After an expansion of freedom and democracy since 1980 there has been a reversal that has been labeled a “democratic recession.” In this period democratically elected strongmen and authoritarian leaders have consolidated power in Russia, Venezuela, India, Turkey and Hungary. These leaders have suffocated freedom and represent the style of leadership Fareed Zakaria warned of in his 1997 article and 2003 book, “The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.”
The latest chapters in this growing trend have been authored by Vladimir Putin. He invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 and 2022 to dominate his neighbors and demonstrate that NATO and the West were powerless to stop him.
In March, I wrote, “Putin is betting the Russian population will be able to live with harsh economic sanctions longer than the citizens of the West can afford to care about Ukraine. He also believes the Russian population can hold out longer than the leaders of the West can stay in office…The political and economic wherewithal of the West is being tested.”
After the invasion NATO closed ranks and Germany broke with precedent to provide lethal aid to Ukraine. These resources, combined with the courage of the Ukrainian people and an ingenious guerrilla strategy, allowed the Ukrainians to drive the Russian military out of its North. No one predicted this outcome.
A professor and Russian expert claimed the Ukrainians “ripped the guts out of Russia’s military.” The Russian military is now cornered in the East and South. Military aid from the West has been sufficient so the Ukrainians can continue to pound the Russian military. The West has the military and financial resources to keep the Ukrainian war effort going for a considerable period of time. But the prior political cohesion is being undermined by an economic downturn, political division and opportunism.
As Ukraine’s military situation has improved much of the world has seen an economic decline. Europe, Asia and the U.S. have been hit with a generational wall of inflation. Voters are outraged and blame their elected leaders for these economic woes. In April sixty-three Republicans voted against a resolution supporting NATO and in May twenty percent of Republicans in the Senate voted against a bill to provide military aid to Ukraine. The isolationist faction in Congress is expected to grow in November.
President Biden’s popularity is at a new low and in Europe pro-Ukrainian leaders are under siege. In the U.K., Boris Johnson resigned, Italy’s prime minister resigned, Germany is rationing energy, and the French President lost his majority in parliament. At the same time pro-Putin leaders, like Viktor Orban in Hungary and Marie LePen in France have seen their popularity grow.
Scholars have warned that the growth of authoritarianism and elimination of freedom in much of the world is a coordinated and expanding trend. If Putin can credibly call his “special military operation” in Ukraine a “success” how much blow back, against the forces of democracy and liberty, will there be?
According to Tatiana Stanovaya with the Carnegie Endowment the Russians plan to continue the war for another year or more. During this time the Russians hope to expand their coalition with China, India and the Middle East to include Turkey and Western nations other than Hungary. Stanovaya explained that Putin believes his opponents in the West are “slaves to the electoral cycle” and “incapable of strategic thinking.”
Over time, Putin believes he can cleave off those who want normal relations with Russia including average citizens tired of high energy prices, businesses looking for opportunity and political leaders like Orban, LePen and Donald Trump. As economic conditions worsen Putin believes his opponents will be swept from office and leaders, less hostile to his actions in Ukraine, will replace them.
Putin will then be able to sue for peace in Ukraine from a position of strength. If this occurs, Stanovaya explains Putin will force Ukraine to sack Zelensky, his team and the country’s military leaders. This would have profound consequences globally.
Would it encourage China to invade Taiwan? Will Turkey and Russia expand their military control in Syria and North Africa? Will more reporters and opposition politicians be arrested, poisoned or killed? Will more election results be voided? Will the freedoms of speech, assembly, religion and press continue to disappear?
In the U.S., polarized Americans are so busy blaming each other for their problems, they don’t see a world sliding towards an age of authoritarianism, or fail to recognize it as in the case of Ron DeSantis, here in Florida. DeSantis’ inspirations come not from our history of democracy in the United States, but from elected authoritarians abroad.
As a war-weary United States shrinks from global leadership, it’s worth considering the cost. Will the West show resolve in the crucible of Ukraine or will a Putin victory give a greenlight to a growing authoritarian wave?