The war in Ukraine is all about democracy vs dictatorship

By Kacper Szulecki and Tore Wig

A dictatorship has just brutally attacked its democratic neighbor. It’s not the first time in history that happens, but there are good reasons to see the war in Ukraine as the first one defining the conflict lines of this century.

Some days ago, Irina Domurath and Stefano Palestini suggested on these pages that “it is empirically wrong to talk of a ‘war of values’ or a war for the ‘survival of democracy’” in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war, and that this frame is not only “normatively dangerous” but that we should leave this narrative behind for the sake of peace. Instead, they argue, the war is the outcome of a particular international order and international law is both a subject, means, and the stake of the conflict.

These statements will seem surprising to many readers, including ourselves. Let us try to get to the bottom of what our colleagues are aiming at.

What is the cause vs what is at stake?

As a point of departure, we first want to clarify that the invasion of Ukraine can be “about” democracy in two different ways. First, the war can be about democracy in causal terms, in so far as regime type plays a causal role in the war. Second, the war can be about democracy in so far as democracy is at stake in the war.

Domurath and Palestini recapitulate several statements made by policymakers and pundits, suggesting that the democracy/autocracy frame is primarily about explaining the cause of the war.

This appears to be creating a strawman argument. It’s a bit like saying that World War II was not about defeating Nazism, but that it was actually the result of revisionist German politics after Versailles. That’s, of course, true in a sense, but it also misses the point in the same manner as Domurath and Palestini seem to be missing the point of the democracy vs autocracy conflict in relation to Ukraine.

Domurath and Palestini are in favor of treating Russia primarily as a “former superpower that struggles with declining regional influence” rather than as an autocracy. In their view, contention over the international order has primacy over domestic politics as the cause and driver of conflict.

We beg to differ. We claim that a strong case can be made that regime type has played a causal role in the origins of the war. Yes, Russia is a former superpower, a revisionist actor seeking to rebuild its sphere of influence. It may see NATO as a threat and certainly sees a pro-Western and democratizing Ukraine as an impediment in its plans. This is also the line of argument that brought John Mearsheimer to international popularity (or notoriety, depending on your perspective).

But it seems clear that a democratic regime type in Ukraine would be an impediment to Russian influence in Ukraine. A democratic regime lets its citizens decide on international security alignments, not foreign powers. A democratic Ukraine is incompatible with Russia having the final say over the country’s foreign policy choices and geopolitical course. Furthermore, as several students of Russian interventions in their “near abroad” have pointed out, the Putin regime fear democratization in their neighborhood since such processes pose an indirect threat to it. The invasion of Ukraine, and other recent interventions, fits this pattern neatly.

Importantly, Russia’s interpretation of the geopolitical landscape and the international order is inseparable from its domestic politics and autocratic regime. The regime has been prolific in providing support for autocratic governments around the world. It sponsors political forces undermining liberal democracy in the EU, and remains actively opposed to democratization movements, both in their neighborhood and around the world.

Regime type likely plays an even bigger role in the invasion than these arguments about motivation suggest. It is by now clear that the invasion happened partly because of poor information (e.g. about Ukrainian resolve) and weak constraints on Putin’s decision-making. The Putin regime is increasingly “personalistic”, which means that the leader is insulated from alternative sources of information, lacks constraints on his behavior, and is poorly incentivized to get the facts right. For these reasons, personalist dictatorships are known to start foolish wars (think Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991). Putin’s regime appears to be no exception.

In sum, we think it is clear that the war is “about” democracy in the causal sense outlined above. If we had a different regime-types in either Ukraine (to dictatorship) or Russia (to a democracy), we contend that Ukraine would be at peace today.

Ukraine’s perspective or Russia’s?

The view that the war is driven by security concerns rather than regime type is also deeply problematic in taking Russian self-perceptions and official declarations at face value as social facts, while leaving absolutely no space for a Ukrainian perspective. This is a legacy of the Realist approach to international politics, which traditionally gave most attention to great power interests, concerns, and perspectives, following the nearly 2500 years old quip from the History of the Peloponnesian War that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.

This approach has always been dubious from an ethical perspective, and its footing as a consistent theoretical framework has met with severe criticism recently. The ongoing war, where “strong” Russian aggressors are continuously repelled by the “weak” Ukrainian army, also makes it questionable from an empirical perspective. If we used to accept Russia’s point of view because we perceived it as an (objective) great power with special status, we might want to think again.

As outlined above, we think the war is “about” democracy in the causal sense. As noted, the war can also be “about” democracy in terms of the stakes of the war. Here, we think the case is even clearer.

From Ukraine’s perspective, this war is another chapter of a struggle for independence and autonomy, which also involves domestic democratization. Following the 2004 Orange Revolution, which was an act of non-violent dissent against electoral fraud, and the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests, which were about defining the direction in which the country should develop – as a Eurasian electoral autocracy or as an aspiring consolidating democracy looking to the European Union – Ukrainians had to protect their sovereignty, liberty, and capacity to decide their political future in armed conflicts with Russia and its proxies.

Given the Ukrainian perspective on the stakes of the conflict, they would be quite surprised to hear that democracy/autocracy is not the central dividing line of this war.

What is “democracy”?

Much of the misunderstanding evident in Domurath and Palestini’s essay may stem from their definition of what a democratic regime is, and what those democratic values apparently at stake actually are. They write that the war is not about democratic values, but instead about maintaining the post-WWII, (liberal) legal world order. They point to the broad condemnation of Russian aggression as a positive sign of that order fighting back.

Finally, they also warn that “by ignoring its firm anchoring in international law, the misleading interpretation of this war as a ‘war of 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?” – they ask.

This is a false alternative. Democracy is not a quasi-religious belief, and it is not a random value. Rather, democracy is essential for solving conflicts over values in a non-violent way.

What we and most people who seem to share our view of the Russia-Ukraine war understand by that word is a regime type which combines several features: electoral competition, representativeness, a set of freedoms for citizens, but also, crucially, rule of law and the protection of citizens from arbitrary harm from the authorities, often expressed in the language of human rights.

While Russia and Belarus, as well as many other autocratic regimes, may hold more or less ritualized and unfree elections, liberal constitutionalism with a respect for legal orders at its core is the essence of modern Western democracy. For that reason, the example of Singapore, which Domurath and Palestini give in an attempt to falsify the notion that there exists some “alliance for the promotion of authoritarianism”, is again off the mark.

And yes, such an alliance very clearly exists, most importantly in Russian-Chinese cooperation to create “a new world order”, which would be based on “pragmatic” considerations – translating to ‘see no evil’ power politics, with states and polities like Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Taiwan or Hong Kong at the whim of their powerful neighbors.

Ukraine’s response is more democracy

The longer the war lasts the more evident it becomes that it is indeed a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, in which Ukraine is also clearly trying to maintain and strengthen its democratic identity.

This is where we are today: an autocracy has invaded a neighboring democracy. The autocratic ruler is after his democratic counterpart, believing that if the latter is killed, the state will collapse – a personalist logic that clearly applies to Russia, and betrays a (Russian) lack of understanding of other regime types.

Failing that, the autocracy tries to negotiate with the democracy as if its leadership was a junta (its propaganda has portrayed them as one) wielding dictatorial power and able to rule single-handedly.

Meanwhile the democracy insists on maintaining democratic procedures, and grass-roots participation, because it understands that it’s not just ritual, it’s the core of the values its citizens are fighting and dying for. For instance, it refuses to accept any controversial negotiation positions without a strong popular mandate in the form of a referendum.

The autocracy is increasingly frustrated because the more democratic the practices of the neighbor, the more evident its own undemocratic nature. On top of that, President Zelensky as the world’s most important democratic leader at this moment is completely unapologetic and very self-confident.

If Ukraine loses, and Russia manages to impose some sort of puppet regime or a “finlandized” Ukraine, it sends a warning to other democracies in the region (as well as Taiwan): you may be next.

It is in this sense that the ongoing war of aggression is the defining conflict of our century.

This is how history is ending

The end of the Cold War is often misrepresented as the end of the struggle between communism and capitalism. In reality, by the late 1980s this conflict was already secondary, and the ideological framing was anachronistic. Those who kept defining the Cold War as a left–right or communism–capitalism showdown were merely driven by intellectual inertia derived from the early days of superpower competition.

Since 1975, the signing of the Helsinki Accords and the rise of human rights, the central conflict was already that between those states that safeguarded individual freedoms, maintained the rule of law, and were responsive and accountable to their citizens – and those that were not. In other words, between democracies and autocracies. The emergence of human rights dissent and the globalization of the figure of the dissident since the 1970s is a result of this new primary line of conflict.

1989 is symbolic here not because of the fall of the Iron Curtain, but because it happened practically simultaneously with the Tiananmen Square massacre. These were not struggles of communism and capitalism – China’s economic system has developed into a state-capitalist hybrid since – but between authoritarianism and democratization, which succeeded in one case but failed in the other.

In this sense, there is close family resemblance between icons of dissent such as Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Liu Xiaobo, Jamal Khashoggi and Alexei Navalny. No matter their ideological views, they all represent the struggle against authoritarianism and for democratization.

In his now often ridiculed essay “The end of History”, Francis Fukuyama pointed to thymos – the inherent human striving for recognition and dignity – as the driver of democratization, leading inevitably, in a distant future, to universal democratization.

While the “end of history” thesis has been criticized from all angles and positions, this observation remains as valid as it was in 1989: people around the world, living in dictatorships, electoral autocracies and crippled democracies will strive for recognition, dignity, and freedom.

This is what the events in Hong Kong in 2019-2020 were about, and this is what Ukraine’s struggle has been about in 2004, 2013-2014 and now.

In collaboration with Ferenc Laczo

Kacper Szulecki is a Research Professor at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. He has published on European energy security, climate policy, as well as human rights activism and dissidence in Eastern Europe under communism.

Tore Wig is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Oslo and Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, PRIO. He works on democratization, dictatorship, regime-instability and armed conflict.

Contact Us