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.