Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine and the Future of Democracy
Updated: Mar 27
Russian troops are continuing to move towards Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv. A city that is typically home to around 3 million people, a little larger than the size of Chicago. Today, citizens in Kyiv are being told to make Molotov cocktails and take up arms to fight back against Russian troops - this is occurring in a capital city of a sovereign, democratic nation.
As one of many who have followed this invasion closely, I have noticed a variety of perspectives have been offered by scholars. Historians have looked at the legacy of the Soviet Union in the region of Eastern Europe and Putin’s political ambitions. International relations scholars have used the lens of geopolitics and examined the relationship between Russia and NATO. Economists have debated the possible effects of economic sanctions on Russia. I thought I would offer a new perspective, one that draws from the field of comparative politics. Rather than looking at how states interact with each other, in comparative politics we look at what occurs within states and compare commonalities and differences across states. I won’t speak to domestic Russian politics; I will leave that to the experts on Russia. And I won’t speak to the experiences of Ukrainians; I will leave that to Ukrainian scholars (whose work I encourage you to seek out).1 But, I will offer a broader comparative perspective focusing on a crucial topic of comparative politics - democratization.
Most people think about the world as divided into two forms of government, autocracy and democracy. The former includes elements of totalitarianism and dictatorship, while the latter includes citizen involvement in decision-making and the government’s respect for individual liberties. Lately, those lines have become blurred. Emerging from the democratization of Eastern Europe following the collapse of communism in the region, scholars of comparative politics identified a third type of regime, personified by Russia - competitive authoritarianism.2 Competitive authoritarian regimes, hybrid regimes, or what some have more recently labeled illiberal democracies, maintain the window dressings of democracy, such as regular elections, without the substance like freedom of the press, electoral competition, and the rule of law. This form of regime is easy to identify in the Russian case. However, what is concerning is that this form of government is increasing worldwide, competitive authoritarian regimes have outpaced both democracies and autocracies in recent years.3
Democracies have been receding, many succumbing to what has been termed democratic backsliding. This occurs when a country loses elements of its democracy without a complete and sudden breakdown - leaders or parties begin discrediting independent press, auditing with the intent to shut down civil society organizations, controlling what is taught in schools, suppressing votes, and spreading disinformation. All of which contribute to a breakdown of a democratic society. We have been witnessing this occur in European states such as Poland, where the leading right-wing party has packed the courts and taken control of the state-run media outlets. In Hungary, the right-wing leader Viktor Orbán has shut down university departments and suppressed electoral competition.4 In the United States, we witnessed a violent attack on The Capital in which right-wing domestic terrorists threatened to hang the country's vice president because they did not like the outcome of an election. This attack was fueled by an aggressive campaign of false information regarding the integrity of the American electoral process driven by the incumbent president. Since then, the country that was once deemed the world's oldest democracy has been downgraded on several democratic indices,5 something that has other states taking note.6 Instances of sudden and violent democratic breakdown (coups, military invasion, insurrection) are decreasing globally while democratic backsliding is on the rise.7
While there is significant evidence of democratic erosion around the world, even of the world’s most well-established democracies, Ukraine’s democracy, on the other hand, was seemingly strengthening or what comparative politics scholars call consolidating. A consolidated democracy refers to states that achieve a level of democratic institutionalization, not only in the electoral process but also through legislation that protects the rights of minorities and a political culture of openness, transparency, and accountability. Ukraine emerged from the Soviet Union as an independent nation in 1991. The country was one of the first in post-Soviet Europe to pass women’s rights legislation, namely outlawing domestic violence 8 (domestic violence was recently legalized in Russia in 2019).9 Ukrainians have boldly defended their democracy through mass demonstrations against foreign intervention in their elections in 2004, known as the Orange Revolution. In 2014 they staged the Euromaidan protests against corruption and foreign intervention in their elections again. Ukrainians protested against their president at the time who enabled corruption, violated human rights, and sought closer relations with Putin. Throughout this period, many Ukrainians lost their lives in defense of democracy. In 2019 the current president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, was elected with 73% of the vote in a free and fair election. The majority of Ukrainians supported (and continue to support) the country’s European integration.
Ukrainians have good reason to want democracy in their country. In the not too distant past, Ukrainians died by the millions under the policies of autocratic regimes. Four million Ukrainians died during the famines imposed by Soviet collectivization policy on the peasant populations in 1930,10 and another four million were killed in the Holocaust and German occupation of the country during World War II. 11 President Zelensky’s great-grandfather’s family was killed in the Holocaust. This is a grim reminder of another invasion of a sovereign European nation, Poland, in 1939 by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. This history makes Putin’s egregious claim that Russia is engaging in “denazification” of Ukraine all the more heinous as it distorts not only history but the reality of the political system in Ukraine today.12 This is not a “border crisis” or a “border dispute.” The president of Russia has stated that a sovereign and democratic nation, Ukraine, has no right to exist. Yes, it is true that most Ukrainians speak Russian, as is the case for almost everyone in the former Soviet bloc; Russian is the lingua franca of the region. Many Americans speak English, but that does not make America part of Britain today. It is hard to believe what we are hearing and seeing in the 21st century. Still, it is important to remember that we are witnessing a military invasion of a sovereign, democratic nation in an already precarious time for democracy.
1 Some Ukrainian scholars who publish in English include Alexandra Hrycak, Olena Hankivsky, and Anastasiya Salnykova. A Twitter thread of Ukrainian experts on Ukraine can be found here https://twitter.com/CEE_Feminisms/status/1485556382308909058.
2 Steven Levitsky, Lucan Way. 2010. Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War.
3 Anna Lührmann and Staffan I. Lindberg. 2019. “A Third Wave of Autocratization is Here: What is New About It?” Democratization 26, no. 7.
4 For an analysis of why democratic backsliding has occurred in Poland and Hungary see Michael Bernhard’s 2021 article “Democratic Backsliding in Poland and Hungary” in Slavic Review.
5 Freedom House and the Polity IV indices have downgraded the U.S. on indicators of democracy - https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/nov/22/us-list-backsliding-democracies-civil-liberties-international.
6 DW. 2021. “US, Poland, Hungary land on 'backsliding democracies' list.” https://www.dw.com/en/us-poland-hungary-land-on-backsliding-democracies-list/a-59900938.
7 Nancy Bermeo. 2016. “On Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1
8 Olena Hankivsky and Anastasiya Salnykova. 2012. Gender, Politics, and Society in Ukraine.
9 Smith, Freeman and Olivia Capozzalo. 2019. “Domestic violence in Russia: Interview with Yulia Gorbunova.” New Eastern Europe. https://neweasterneurope.eu/2019/02/13/domestic-violence-in-russia-interview-with-yulia-gorbunova%EF%BB%BF/.
10 University of Minnesota Holocaust and Genocide Studies “Holodomor” https://cla.umn.edu/chgs/holocaust-genocide-education/resource-guides/holodomor.
11 Timothy Snyder. 2010. The Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.
12 Timothy Snyder. 2022. "Putin’s Hitler-like tricks and tactics in Ukraine.” The Boston Globe. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2022/02/24/opinion/putins-hitler-like-tricks-tactics-ukraine/.