Ukraine: not a war about democracy

Irina Domurath and Stefano Palestini

The Ukrainian war is about the international political and legal order. It is empirically wrong to talk of a ‘war of values’ or a war for the ‘survival of democracy’. It is also normatively dangerous to frame it as such. If we want to avoid further bloodshed, the “West” needs to leave behind this narrative.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has generated heated debate and almost unequivocal condemnation, manifest – among others –  in the Resolution of the UN General Assembly of March 2 passed by 141 affirmative votes. Some have seen the Russian invasion as a new and uncontested example of the war between democracies and autocracies. For instance, Susan Stokes has argued that “Russia’s military assault on Ukraine caps a period of political attacks on democracy around the world” and that Ukraine aspiring democracy “made the Kremlin’s recent invasion more likely”. Quoting President Joe Biden, John M. Owen has also talked about the global contest between democracy and autocracy, and warnings about the arrival of a new Cold War between democratic and authoritarian blocks have become more frequent since the invasion was sparked.

This particular way of framing the invasion resonates with a well-enshrined assumption in liberal thinking that liberal states are constitutively threatened by illiberal ones. It is found in various forms in the work of liberal thinkers and foreign policy makers from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush.

It is, as Daniel DePetris has aptly put it, “a predisposition to bifurcate an extraordinary multi-faceted and complicated world in order to make sense of it”. But, as an analytical claim, it is empirically inaccurate and normatively dangerous. While it is true that Ukraine is “more” of a democracy than Russia, this does not make the war about that.

Let’s start with the empirics. First of all, there is no clear evidence of an “alliance for the promotion of authoritarianism”. Instead, collaboration among like-minded, authoritarian regimes is empirically explained by perceived threats to regime-survival. Second, the democracy vs. autocracy narrative wrongly lumps together states with radically different historical trajectories, cultural identities and – more importantly – political motivations. There is as much variation among authoritarian regimes as among democracies. For example, Singapore, while being an authoritarian regime, is far from being excluded from the dealings in the global order. It even has imposed sanctions against Russia. The supposed divide does not add up here.

Third, the democracy vs. autocracy narrative ignores and hides crucial specificities that explain Russia’s predatory behavior. To be sure, Russia is an authoritarian state, but it is also a former superpower that struggles with declining regional influence. It is a state led by Putin, a leader oriented to the pursuit of past glories founded on a constructed common history of the Kiev-Rus people. Already Putin’s Crimea speech shows this clearly, where he claims that in the “people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia. This firm conviction is based on truth and justice and was passed from generation to generation, over time, under any circumstances, despite all the dramatic changes our country went through during the entire 20th Century.” And “by launching the sovereignty parade Russia itself aided in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”

It is supposed “national unity” that drives Putin’s foreign policy in Russia’s immediate neighborhood (Putin’s article on the “historical unity” of Russia on the Kremlin’s webpage is currently not accessible).

Whether this is a personal, true belief or a mere tactic to get Russians behind his plan is not important here. What matters is that this is about “Mother Russia” and its internal make up; it is not about what other democratic countries do – as long as they do not interfere in Russia’s perceived zone of ‘historical influence’. And Putin has been very open about what he wants also concerning Ukraine: a government that is pro-Russia and anti-NATO. He has voiced his objectives unequivocally on several occasions and continuously over the last decades: Ukraine is – in his view – part of the Russian zone of influence and should remain there.

Framing this invasion as a war between democracies and autocracies is also normatively dangerous as it provides arguments to the aggressor who can easily use this narrative to his political advantage by creating the ‘common enemy of the liberal West’. It also acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy by bolstering a feeling of insecurity among non-liberal states. They could team up in renewed attempts of regime-survival. Furthermore, and probably

most importantly, it undermines possible and necessary global coalitions crossing regime-type boundaries against the aggressor. Yes, these necessary coalitions include China, which is also why any discussions on China’s “moral” fitness to be a possible broker of peace are misplaced.

If this war is not about democratic values, what is it about then? A look at the responses triggered by the invasion demonstrates that this war is about the post-WWII international legal order. First, the vast majority of countries have firmly opposed to the war pulling all registers available under international law. The global condemnation of the invasion rests upon principles of non-intervention, state sovereignty, and the inviolability of states’ borders. States have characterized the war as an “act of aggression”, curtailing Putin’s claims of a “war of self-defense” and using the clear language of international law. Second, the measures taken have included almost all possible legal instruments that fall short of military engagement. This includes a wide array of unilateral countermeasures and retorsion ranging from targeted sanctions and Central Bank assets freeze to oil and gas embargoes. Third, the International Court of Justice is investigating violations of the UN Charter while the International Criminal Court considers possible violations to international humanitarian law. So, it is also about international criminal law, as Stefanie Bock analyzes here. Finally, Russia has been ostracized from regional international organizations such as the Council of Europe. All these different measures amount to an unprecedented multilateral enforcement of international law that, regardless of the final outcome of this invasion, will not leave Putin’s regime and the Russian people unharmed.

Emphasizing and upholding international law gives us a narrative about how to frame and tools to respond to an act of aggression. By ignoring its firm anchoring in international law, the misleading interpretation of this war as a “war for democratic values” will throw humankind back to the Middle Ages. For a “war for democratic values” resembles too much a religious war. It is here where the “West” is faced with an actual value choice: does it really want to be a crusader of democracy or any other value? Or does it want to uphold the international legal order? After all, international law does not distinguish between democracies and autocracies. It merely gives the tools and hopes for a peaceful coexistence among states.

The stakes are too high. This war needs to stop. Preventing the loss of more human lives and escalation towards a large-scale war should be the utmost imperative. That is why almost any peace deal is a good deal. Even one that gives into at least some of Putin’s demands. Let’s face it: He – like any other warmonger – will not end the war if there is not some kind of face-saving victory for him to sell at home. A deal would give him a way out of the war, which already turned into more of a mess for Russia than Putin might have anticipated. And with possibly waning home support for the war, Putin might be well-advised to get out sooner rather than later.

Irina Domurath is Associate Professor of Law at the Central University of Chile. She investigates and publishes about different aspects of EU Law.

Stefano Palestini is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He has published extensively on the international dimension of democracy and authoritarianism, as well as on the transnational governance of development.

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