The war in Ukraine has engendered a confrontation between authoritarian and democratic regimes, and latter could emerge from it with greater stature.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine has opened up a major confrontation between the democracies and the authoritarian regimes. It has put an end to the post-Cold War period with the return of war to Europe and the possibility of its escalating to chemical or nuclear warfare. It also marks the end of globalization, with blocs being formed on the bases of ideology, politics, economics or technology, and with priority being given to sovereignty and security.
The democracies are entering this new era from a difficult situation. As in the 1930s, they have both external and internal commitments: they have to meet the challenges posed by authoritarian regimes whilst curbing their domestic crises and overcoming their divisions. However, since the beginning of the century, they have no longer had control over world order, capitalism, climate, or the models and principles that govern the thinking and behavior of human beings.
The succession of lost wars – from Afghanistan to the Sahel –, the 2008 crash, and then the Euro crisis, waves of immigration, and the Covid-19 pandemic have made cracks in our societies. The decay of the middle classes caused by globalization and the digital revolution have fostered social anger. The result has been a wave of populism, which has unfolded since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, and has seen the emergence of illiberal democracies – softer versions of démocratures [démocrature = a combination of democracy and dictatorship]. So, since 2012, the number of true democracies has fallen from 42 to 34, only 13% of the world’s population now live under democratic regimes.
The principle that was put into place in 1945 and consecrated in 1989 – that democracy, free trade and the leadership of the United States created peace and prosperity – has had a hole punched through it. The crisis in democracy, amplified by the strategic withdrawal of the USA, has opened a space into which the authoritarian regimes have moved. They have asserted their superiority as managers of development, and guarantors of security and political stability. They have exported their model: Russia by military force, notably by means of the Wagner mercenary group, and China by means of the “New Silk Roads”. They have also made an alliance, formalized by the partnership agreement of 4th February 2022, which aims at building a post-Western world, rejecting political freedom, and structured around imperial spheres of influence.
The Russian offensive in Ukraine should have meant the decline and disintegration of the West, bringing the superiority of the authoritarian regimes into the heart of Europe and opening the door for China to annex Taiwan. A new situation has indeed appeared, but quite different from the one that Moscow and Beijing had imagined.
On the international front, a new iron curtain has descended over Europe, cutting off Russia. Although most of the Southern countries are remaining cautiously neutral, judging that this new fratricidal conflict that is tearing up a Europe hated for its colonial past is not their fight, the extreme violence shown by the Russian army in Ukraine is causing public indignation throughout the world. At the same time, falling growth rates and the disorganization of trade (as in energy and food) are putting a large number of countries in a critical situation, notably in Africa.
At the moment, the war in Ukraine has not been a success for the authoritarian empires. For Russia, the lightning war has failed, 20% of its armed forces have been lost, its GDP has shrunk by 15%, its population has decreased, the elite have gone into exile, it has been ostracized by the developed nations, and it has become totally dependent on China. For Beijing with its economy slowing down, the cost of the “unlimited friendship” with Moscow is getting higher and higher, at a time when the 20th Party Congress is due to grant a third term of office to Xi Jinping.
At the same time, far from being humiliated, the democracies have woken up. Ukraine, with the economic and military support of the West, is showing that it is possible to put up a successful resistance to aggression and violence on the part of autocrats. Public opinion and ordinary citizens are mobilizing to welcome refugees, to support Ukraine, and to condemn Russian aggression and crimes. The European Union has emerged from denial and is proving how reactive it can be, with an unexpected determination and unity in setting up sanctions against Russia and organizing rearmament. Above all, the United States could well be the ultimate winner of the war, from both an economic standpoint (with demand for its energy, weaponry and agricultural products) and a strategic one (with the renewal of its alliances, NATO first and foremost).
In all, the Ukraine war therefore gives us reasons for hope with regard to political freedom, which continues to defy and disturb the autocrats. But this is on condition that democratic societies come to an agreement on a global riposte and resist any long-term political, economic and social effects that the conflict might bring. The containment of authoritarian regimes depends on the ability of free nations to reform and remain true to their values. This decisive combat is far from being won, as has been shown by the victory of Viktor Orbán in Hungary.
France is now in the front line. Were Marine Le Pen to win the presidential election, this would not only considerably speed up our country’s decline, but would also divide Europe and make the democracies even more fragile. It is the duty of all French people to stop this from happening.
(Article published in Le Point, 13th April 2022)