Russia’s Attack on Ukraine is Part of a Larger Wave of Authoritarianism
Autocrats have made enormous gains in the international system. They’re also cooperating for one shared purpose: to stay in power, by any means necessary.
Vladimir Putin’s brutal, unprovoked, and unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine is an affront to the basic rights of the Ukrainian people and on democracy itself. But frighteningly, the ruthlessness behind the indiscriminate savagery in Bucha, Kharkiv, Mariupol, and elsewhere reverberates beyond Ukraine: The Kremlin’s war of aggression reflects a tide of authoritarianism that has been growing for many years and poses a dire threat to freedom around the world.
Following years of democratic expansion globally, the world is now facing its 16th consecutive year of democratic recession, as was reported by Freedom House’s most recent edition of Freedom in the World. This democratic recession means that there are more countries and territories in which freedoms are increasingly restricted than those in which freedom is expanding.
In 2021, 60 countries suffered declines in freedom and democracy, while only 25 countries improved, the fewest net improvements since the decline began. The global democratic decline is not abating. It is deepening.
This troubling democratic recession has left fewer and fewer people living under the protection of a democratic government. In 2021, only 20% of the world’s population lived in a nation that Freedom House assessed as Free. The remainder — amounting to some 6.2 billion people —live in countries assessed as Partly Free or Not Free, in environments where full political rights and protections for fundamental freedoms are far from guaranteed.
The Kremlin’s war of aggression reflects a tide of authoritarianism that has been growing for many years and poses a dire threat to freedom around the world.
Authoritarians have made enormous gains in the international system, and they’re using their influence to undermine democracy as a system of government. Countries that have struggled in the space between democracy and authoritarianism have begun tilting toward authoritarianism, because established authoritarians are offering alternative sources of support and investment. Putin perceived Ukraine as pulling away from an authoritarian path, in which corrupt power brokers might have been receptive to enticements from Moscow. He ultimately responded with an ongoing, savage invasion.
Authoritarian regimes like Putin’s are threatened by democracy because the power of individuals and civic groups, rule of law, and respect for diverse opinions — all of which are central to democracy — potentially undermine authoritarians’ grip on power. Democracy is the only form of government that allows for the peaceful exchange of ideas and resolution of disagreement in which all citizens have an equal say in decisions that affect their lives. It gives people the right to join the opposition and to vote their leaders out of power — and to speak out against the abuses of authoritarian governments like that of Russia, where people have almost no political and civil rights.
Authoritarian regimes like Putin’s are threatened by democracy because the power of individuals and civic groups, rule of law, and respect for diverse opinions — all of which are central to democracy — potentially undermine authoritarians’ grip on power.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also highlights a troubling trend of increased cooperation among authoritarian states to attack democratic norms and institutions. One only need shift their gaze slightly to see this disturbing trend play out. The Kremlin has propped up Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s dictatorship in Belarus since massive protests in 2020 over the country’s fraudulent elections threatened his seat in power. Lukashenka, has, in turn, provided a launching base for Russian troops invading Ukraine.
Russia and Belarus are by no means the only authoritarian-governed countries collaborating to undermine democracy and human rights. Turkey was once a safe haven for China’s persecuted Uyghur population, but authoritarian alignment has put that to an end. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has shifted his stance to meet Beijing’s demands, making it harder for Uyghurs to obtain and keep permanent residence permits; several hundred have been detained in deportation centers.
Such authoritarian collaboration is threatening members of other marginalized groups seeking refuge abroad, as well as human rights defenders who have fled persecution at home, only to find themselves threatened in nations with nondemocratic leaders. Authoritarian governments have also cooperated when using transnational repression to silence their own exiled dissidents. They have used tools like detention, rendition, Interpol abuse, coercion by proxy, and digital surveillance.
Cooperation among autocrats isn’t based on a unifying ideology or true “friendship” among authoritarians. It is based on a single shared interest: staying in power, by any means necessary. With political and other leaders facing fewer deterrents to antidemocratic behavior, we should prepare ourselves for more destabilizing events.
Despite these alarming trends, democracy is far from defeated. Around the world, courageous human rights activists are raising their voices to advocate for democratic change in their countries. From Hong Kong to Sudan, Cuba to Myanmar, activists are facing persecution, imprisonment, and sometimes even death in order to fight for their freedom. The desire to live free is inherent, and people everywhere share that longing.
Reversing the tide of rising authoritarianism will take work, primarily led by democratic governments in collaboration with activists in countries that still have repressive leadership. Established and aspiring autocrats are working, and working together, to consolidate and expand their power, and it will require a countervailing movement from democratic nations to reverse this. They’re not going to stop unless we and other champions of democracy stand together and make them.
Reversing the tide of rising authoritarianism will take work, primarily led by democratic governments in collaboration with activists in countries that still have repressive leadership.
This will require collaborative efforts to reduce the corruption that fuels authoritarian governments, support for democratic activists in closed societies, and coordinated political and economic pressure on autocrats to isolate them from the global arena. Global collaboration is the only way to reverse democratic decline and help people secure and protect their fundamental rights.