Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s passionate speech in Congress underscored the broader consequences of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine, tying it to the struggle for global democracy. He thanked President Biden for “his sincere commitment to the defense of Ukraine and democracy all over the world” and argued that “Ukrainian people are defending not only Ukraine” but are “fighting for the values of Europe and the world.” He is right. If the world allows such capture, a message is sent to Putin and to autocrats everywhere that democracy is up for grabs.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is about democracy. It is also of course about Putin’s delusions of reclaiming a fallen empire, fantasies of ethno-Russian nationalism, paranoia about the consequences of NATO and European Union expansion, and humiliation of waning global influence. But at the core, Putin’s big fear is democracy, particularly at his doorstep. Democracy is contagious, and any spread at home poses an existential threat to his autocratic rule. His brutal war not only aims to reclaim a sovereign democracy under his autocratic rule but also signals globally the strength of the authoritarian grip. The democratic community’s response sends a message not only to Putin but also to other authoritarians with similar ambitions.
In addition to direct kinetic force, autocrats are acting in other ways to undermine democracies with a nonkinetic toolbox—including economic coercion, civil society subversion, cyber operations, information operations and malign finance. Some autocratic countries, like China, are making the case that managed autocracies represent a better governance model and a quicker pathway to economic growth, supporting infrastructure development and, with it, creating built-in dependencies.
Putin had been using the full menu of these tactics in Ukraine. Through domestic and international state media outlets and troll farms, the Kremlin has flooded the information space with narratives aimed at sowing division and undermining democracy. Russia laundered money through oligarchs and businesspeople to support influence operations, including advocacy and destabilization campaigns. Russian intelligence services recruited Ukrainian officials to gain access to information and create instability in the country. But Ukrainian democracy proved resilient to these tactics, so Russia invaded.
And Russia’s not alone. Autocrats are also forging alliances, sharing tactics and technologies to suppress critical voices, and coordinating on information operations. As we have been tracking at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, Chinese narratives today are often in lockstep with those of the Kremlin and are even outperforming Russia’s in frequency. Chinese state media have sung the greatest hits from whataboutism and NATO aggression to depicting Ukrainians as neo-Nazis. They have accused the U.S. and Ukraine of bioweapon development, arguing Putin’s case for him that Russia is the innocent party, though these outward narratives may not reflect subtle evolutions in policy. Russian officials have welcomed the support, retweeting Chinese officials.
As I told the European Union’s Committee on Foreign Affairs on March 14, Ukraine should be a five-alarm call to take the task of global democracy defense seriously. Authoritarians, from outside and in, are watching closely.
To start, democratic nations must understand democracy as a matter of world security, not simply a values proposition. The world is in the midst of war, piling on top of a global health pandemic and a catastrophic climate crisis that will reshape society through increasing conflict, migration and resource scarcity. Autocrats weaponize such crises to undermine public belief in institutions, governance and democratic processes—the very things needed to address these challenges. How democracies respond both internally and globally matters.
First, democratic nations must get their own houses in order. According to international democracy assessments, old as well as new democracies are under threat. Democratic governance is failing to deliver policies and programs that reflect the needs and improve the quality of life of citizens. Corruption and political finance have thwarted the representative process, resulting in inequality of voice. Polling on both sides of the Atlantic shows citizens’ belief that the rich control political decision-making and lack of satisfaction in how democracy works. Information disorder has heightened divisions and fear. This has eroded trust in institutions, leaders, and elections, creating the perfect vacuum for malign actors and strongmen. Democracies like the U.S. must include themselves in democracy promotion, undertaking reforms and learning from each other to ensure democracy delivers.
Second, a coordinated global democracy network is needed. This could be done through the Summit for Democracy framework, a broad coalition of democracies gathered by the Biden administration in December 2021, or other existing global institutions and initiatives. Or perhaps through the establishment of a new commission of democracies, including civil society actors, to provide collective security and early warning systems. It could address democracies’ economic and energy dependencies on autocracies, working together, for example, to offset energy needs and support clean energy alternatives. The U.S. is now, for example, looking to Saudi Arabia—an autocratic country bombarding civilians in Yemen—to make up for Russian oil. Coordination efforts are also needed to ensure accountability for autocratic actors, such as network countries implementing a Global Magnitsky Act.
A network could also formulate a task force on donor engagement to ensure large supporters of democracy assistance, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Union, and the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), are better coordinating their strategies. Too often aid agencies duplicate efforts or inadvertently work at cross-purposes when they should be sharing best practices, developing programs that build on one another, and ensuring efficient use of funds. There is also a need for a clearinghouse of successful democracy initiatives to build communities of practice to guide others.
Third, democracy assistance should go after the authoritarian playbook. Democracies must support donor-recipient countries, and each other, to deter and build defenses against mal/mis/disinformation, going beyond a defensive whack-a-mole approach to preemptively recognizing and pre-bunking information operations. For example, countries could learn from the Ukrainian successes at countering disinformation and building their own proactive information strategy. Investments are sorely needed in independent local and investigative media, and foreign aid agencies should prioritize such efforts. Governments need to collaborate on how to collectively challenge the business models of social media platforms that profit from conflict and lies. In addition, policymakers and lawmakers should prioritize efforts to thwart malign finance through greater financial transparency and disclosure requirements, restrictions on foreign political activity, regulations on enablers, and increased funding to grassroots anti-corruption watchdogs and activists.
Fourth, democracy investments, both at home and abroad, should focus on the demand side—building resilient communities and publics. I’ve worked for decades with democracy promotion organizations providing training and technical assistance to institutions, such as legislatures, political parties, election bodies, and government agencies to make them more transparent, accountable, and democratic. Getting those supply-side institutions in place is critical work. But democracy faces a demand problem, where citizens are vulnerable to authoritarian, illiberal movements and increasingly choosing autocrats through the ballot box.
Local investments in communities help foster faith in democracy and inoculate people against the siren calls of authoritarians. Research on resilience has shown that communities with a strong sense of civic life and social cohesiveness through local Girl Scouts, religious institutions, or recreation centers—along with an inclusive and trusted local government—are more durable. When I lived in the country Georgia, I found that our most impactful work fostered citizen agency and civic infrastructure at the local level. I ran programs that created forums in which the public, local media, and town councils could come together to develop solutions to daily problems in the community, from fixing street lights to sheltering stray dogs. Building a more resistant and discerning citizenry also involves investments in civic education and digital and media literacy education and experiments in national civil service efforts.
Finally, donor countries and democracy assistance organizations must enhance support to democrats in closed societies. At the time it took place, my biggest complaint about Biden’s Summit for Democracy was that rather than having an event on democracy—inclusive of people and ideas from anywhere in the world—organizers adopted a state-based approach and invited countries they deemed as democracies. This left out democrats struggling in non-democracies. I know firsthand that this is complicated, fraught work. It requires donor nations providing much-needed aid and training to civic actors and journalists working from within. They need to feel part of a broader global democracy ecosystem.
The international foreign assistance programs have already been doing many of these things, including in Ukraine. And it was working—there was progress in the conduct of elections, functions of parliament, participation of women, and capabilities of civil society and media. And the world sees, as Zelenskyy highlighted, the heroism of Ukrainians fighting for their democracy and, thus, ours. Democratic nations now need to manifestly expand these efforts but also coordinate them—working in tandem, sharing best practices, and providing more thorough and multifaceted defenses. Democracy should be woven into national and collective security apparatuses, like NATO, and allies must be quicker to act when the warning signals are all there. For which democracy is next?