Dying for Freedom and Democracy
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(25 April 2022) —The people of Ukraine took to the streets in massive protests (2013-2014), known as the Maidan protests, to demand democracy, freedom, and good governance over autocracy, political oppression, and corruption. They succeeded. But their success rattled other autocracies in Europe and around the world. The world’s top autocrat, Russian president Vladimir Putin was rattled and determined to reverse the trend. Ukraine’s growing nexus to Western Europe’s liberal democracies, and an autocratic-leaning anti-democratic Putin-friendly president in Washington during the Trump administration hastened the process in the Kremlin.
A brief retrospective, historical perspective on the Ukraine crisis is important. The Maidan Revolution protests erupted when Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Victor Yanukovych backed out of an agreement with the European Union in November 2013 which would have provided for closer political and economic ties between Ukraine and western Europe further strengthening their democratic institutions and guarantee of freedom. After several weeks of protests, Yanukovych’s heavy-handed response and the violent protests resulted in several protesters killed. An EU-brokered end to the violence resulted in an interim government. An emboldened unfettered Ukraine parliament by an overwhelming vote restored the constitution which had been suspended by Yanukovych who fled Kyiv before an imminent impeachment vote that stripped him of all his presidential powers. The interim government charged Yanukovych with mass murder for the deaths of protesters. Exiled in Russia, Yanukovych resurfaced four days after Russia invaded Ukraine with a speech claiming he was still the legitimate president of Ukraine. His expectations, as were Putin’s, were that he would be reinstalled as Russian puppet in Kyiv in short order.
But, as they did in 2014, the people of Ukraine were not prepared to cede their democratic rights and their freedoms to Russia. As they did in 2013-2014, they took to the streets in 2022. The difference this time around, they took up arms to defend and die for their country and their democracy against Putin’s Russia. They were not just about protest and defiance against a corrupt autocratic Putin puppet leader, they are defiant against a brutal autocrat and the powerful military force unleashed by Putin himself. The history of Russia’s invasion will be replete with the bravery of the Ukrainian people, the brutality of the Russian military, heroism of the Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol, Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the Ukrainians’ brave defense of democracy.
One of the world’s largest and most “powerful” autocratic regimes, the Russian Federation, on Ukraine’s eastern border, led by the world’s now most infamous autocrat Vladimir Putin, in a series of actions dating back to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and sponsoring and arming secessionist movements in Ukraine’s Donbas region, moved deliberately to reverse Ukraine’s trend towards democracy. Not only was the democratic movement in Ukraine a bad example by Putin’s judgement for the people of Russia, but democracy next door threatened Putin’s oppressive anti-democracy policies, denial of basic freedoms, and threatened his autocratic regime.
Basic freedoms, which characterize liberal democracies, are denied in Russia, and to varying degrees wherever Russia has a geopolitical footprint – in Syria and elsewhere, including in the Americas. The West, liberal democracies, slow to react to Putin’s geopolitical expansionism, is only now concentrated in stopping Putin’s military advances in Ukraine and Putin’s objectives in Eastern Europe. Halting Putin’s advances in Ukraine has become not only a war to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity but to defend democracy and basic freedoms across the globe.
The Ukrainians having fought for the strengthening of democracy in their political space voted to preserve it. Internally they created institutions to grow their democracy but the threat from without increased as their democracy strengthened. Now, the Ukrainians are in the streets of their country not to advocate for their political freedoms but laying down their lives in a bloody war to preserve the basic freedoms and the democratic ideals they have experienced in only a few short years. The Ukrainians are fighting to preserve and sustain democracy, not just for the people of Ukraine, but for the international community.
And lest we forget, former president Donald Trump cleared the way for Putin to perceive a lack of U.S. support for democracy in Ukraine. Don’t forget Trump’s corrupt quid pro quo which was rejected by Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and Trump illegally blocking military assistance vital to Ukraine’s defense that was overwhelmingly approved by Congress. Trump’s first impeachment was for his illegal failed attempt to bribe Zelenskyy into abandoning democratic principles. Timely transfer of approved military weapons to Ukraine would have given Putin pause and would have been a strong message to Putin that America was committed to defense of democracy in Europe.
America’s weakness in defense of democracy was further messaged by Trump’s violent insurrection, on January 6, 2021, to overturn the U.S. presidential election. Putin was emboldened to pursue his objectives in Ukraine and Eastern Europe without being challenged by a U.S. government seemingly weak on democracy.
The election of Joe Biden as US president not only marked a reversal of a worrying drift to autocracy under former president Donald Trump but changed the geopolitical dynamics in Europe. In Biden the U.S. had a president who strongly believed in democracy, with an unshakable commitment to America’s European partners, and a record of defense of international order and norms. Putin miscalculated Biden’s foreign policy credentials and his ability to generate unified opposition to Russia’s empire ambitions.
Biden’s beliefs in democracy and total rejection of autocracy are empowering to floundering democracies, particularly those nascent democracies threatened from within and without. But it did not end Trump’s embrace of those he perceives as powerful autocrats. Trump seemingly worshiped at the feet of Vladimir Putin and even eschewed his intelligence community to believe Putin’s lies. Trump’s adulation of Putin was not diminished by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
And how soon we have forgotten Trump’s embrace of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, whose rogue regime defies civilized concepts, international norms, and threatens global security with his development of nuclear weapons in defiance of international non-proliferation conventions. Trump’s relationship with Kim was another example of the many historical low points of US geopolitics during the Trump administration.
Biden’s presidency not only halted the drift to autocracy, but immediately began pursuing a reversal of the weakening of domestic and global democracy. Biden launched and led the “Summit for Democracy” (December 9-10, 2021) with leaders of the world’s democracies in 2021. (Biden’s Summit to address challenges to democracy, corruption, and human rights). Biden’s actions would have been perceived by Putin as a threat to Russia’s empire and to isolate him and other autocrats around the world. Putin underestimated Biden’s resolve.
Understandably, autocrats fear democracy because they are forced to govern for the people and not for themselves and their enablers. In democracies, the people freely choose their leaders; and political leaders are held accountable for their actions. While no democracy is perfect or lives up to all democratic ideals, there is no comparison to autocracies and the restrictions on freedoms which distinguish them.
A few of us repeat ad nausea the dangers to democracy, not in autocracies but in what we regard as liberal democracies, especially nascent democracies where governing political parties have unassailable legislative or parliamentary majorities. I have written extensively in The Ward Post, and in commentaries on CaribNation TV, on threats to democracy. (Freedom and Democracy under attack in times of Coronavirus; When Democracy Fails Bad Things Happen: Haiti in Crisis; Assault on Democracy and America’s Response; Democracy Must Deliver Human Security.
It’s a subject we cannot afford to ignore. Democracy dies in citizens apathy. Democracy dies when the right to freely choose governments is constrained or denied. It is nonfeasance if those with a public platform remain silent. It is malfeasance if those with control of governments fail to provide the citizenry with every opportunity to freely protest. and to vote to protect and preserve democracy.
Those who don’t vote passively cede their right to choose who govern them, the quality of governance, and protection of their rights and freedoms to the few who vote. Failure to vote weakens and undermines the democratic process; and it perpetuates the myth of governments by and for the people chosen by the majority of the people. The way to protect freedoms, to protect democratic values, is to vote for the leaders of your choice, for the quality of governance you want. As is often stated, “Democracy dies when the people don’t vote to protect it.” Voting in free and fair elections is one of the most important tools available to the citizenry of democratic countries and fundamental to preserving it.
The autocrat is encouraged when the people don’t exercise their franchise. The autocrat loses when the people vote. Tens of millions voted in the U.S. 2020 presidential election to preserve American democracy. But when autocrats lose, they don’t go quietly. They resort to illegal means to hold on to power. Some will resort to force to oppress the people and rule over them. But they can only succeed in a society where they have been allowed to erode democratic institutions over time – erosion of democracy fostered by citizen apathy.
Freedom loving people have a choice. The people of Ukraine are dying to preserve democracy, while people in many countries are killing democracy with apathy. Ukrainians are the true patriots. Where do you stand, or do you fall? Do you stand for democracy, or do you fall into autocracy? Choose while you still can!
© Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post