on the value and support that member states assign to them. While TED is a tool for member states to coordinate on a more strategic approach to democracy, they have still to decide how far they wish to harness this approach as a key part of their post-invasion policies.
What the Ukraine Crisis Means for Global and African Democracy
It is feasible that the Ukraine crisis will kick-start a fresh drive by Western states to promote and protect democracy around the world. This would be a logical response to the clear and distressing evidence provided by Russia’s war of the danger that autocrats pose not only to their own people but also to their neighbors.
After all, what is happening in Ukraine cannot be separated from the authoritarian strategies that Russian President Vladimir Putin uses to retain power back home. His current actions have been feasible because he has removed formal and informal checks and balances in Russia’s political system and ruling party while lying to the Russian people about the actions of his government and their motivations. Putin’s current strategy would be far harder to execute in a democracy, where the mass mobilization of citizens would have put the government under much greater pressure to pull their young out of an unnecessary and devastating conflict.
Triggered by the conflict in Russia, it is possible that the United States and the EU will reprioritize strengthening democracy abroad by committing fresh resources to this task and taking steps to remove the incentives for backsliding. This move would come at an important moment in Europe, where countries such as Hungary have largely escaped punishment for deviating from democratic norms and values.
Such a renewed focus on democracy support would have significant implications for several African states, such as the authoritarian regimes that have sustained their own governments by pillaging natural resources from their neighbors—a category that includes sometime “donor darlings” like Rwanda. However, those watching from Africa are likely to be skeptical that any new democratic wave will reach their shores. Examples of Western double standards have not been isolated events but rather a core feature of their foreign policies. A renewed focus on Europe and post-Soviet states is only likely to reduce the bandwidth that international donors have to think through and implement effective politics in Africa.
Already, the International Rescue Committee has warned that essential humanitarian aid pledged to Africa risks being diverted to Ukraine. While this is understandable given the severity of the crisis and the desperate need of so many people, it directly endangers the safety of millions of Africans living through drought and rising commodity, food, and fuel prices. If Western states cannot effectively mobilize in response to these most straightforward and pressing issues, one must ask whether they will be willing and able to do so for more complex and subtle challenges, such as strengthening democratic governance.
This article is part of the European Democracy Hub initiative run by Carnegie Europe and the European Partnership for Democracy.
This document was produced with the financial assistance of the European Union. The views expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the authors and can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of the European Union.