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Ukraine: The First Frontline in the Battle for Democracy

“We are here to support your just cause.” These eight words have stood with the people of Ukraine since Senator John McCain said them in 2013 to thousands of Ukrainians who had packed into the Maidan Square in Kyiv to protest a Viktor Yanukovych administration that refused to acknowledge and support the will of the people.

Fueled by a desire to leave behind a government entangled in corruption and human rights abuses, those thousands of protestors, along with the support of millions of their fellow countrymen, succeeded in removing Yanukovych. This enabled Ukrainians to continue their experiment with democracy and build a free and equal system of government. For a country that suffered at the hands of the Soviet Union for decades, this represented a new beginning and an era of hope for stability.

That stability was immediately threatened just a short time later in 2014 as Russian President Vladimir Putin, threatened by a free and independent Ukraine, annexed Crimea – a part of sovereign Ukraine – and began to back separatists in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. Though Ukraine was now bogged down in a fight to maintain control of its sovereign territory and lost thousands of troops and civilians since the incursion began, they continued in their quest for fulfilling what Senator McCain described as “the sovereign right of Ukraine to determine its own destiny freely and independently.”

While the world has long been aware of Putin’s track record of disrupting the sovereignty of former Soviet states and human rights abuses on his own people, it seems to have been caught off guard by his boldest and most consequential move yet: the launch of an all-out military invasion of Ukraine in the early hours of February 24, 2022.

It is as if the global community did not properly heed the dire warning signs that something of this magnitude would be possible. Putin, driven by a distorted sense of nostalgia for the days of the Soviet Union, has long thumbed his nose at the West through a series of troubling actions:  the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, rigged internal elections to ensure Putin’s continued reign, recent interference with elections in the United States and around the world, the 2014 annexation of Crimea and continued support of separatists in the Donbas.

All of these actions and many more, often conducted under false pretexts of Western aggression, should have raised alarms around throughout the West that something more consequential was brewing. Though it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why Putin would take such bold and violent action that will surely bring untold hardship to his own country’s citizens, his statements in the weeks and days leading up to the invasion should not be missed.

While the invasion of Ukraine is certainly an attack on sovereignty and democratic growth, it is also an assault on the idea of democracy. The idea of free and fair elections, guaranteed through democracy, terrify Putin, and he has decided to attack the threat head on. As President Joe Biden noted, the so called “special operation” may be a part of a much grander plan to reshape and realign post-Soviet states throughout Europe. It is, however, almost certainly a part of plan to further disrupt the sanctity of democracy around the world which could have dire consequences both at home and abroad.

February 24 may very well be our final warning sign, and we need to do everything we can as a nation and through our trans-Atlantic partnerships to stop Putin in his tracks. As millions of Ukrainians suddenly find themselves on the frontline of the battle for democracy, we must recognize and support their efforts to hold on to a free and independent Ukraine. Europe and the United States must put forth a strong and comprehensive defense of our shared values and principles in order to effectively deter Putin from taking his assault on democracy further. A failure to do so could have catastrophic consequences for years to come in Europe and throughout the world. There may be no more just of a cause than doing everything we can to support Ukraine in this unconscionable moment.

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Scott Nemeth
Publish Date
March 1, 2022