The Volokh Conspiracy

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Two Illiberal and Unjust Zelensky Policies the West Should Force Him to End

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is leading his nation a just cause. But we should not allow him to impose censorship and emigration bans in the process. A nation fighting for freedom must not undermine it.


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. March 21, 2022 (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office).


Ukraine is fighting a brutal and indefensible Russian invasion. Their cause is just, and the Ukrainian government is vastly preferable to the sort of puppet regime Vladimir Putin would install if he prevails.  Indeed, from the standpoint of liberal democratic values, Ukraine is far better than Putin's increasingly repressive rule in Russia itself. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky deserves credit for his inspiring leadership under fire.

But these realities should not blind us to the injustice of two deeply illiberal policies enacted by Zelensky in the wake of the Russian invasion: decrees forbidding all men aged 18-60 from leaving the country, and imposing government control over all previously independent TV channels. Zelensky has appealed for increased Western aid on the ground that "we….are fighting for freedom and in defense of democracy together." The two decrees are blatantly inconsistent with those principles. The West should use its leverage to force him to end them. Doing so would simultaneously advance liberal values, and strengthen our position in the conflict against Putin's authoritarian regime.

The exit ban imposed on men has lead to heartrending scenes at Ukraine's borders, as women and children are forced to separate from their fathers and husbands. In addition to the pain and restrictions on liberty imposed on the men themselves, it has also increased the suffering of female and underage refugees, who are forced to make do without them.

Even most liberal political theorists who who believe governments are justified in restricting entry by immigrants generally agree that they are not justified in barring exit. That's one of the reasons why virtually all liberal democrats condemned the Berlin Wall and other emigration bans imposed by communist governments. Zelensky's policy is an obvious violation of that fundamental principle.

The rationale for the travel ban is the supposed need to keep the men in Ukraine, so that they can be drafted into the armed forces, if necessary. Military conscription is itself a grave injustice, incompatible with liberal principles. That's one of the reasons why most liberal democracies have ended it in recent decades. The fact that various liberal democracies practiced it in the past or even today does not by itself prove its compatibility with liberal values. States can fail to live up to their principles, and indeed often do. But even if conscription is defensible in extreme cases where there is no other way to ensure national defense, Zelensky's decree is still unjustified.

Ukraine is not suffering from a shortage of manpower. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians  have volunteered to fight, and Ukrainian military has even had to turn away some of them. Many thousands of foreigners have also volunteered to fight for Ukraine—again to the point that some are being turned away (especially if they lack previous military experience) or forced to wait until weapons become available. Even if a manpower shortage does unexpectedly arise, Zelensky's decree covers vastly more men than could possibly be needed in any remotely plausible scenario.

For obvious reasons, volunteers are likely to be better and more highly motivated fighters than conscripts who serve only because they have been compelled to do so. The poor performance of Russian conscripts in Ukraine is a case in point. In addition, many of the men covered by the travel ban are unlikely to prove to be effective soldiers, for any number of reasons related to temperament, skills, and physical ability. Zelensky's decree goes far beyond any possible conscription-based  rationale, even if the latter were defensible to begin with (which it is isn't).

At this point, Ukraine needs weapons to arm its large numbers of volunteers, not forced laborers. The West should give them as many weapons as possible—but condition at least some of that assistance on Zelensky's ending his travel ban imposed on Ukrainian men. No government claiming to fight for freedom should impose such a cruel and pointless restriction on liberty.

The Ukrainian government's takeover of private TV channels probably causes less suffering. But it is just as illiberal and indefensible. It is a dangerous assault on freedom of speech and press. The government's rationale for this measure is the need to ensure a "unified information policy" in time of war. The justification actually highlights the illiberal and undemocratic nature of the policy. A "unified information policy" is deeply inimical to democracy, which requires an independent media willing and able to question the government line.

Government takeovers of private media for the purpose of forcing it to toe the official line are a classic tool in the incipient authoritarian's playbook. For a textbook example, we need look no further than Vladimir Putin, who started by seizing control of private TV networks, and most recently put an end to nearly all independent media.

Ukraine's media policies—so far—are not nearly as repressive as Putin's. State control is limited to TV channels, and does not extend to print, radio, and internet outlets. But things are obviously moving in the wrong direction. This, too, is a policy the West should force Zelensky to reverse.

The Ukrainian government's human rights violations might be rationalized on the grounds that they are just temporary emergency measures that will be repealed when the war is over. Perhaps so. But history shows that repression begun during emergencies often persists long afterwards. Moreover, the emergency might well continue for a long time to come. Even if large-scale fighting ends soon, Russia and Ukraine might remain in a tense military standoff on into the indefinite future. An emergency situation could easily persist for years on end. And it could be used to rationalize the continuation of these repressive policies—and perhaps others, as well.

Forcing Zelensky to end these injustices isn't just a matter of moral principle. There is a strategic advantage to it, as well. The conflict between liberal democracy and Putin's authoritarianism is a war of ideas, as well as a military and geopolitical confrontation. One of the reasons why Putin invaded Ukraine in the first place is the fear that a successful liberal democracy there might create a dangerous (from Putin's perspective!) example for the Russian people. To prevail in the war of ideas, we need a Ukrainian government that actually lives up to liberal values as much as possible, not one that practices a kid of Putinism-lite.

Foreign policy is an often-sordid business. Sometimes, we have little choice but to put up with illiberal allies, either because we lack the leverage to force them to change, or because the available alternatives to these regimes are even worse. Zelensky's human rights violations are modest, not only compared to Putin's, but also relative to those of such longtime US allies as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

In this case, however, the US and other Western nations have a great deal of leverage by virtue of Ukraine's need for large-scale military and economic assistance, that it cannot get anywhere else. And the alternative to Zelensky with these two awful policies is Zelensky without them! The latter is both politically feasible and clearly superior to the former.

Ukraine's brave resistance to Russian aggression deserves our support. But its people also deserve a government that genuinely respects liberal democratic values. The West can and should use its leverage to help ensure they get it.

UPDATE: I have made a few minor additions to this post.