The Ukraine-Russia crisis continues to evolve at the geographic boundaries of Eastern Europe, but Oleksiy Honcharuk believes the conflict is as much about democracy and ideology as it is about borders.
Hancharuk, the former prime minister of Ukraine and 2021 Bernard and Susan Liautaud Visiting Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), joined FSI Director Michael McFaul on World Class Podcast to discuss the roots of the crisis and why Vladamir Putin sees the success of democracy in Ukraine – or anywhere – as an existential threat to his authority.
Listen to the full episode and browse highlights from their conversation below. For additional reading, see McFaul and Honcharuk's joint op-ed in the Washington Post on the need for closer U.S.-Ukraine relations.
Click the link for a transcript of “Ukraine, Russia and the Fight for Democracy.”
The Complicated History Between Russia and Ukraine
Ukraine played a key role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it came out as the biggest independent country of the former Soviet states. Ukraine decided to be a democracy, thankfully, and this has been our path for the last thirty years.
This is a great achievement for our nation, because if you look around our country, even among hundreds of other successful European countries, there are not many other good examples of democracy. They have problems: Turkey has problems; Belarus has problems; Kazakhstan as well. We have some problems with corruption, but we are still an electoral democracy with fair elections.
Now, unfortunately, Russia understands itself as the successor, or empire, coming after the Soviet Union, and Putin has said many times that this collapse was the biggest catastrophe in the last twenty years of the last century. For him, Ukraine’s success is a tragedy.
Putin has invaded Ukraine before during the annexation of Crimea. He tried to divide Ukraine into a Russian, authoritarian Ukraine and a European, democratic Ukraine. But he failed. Our civil society worked hard to create voluntary military and paramilitary organizations and units, and Ukrainians pushed back as a nation.
And that was a moment when Putin understood, finally, that he lost Ukraine not only as an economic partner, but ideologically. Ukrainians chose freedom. We chose democracy. And for Putin, it's very dangerous to have examples of successful democratic countries – especially Slavic Orthodox Christian countries with close ties to Russia – like Ukraine. Putin needs the Russian people to believe that democracy is a weak, failing idea that doesn’t work.
A Struggle Broader Than One Country
This buildup of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border is not juist a regional conflict, and it's not just about NATO. It’s a battle between two conceptually different systems: the authoritarian system and the democratic system. It’s an attack towards democracy and the Western world. Our values in the Western world are a threat for Mr. Putin himself.
Putin is trying to shape the situation and to undermine the trust among countries and among people. He's trying to create destabilizing situations like an immigration crises, organize sabotages among the military, have political murders, and so on and so forth.
This buildup is only one element of this game to create one more additional crisis to attract attention, and to create a situation where Western leaders have to decide and make very hard decisions. Putin is trying to show that, “If I do attack, nobody will protect you. All of these values you have are just fairy tales. The West is weak, the West is insincere. When they tell you that values matter, it’s a lie because the only real value is money. There is no democracy.”
The Role of the West in Supporting Democracies
For Putin, the weak reaction from the West to the aggression towards Ukraine was a signal that it was acceptable to act like this. That's why Putin is raising the stakes and why he will continue to raise the stakes every year. Right now, the sanctions policy and general Western policy is creating a situation where time is playing against the victim, not against the aggressor.
Putin’s strategy is to wait, to use all his resources to undermine his democratic opponents, and to make sure that the next politicians in the western world will be more flexible. And maybe in 10 years or 15 years when the annexation of Crimea has become deep history, he will find some new trade-off with the next generation of democratic leaders.
This is why there needs to be a new model of smart or cascading sanctions where the EU adopts a package of sanctions for some period of time, maybe five, seven or ten years, and every next wave, every next package of sanctions will automatically come into power if the problem is not solved. So every single day, it automatically raises the price for the aggressor.
Supporting fragile democracies is not just about making a morally right choice; these countries on the frontlines that have paid an additional price – an additional tax, if you will, for democracy, and have taken on additional burdens, because they choose the democratic path. Whether it’s Ukraine or other countries, we need Western support now in a much bigger way than we have it now.
For more from Oleksiy Honcharuk, listen to his his remarks on "Ukraine vs Russia: The War for Democracy," given as a Liautaud Lecture at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL).