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Why the War in Ukraine is not about Democracy versus Authoritarianism

The framing of the war in the West as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism is misleading, as the invasion would be unacceptable even if Ukraine were not a democracy, and unhelpful when it comes to building a broader coalition against Russia’s behaviour.

Standing firm: US President Joe Biden and other leaders at a press conference on 26 June 2022 during the G7 Schloss Elmau summit. Image: Office of the President of the United States

Russia’s war against Ukraine is often depicted as a battle between democracy and authoritarianism. The Ukrainians are seen to be defending freedom and democracy. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson argues that ‘It is about Ukrainian democracy against Putin’s tyranny. It is about freedom versus oppression’. There is certainly a strong sense in Europe that Ukraine is fighting not only for its own freedom, sovereignty and territorial integrity, but crucially for the whole of Europe.

If unconsciously, many US and European leaders seem to be using the ‘democracy versus authoritarianism’ discourse as a way to raise the stakes of the war and to generate political and moral support from their people. Yet, regarding the war in Ukraine as a battle between democracy and authoritarianism is misguided and unhelpful in two respects.

First, the ‘democracy versus authoritarianism’ thesis obscures the fundamental reason why this war is unacceptable. It is unacceptable not because Ukraine is a democracy, while Russia is an authoritarian state. Even if Ukraine were not a democracy and Russia were an ideal democracy, this war would be unacceptable. It is a blatant violation of international law, including the UN Charter, and Russia is believed to have committed numerous war crimes.

This is a war instigated by the ‘mighty’ against a neighbouring ‘weak’ country. Therefore, what is fundamentally at stake is how the international community should respond to such an attempt to change the status quo by force, regardless of the parties’ democratic credentials.

In terms of expanding the group of countries standing up against Russia’s aggression, the ‘democracy versus authoritarianism’ thesis is unhelpful and possibly even counter-productive

Japan, while being fully aligned with the US and Europe in imposing sanctions against Russia and sharing fundamental values with them, is careful not to indulge in ‘democracy versus authoritarianism’ rhetoric. Prime Minister Kishida Fumio argued in his keynote to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June 2022 that ‘I myself have a strong sense of urgency that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow”’. He went on by asking if ‘[we will] return to a lawless world where rules are ignored and broken, where unilateral changes to the status quo by force are unchallenged and accepted, and where the strong coerce the weak militarily or economically?’ Crucially, he made his case while mentioning neither democracy nor freedom. This was not a coincidence.

Furthermore, arguments emphasising the democratic nature of Ukraine could end up giving ammunition to those who point out the high levels of corruption in the country and cases of mistreatment of the Russian-speaking population in the Donbas region, despite Russia’s claims of genocide being groundless. It needs to be kept in mind that whatever happens in Ukraine, nothing can justify Russia’s decision to invade its neighbour. Ukraine does not have to be a perfectly clean and transparent model democracy. In fact, it is not one. Yet, fundamentally, that does not matter – though the fact that Ukraine is a democracy helps in reality for the purpose of generating public support in like-minded countries.

This applies to Asia as well. Taiwan needs to be defended not primarily because it is a democracy. It is undeniable that the fact that Taiwan is a thriving democracy, while China is an authoritarian state controlled by the Communist Party, is one reason why Taiwan needs to be defended in the eyes of people living in democracies. This by no means suggests, however, that Vietnam or Laos – which are not normally seen as liberal democracies – do not deserve to be supported by the international community if invaded by their powerful neighbour.

Second, in terms of expanding the group of countries standing up against Russia’s aggression, the ‘democracy versus authoritarianism’ thesis is unhelpful and possibly even counter-productive, because it could alienate non-democracies and prevent them from coming onboard. Simply put, countries do not have to be democracies to join forces in countering Russia’s aggression.

Those who support Ukraine in its confrontation with Russia need to devise a sustainable strategy that more diverse countries can be brought onboard with

It is worth remembering that when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning Russia’s aggression in March 2022, as many as 141 countries voted for it, while when the same assembly adopted a resolution to suspend Russia’s membership of the Human Rights Council, only 93 countries were onboard. This gap reveals a lot about the nature of the international community.

Whereas the former was only about condemning Russia without concrete measures, the latter was intended to strip Russia of its rights as a member of the Human Rights Council. A significant number of non-democracies did not want the latter resolution to be used as a precedent in other cases, potentially involving them, in the future.

There is therefore a trade-off between efforts to ‘deepen’ the level of cooperation among like-minded democracies – most notably within the framework of the G7 or the transatlantic context – and those to ‘widen’ the group of countries who are onboard with punishing Russia. While both goals need to be pursued, it might be necessary to prioritise one over another.

As the war in Ukraine is unlikely to end quickly, those who support Ukraine in its confrontation with Russia need to devise a sustainable strategy that more diverse countries can be brought onboard with. De-emphasising values might help in this regard, though it will remain a challenge to persuade more countries to impose sanctions on Russia. It should at least be possible to discourage countries from openly siding with Russia or China.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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