With Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine now underway, the U.S. is forced to confront a troubling reality: The post-World War II order is at grave risk. Our global future – and America’s role in the world – rests on two competing views: authoritarianism versus democracy. And right now, authoritarians are on the attack.
Authoritarian nations are run by powerful, often brutal dictators who use violence, coercion and suppression to maintain power over their citizens and exert their autocratic will over other nations through blunt force. In contrast, nations governed by democratic principles follow a framework of laws and legal norms to exercise authority, determine its limits, and respect the sovereignty of other nations which is, in turn, reciprocated by like-minded allies.
Russia is the consummate authoritarian state led by Vladimir Putin, a vicious strongman bent on rebuilding the old Soviet Union and assembling the Iron Curtain again one nation at a time. He will threaten, intimidate, bully, and ultimately, attack to get his way to resurrect the Russian empire.
Ukraine is a fledgling, imperfect democracy struggling to join Western Europe and the United States as a full political, military, and economic partner in the community of democracies. The United States has partnered with the Ukrainian government for years to build democratic norms and a free market economy along European and American models. Like us, Ukrainians seek independence, autonomy, and liberty to forge their own future.
Vladimir Putin cannot allow a democratic, viable, independent Ukraine operating outside of Russia’s oppressive influence. As a prelude to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Putin massed almost 130,000 troops to nearly encircle Ukraine, sealed off the Black Sea, and launched a constant stream of cyber attacks on Ukrainian financial centers and infrastructure. Putin is willing to launch the largest war in Europe since World War II to achieve his imperial goals. his war is of Putin’s choosing alone.
Why should we care?
A maximalist Russian invasion of Ukraine could give rise to enormous human costs with potentially 50,000 civilian deaths and up to five million refugees, with many of them pouring into Poland. Death and mass displacement will disrupt Poland and unsettle all of Western Europe along with foundational American business, financial, and political interests.
Next, and perhaps more importantly, should Putin succeed in annexing Ukraine, he and authoritarian leaders in China, North Korea, and Iran would likely seek further geo-political advantage. Will Russia next invade Estonia, Latavia, Lithuania, or Poland? Will China be emboldened to attack Taiwan? Will North Korea launch a barrage of missile strikes on the nearly 10 million residents of Seoul, South Korea? Will Iran finally achieve a nuclear breakout and unleash an arms race in the Middle East?
Ultimately, the U.S. will be drawn into this great power competition between democracy and authoritarianism – not only for humanitarian reasons, not only because of its treaty obligations, but also because as the most powerful democratic nations in the world will face a series of existential threats not seen since World War II.
The Biden administration must continue to support worldwide democratic values by supplying Ukraine with the most advanced, lethal military weapons and equipment to defend itself and inflict a heavy cost on the Russian aggressors. Second, Secretary of State Blinken must rally our European allies, including pointedly Germany, to provide similar assistance to Ukraine. Third, Secretary of Defense Austin should leverage NATO partners to supply military advisers, training, and intelligence to Ukraine’s military defenders. Fourth, the Biden administration must impose tough, meaningful economic sanctions on Russia, including on Putin himself and his closest advisors. Additionally, the NordStream 2 pipeline cannot move forward and so the U.S. and Qatar must increase the supply of natural gas to Europe. Finally, the United Nations and western aid agencies must prepare now for a massive humanitarian crisis in the heart of Europe.
Neither Ukraine, Western European nations, nor the United States asked for this fight with Russia. The Western powers, however, must stop authoritarian aggression against sovereign nations. Democracy throughout the world – including here in the United States – depends on the Biden administration’s decisive action now.
David Harden is the former Assistant Administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises. He is currently running for Congress in Maryland’s First District.
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