The country’s military is advancing on the battlefield. If Ukraine defeats Russia’s massive army, the ripple effects will be felt across the globe.
The war in Ukraine, now in its seventh month, marks a critical juncture that will determine the course of global democracy. There are three important points to be made about its significance.
First is the question of why the war occurred in the first place. The argument was made, even before the Russian invasion, that Vladimir Putin was being driven by fear of NATO expansion and was seeking a neutral buffer to protect his country. While Putin doubtless disliked the idea that Ukraine could enter NATO, this was not his real motive. Ukrainian membership was never imminent. NATO expansion was not a plot hatched in Washington, London, or Paris to drive the alliance as far east as possible. It was driven by the former satellites of the former USSR, which had been dominated by that country since 1945 and were convinced that Russia would try to do so again once the balance of power turned to Russia’s favor. Putin, moreover, has explained very clearly what was at stake. In a long article written in 2021 and in a speech on the eve of the invasion, he castigated the breakup of the Soviet Union and asserted that Russians and Ukrainians were “one people” artificially separated. More broadly, Russian demands in the leadup to the war made it very clear that Moscow objected to the entire post-1991 European settlement that created a “Europe whole and free.” Russian war aims would not be satisfied by a neutral Ukraine; that neutrality would have to extend across Europe.
The real threat perceived by Putin was in the end not to the security of Russia, but to its political model. He has asserted that liberal democracy didn’t work generally, but was particularly inappropriate in the Slavic world. A free Ukraine belied that assertion, and for that reason had to be eliminated.
The second critical point concerns Western solidarity in support of Ukraine. Up to now, the continuing supply of weapons and economic sanctions have been absolutely critical to Ukraine’s ability to resist Russian power. Most observers have in fact been surprised by the degree of solidarity shown by NATO, and particularly by the turnaround in German foreign policy. However, the Russians have now cut off a large part of the gas they supply to Europe in retaliation for Western sanctions, and there are huge uncertainties as to whether foreign support will continue as the weather gets colder and energy prices continue to rise all over Europe.
In this respect, the most critical variable to watch is the outcome of the current military conflict. Political analysts typically believe that military outcomes reflect underlying political forces, but in Ukraine today the opposite is true: The country’s political future will depend first and foremost on its battlefield success in the short run.
Over the summer, when Russia had withdrawn from its initial effort to occupy Kyiv and the fighting was centered in the Donbas, a conventional wisdom emerged that Ukraine and Russia were locked in a “long war” (featured on the cover of the Economist). Many asserted it was inevitable that there would be a stalemate and war of attrition that might go on for years. As Ukraine’s forward military momentum slowed, there were Western voices arguing that peace negotiations and territorial concessions from Ukraine were necessary.
Had this advice been followed, it would have led to a terrible outcome: Russia keeping the parts of Ukraine it had swallowed, leaving a rump country unable to ship exports out of its southern ports. Such a negotiation would not bring peace; Russia would simply wait until it had reconstituted its military to restart the war.
By contrast, if Ukraine can regain military momentum before the end of 2022, it will be much easier for leaders of Western democracies to argue that their people should tighten their belts over the coming winter. For that reason, military progress in the short term is critical for the Western coalition to hold together.
The prospect that Ukraine can actually regain military momentum is entirely possible; indeed, it is likely in my view and unfolding as we speak. The Ukrainian general staff has been extremely smart in its overall strategy, focusing not on the Donbas but on liberating parts of the south that were occupied by Russia in the first weeks of the war. Ukrainian forces have used NATO-supplied weapons, particularly the HIMARS long-range rocket system, to attack ammunition depots, command posts, and logistics hubs all along the front. They have succeeded in attacking supposedly secure Russian rear areas deep in the Crimean peninsula. At the moment, 25,000 to 30,000 Russian troops are trapped in a pocket around the southern city of Kherson, which lies on the west bank of the Dnipro River. The Ukrainians have succeeded in taking out the bridges connecting Kherson to Russia, and have been slowly tightening the noose around these forces. It is possible that the Russian position there will collapse catastrophically and that Moscow will lose a good part of its remaining army.
More broadly, morale on the Ukrainian side has been immensely higher than on the Russian side. Ukrainians are fighting for their own land, and have seen the atrocities committed by Russian forces in areas the latter have already occupied. The Russian military, by contrast, has had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to replace the manpower it has already lost, recruiting prison convicts and people from the poorer ethnic minorities to do the fighting that ethnic Russians seem unwilling to do themselves.
Thirdly, a Russian military failure—meaning at minimum the liberation of territories conquered after 24 February 2022—will have enormous political reverberations around the world. Russia and China prior to the war argued that liberal democracies, particularly the United States, were in decline. They argued that their authoritarian systems were better at accomplishing big tasks and acting decisively. What has happened instead is that the Russian model of centralized decision-making, centered around one man, has committed one of the gravest political blunders in recent history. Putin, isolated during the pandemic and out of touch with the reality both of his own military and of public opinion in Ukraine, believed that he would be greeted there as a liberator. China, for its part, is seeing its rate of growth tanking as the result of a “zero-Covid” policy that its paramount leader, Xi Jinping, seems determined not to waver from. Western democracies, by contrast, have appeared united and determined in the face of this challenge.
If the Ukrainians don’t simply hold out against Russia but actually defeat Russia’s massive army and force it to retreat, the positive reverberations will be felt across the globe. Populist nationalists around the world, from Viktor Orbán to Matteo Salvini to Marine Le Pen to Donald Trump, have expressed admiration for Putin’s style of strongman rule. A Russian defeat and humiliation will puncture this narrative of the advantages of authoritarian government, and might lead to a rekindling of democratic self-confidence. It has been easy for publics in Western democracies to take for granted the peace and prosperity brought about by the liberal world order. It may be the case that every generation needs to relearn the lesson that the alternatives to liberal democracy lead to violence, repression, and ultimately economic failure. Such a lesson will be driven home if the world sees brave Ukrainians fighting for their country succeed beyond all expectations.
Ukraine will win. Slava Ukraini!
Francis Fukuyama is Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. This essay is based on a talk he gave at the Forum 2000 Conference in Prague on “Democracy’s Clear and Present Danger” on 31 August 2022.
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