Ukraine and the Pretense of Democracy

by | Mar 5, 2024

Ukraine and the Pretense of Democracy

by | Mar 5, 2024

ukrainian president volodymyr zelenskyy is holding a news conference in kyiv, ukraine on june 10, 2023

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is holding a news conference in Kiev, Ukraine on June 10, 2023, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine.

When Russian forces expanded their military presence in Ukraine in February 2022, U.S. officials and most of the Western news media portrayed the development as a brazen act of aggression by a dictatorship against a peaceful democracy. The reality was much more complex. Ukraine had allowed itself to become NATO’s pawn in Russia’s security zone. Such a move was bound to create severe tensions, not only between Russia and Ukraine, but between Russia and NATO. In February 2022, regional tensions reached the point of being a full-fledged proxy war between the West and Russia. Moreover, the United States and its NATO allies endeavored to portray the fighting in Ukraine as exceptionally evil.

In President Joe Biden’s initial remarks after Russia’s invasion, he said:

“The Russian military has begun a brutal assault on the people of Ukraine without provocation, without justification, without necessity.”

“We saw a flagrant violation of international law in attempting to unilaterally create two new so-called republics on sovereign Ukrainian territory. And at the very moment that the United Nations Security Council was meeting to stand up for Ukraine’s sovereignty to stave off invasion, Putin declared his war. Within moments—moments, missile strikes began to fall on historic cities across Ukraine. Then came in the air raids, followed by tanks and troops rolling in.”

“Putin is the aggressor. Putin chose this war. And now he and his country will bear the consequences.” 

“God bless the people of a free and democratic Ukraine.”

The initial U.S. version of the war remained largely intact for the first several months. Gradually, though, it became evident that Biden’s version of reality was distorted if not outright fiction. Ukraine was portrayed as the champion of democracy and Western values while Russia became the symbol of post-communist authoritarianism. The reality was that both Russia and Ukraine were corrupt quasi-authoritarian states.

There were ample signs early on that Ukraine was not a worthy democracy. Opposition parties were outlawed. Officials were dismissed for extensive allegations of misconduct. Elections were postponed indefinitely. The United States held elections during two World Wars and the Civil War. Opposition media outlets were banned or heavily censored. In case after case, the standard excuse for such actions was that opponents of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s regime were doing Russia’s bidding in the war. Even religious factions not subservient to the government in Kiev soon found its freedoms in danger. Even national elections for Parliament were soon indefinitely on hold. Under President Zelensky, Ukraine had become a “democracy” without freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, or a system of basic civil liberties.

The Kiev government largely succeeded in portraying most criticisms as shamelessly pro-Russia. But that has been changing over the past few months. Evidence of corruption and repression among Zelensky and his inner circle has become so widespread and noticeable that Westerners who continue to defend the government must confront mounting evidence that Ukraine’s democratic image is far removed from the actual substance.

One important development occurred in the Fall of 2023 when some prominent political figures including Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko accused Zelensky of worrisome authoritarianism. This split in the Ukrainian political elite made it increasingly difficult for Zelensky’s Western admirers to portray critics of the war with Russia as nothing more than pro-Russian traitors. It has even become difficult to denounce Ukrainians and other advocates of negotiations with Russia. That is especially true as the toll of Ukrainian lives has reached alarming levels.

We have reached the point where the most zealous supporters of continuing the bloody slaughter of the Russo-Ukrainian War are outsiders rather than Ukrainians. It is time for the Biden administration and other rabid supporters of the Ukrainian government to act as though simply calling a country a democracy makes a country a democracy.

The Biden administration and many of its supporters in Congress strongly opposed any attempt to condition military aid to Ukraine on requiring an audit of where the aid goes. That resistance has begun to fade in just the past few months.

When Zelensky met with Biden, he was treated as a hero comparable to Winston Churchill in World War II. That attitude among America’s opinion elite was especially evident when Zelensky addressed a joint session of Congress in late December 2022. The Ukraine flag draped the podium in the U.S. House of Representatives. Such hero-worship has faded since then, but Zelensky is still treated as a heroic fighter for freedom. The enthusiasm for the Ukrainian leader continues to fade albeit at a slower pace.

Ukraine is the latest instance in which U.S. leaders have unwisely identified America’s foreign policy interest with those of another country. That approach has once again proven harmful both to the foreign client and the United States.

About Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. Dr. Carpenter also served in various policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato Institute. He is the author of thirteen books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs and the threat that the U.S. national security state poses to peace and civil liberties at home and around the world. Dr. Carpenter’s latest book is "Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy" (2022)

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