“The war in Ukraine is a war in general for values: life, democracy, freedom. So this is a war all over the world,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said. “Today the Ukrainian people are defending not only Ukraine, we are fighting for the values of Europe and the world… That’s why today the American people,” he insisted, “are helping not just Ukraine, but Europe, and the world.”
Zelensky was not the first to bring this message that Ukraine is fighting for “the fate of everyone,” that in its “fight for democracy” it is “preserving freedom” and “protect[ing] the free world.” Since the beginning of the war, U.S. President Joe Biden has framed the war in Ukraine as “the great battle for freedom: a battle between democracy and autocracy.”
Though, perhaps, an effective narrative for framing the war in a way that effectively sells the war to the American public, the democracy versus autocracy justification, for all the money that has been spent and all the Ukrainian lives that have been lost, suffers from one problem: not one of Russia, Ukraine or the U.S. is fighting for democracy.
Russia has never concerned itself with Ukraine’s choice of a democratic form of government. As Suzanne Loftus points out in her new book, Russia, China and the West in the Post-Cold War Era, “In all of Ukraine’s post-Soviet history, Russia never actively sought to destroy its democratic system of government.” Russia is not concerned with Ukraine’s choice of system of government, it is concerned with Ukraine’s choice to allow itself to become a heavily Western weaponized anti-Russian bridgehead on its very border. It is not a political concern: it is a national security concern; it is not about Ukraine joining the American political system: it is about Ukraine joining the American security system. The concern is over, not democracy, but NATO.
Russia is not fighting against democracy. And the U.S. is not fighting for democracy. Biden cannot convince the global majority to sacrifice for this cause because most of them know first hand that this has never been America’s cause. Many countries in the global majority have experienced the trauma of the U.S. taking out a democracy in favour of a pro-American autocracy first hand. Many more have experienced American coups and American disrespect for their democracy. All of them have witnessed America partnering with countries that are far more autocratic than Russia.
Most importantly, though, Ukraine is not fighting for democracy. It struggles to convince the world that it is fighting for democracy abroad because it cannot convince the world that it is fighting for democracy at home. In an op-ed for Newsweek, former Defense Intelligence Agency senior official Rebekah Koffler says that “Washington deployed a propaganda narrative insisting that it was helping Ukraine fight for its democracy,” but that “Ukraine, the most corrupt country in Europe, is no more of a democracy than Russia is.”
Sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko says that, while there is some evidence from surveys that more Ukrainians support democratic values since the war began, there is equally strong evidence “that Ukrainians still prefer a strong leader rather than a democratic system and do not tolerate wartime dissent.”
Since the beginning of the war being fought, according to the narrative, for democracy, democracy in Ukraine has taken significant steps backward.
In the background of the war, Ishchenko says, “Ukrainian politics carries on in the background, shutting down opposition parties, monopolizing television broadcasts, vigilantism that typically goes unpunished, expanding databases of ‘traitors’… and attacks on those dissenting from the patriotic consensus.”
The democratic back steps can be divided into four categories: political freedom, freedom of speech, religious freedom and the cultural rights of minorities.
In March 2022, Zelensky signed a law that formally banned opposition parties. The ban covered eleven political parties, including the Opposition Platform for Life party that holds 10% of the seats in the Rada.
Freedom of Speech
“Since the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022,” The New York Times reports, “the people of Ukraine have had access to a single source of television news.” That single source is called Telemarathon United News. Like a marathon, it has gone on for the long run; unlike a marathon, it has no competitors. Enacted on March 18, 2022, the presidential decree implemented “a unified information policy . . . by unifying all national TV channels, the programming content of which consists mainly of information and/or information and analytical programs on a single information platform of strategic communication – 24-hour informational marathon.”
Three opposition TV news channels were barred shortly after the decree. According to The Times, Telemarathon “has been a major tool of Ukraine’s information war.” Zelensky called it “a weapon.”
In March 2023, a new media law was adopted that extended the censorship powers of a body appointed by the president and parliament to print and online media. Nicolai Petro, professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island and the author of The Tragedy of Ukraine, says that the council “now has the authority to review the content of all Ukrainian media, prohibit content it deems a threat to the nation, and issue mandatory directives to media outlets.” David Rundell and Michael Gfoeller in an op-ed that appeared in Newsweek, say that the law gives the council the power “to censor and shut down independent platforms.” Petro told me that the council also now has the power to block “any registered media site through an expedited court proceeding.”
“At this point there are no independent television stations broadcasting news in Ukraine,” say David Rundell and Michael Gfoeller in an op-ed that appeared in Newsweek. “Print and digital media remain heavily censored.” And the situation is not scheduled to improve. Petro says that “In 2024, the National Council’s supervisory functions will expand even further, and they will not expire after the end of the war.”
Freedom of Religion
Freedom of religion is protected by the constitution of Ukraine. But that constitution doesn’t seem to be providing very much protection since the war began.
“In December 2022, Zelensky banned the activities of all religious organizations linked to Russia,” Rundell and Gfoeller report. “This included Ukraine’s largest denomination, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.”
Petro explains that “The Ukrainian government sees the church as an agent of Russian influence.” But, he says, “the UOC cut administrative ties with the Russian Orthodox Church in 1990,” before the war, “and ended all formal canonical ties with it in May 2022,” after the war. From the first days of the war, the Primate of the UOC expressed the church’s loyalty to Ukraine and condemnation of Russia’s war.
Despite expressing its loyalty, not to Moscow, but to Kiev, several clergy of the UOC are being investigated for the crime of “provok[ing] conflicts that undermine social unity.” And in October 2023, Petro says that the Ukrainian parliament initiated “step[s] toward banning the church entirely by approving a bill that bans religious groups “affiliated with centers of influence … located outside Ukraine, in the state conducting military aggression against Ukraine.”
Like the steps to limit political freedom and freedom of the press and speech, these steps to roll back freedom of religion contradict the narrative that support for Ukraine against Russia is support for democracy against autocracy. Democracies do not ban religious denominations. The West often says that the war is about “preserving freedom” and the freedom to choose. But recent moves in Ukraine are inconsistent with those freedoms. Ukraine seeks membership in the European Union. But Article 10 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights guarantees the right of everyone “to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” It promises the “freedom to change religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or in private, to manifest religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”
Cultural Rights of Minorities
As the banning of political parties, media outlets and religious denominations that are seen to be sympathetic to anything Russian demonstrates, Russophile Ukrainians have been the particular target of antidemocratic reforms in Ukraine.
Advancing a monist vision of Ukraine that does not recognize anything that is ethnic Russian in the Ukrainian national identity, Ishchenko says that Ukraine has set out on a path of “abolishing anything related to Russian influence in culture, education and the public sphere.” He says that Ukraine has adopted “a politics centered around the affirmation of belonging to a particular essentialized group.” And that politics has no room for anything ethnically Russian.
The primary target of the assault on Russophile Ukrainians is language. Russophile Ukrainians, Petro says, are Ukrainians who identify with Russian language, culture or religion.
Loftus says that in 2019, “the law made the use of Ukrainian compulsory in all walks of life such as political campaigns, schools, universities, scientific, cultural and sporting activities, book publishing, printed mass media, television and radio broadcasting, in economic and social life, and hospitals and nursing homes.” Petro reports that “A 2021 law fines the use of Russian in the service sector, while other laws have targeted Russian-language media, books, films, and music, even when they are produced in Ukraine.”
Petro says that since Ukrainian law “does not recognize Russians as indigenous to Ukraine,” they “have no claim to legal protection of their cultural heritage and language.” Loftus says that, while languages that are “native” to Ukraine, like Crimean Tartar, English and other EU languages were given exemptions, “Russian, Byelorussian and Yiddish were not part of these exemptions.” Petro reports that the law on the rights of national minorities passed in 2022 as part of accession negotiations with the EU, specifically exempted Russian speaking Ukrainians from protection during, and for five years following, martial law. Petro says that denial of protection for Russian culture heritage and language is “a direct contradiction of Article 10 of the Ukrainian constitution,” which states that “In Ukraine, the free development, use and protection of Russian, and other languages of national minorities of Ukraine, is guaranteed.”
Democracies do not exclude, abandon and fail to protect their multicultural minorities. They also do not pass laws that violate their own constitutions.
Democracy is not advancing in Ukraine: it is on the retreat. The failure to convince the world that Ukraine is fighting for democracy at home challenges the narrative that Ukraine is fighting for democracy globally.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.