The Volokh Conspiracy

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A Conflict Between Liberal Democracy and Authoritarian Nationalism: Implications of the Ideological Stakes in the Russia-Ukraine War

The war is often described as a conflict between authoritarianism and liberal democracy. That reality has some underappreciated implications.


Many have called the war between Russia and Ukraine a conflict between liberal democracy and authoritarianism. President Biden certainly has. For his part, Vladimir Putin is a longtime enemy of Western liberal values—which he considers pernicious and obsolete—and has often framed the war as a struggle against them. This framing is largely accurate. And it strengthens the case for pushing for the most decisive possible Ukrainian victory.

When it comes to liberal democracy and associated respect for human rights, there is indeed a vast chasm between the two sides. That was evident from the beginning. Even before February 24, 2022, Putin's Russia was a repressive authoritarian state guilty of severe human rights violations, while Ukraine—despite some notable flaws—was a democracy with far less in the way of rights violations. It has become even more clear after a year of fighting in which Russian forces have committed horrific human rights violations such as mass murder of civilians, large-scale forcible deportations, and even the kidnapping of thousands of children. These atrocities against Ukrainians have been accompanied by increasing repression within Russia itself, including shutting down almost all opposition media, and prison terms for even referring to the conflict as a "war" rather than a "special military operation" (the preferred Kremlin euphemism). Ukraine's war record includes some unjust illiberal policies. But nothing even remotely comparable to Russia's.

If nothing else, we should believe the powerful evidence of people voting with their feet. The Russian invasion resulted in the flight of millions of Ukrainians; growing repression in Russia, combined with Putin's "partial mobilization" has led hundreds of thousands of Russians to flee, as well. By contrast, when Ukraine recaptures territory, only a small handful of collaborators choose to leave with the retreating Russian forces.

The most obvious implication of the vast moral chasm between the two sides is that a Ukrainian victory is necessary to prevent further horrific atrocities and repression. If Ukraine is forced to leave any of its territory in Russian hands, the people trapped there will be subjected to further cruel oppression. They are likely to be much better off under Ukrainian rule, even if the latter is by no means ideal.

A less obvious implication is the potential impact of a Ukrainian or Russian victory on world opinion. The former could give a worldwide boost to liberal democratic ideology. The latter would likely have the opposite effect.

Historically, victory in war has often boosted support for the ideology of the winners. The triumph of the American Revolution increased support for Enlightenment liberalism on both sides of the Atlantic, in the process advancing causes such as democratization and the abolition of slavery. The Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent Communist victories in the Russian Civil War and World War II greatly increased worldwide support for Marxism. Similarly, Mussolini and Hitler's early successes won new adherents for fascism.

By contrast, the crushing defeat of the Axis in World War II led to a collapse of support for fascist ideology, including even in Germany and Italy. The Soviet Union's defeat in the Cold War (admittedly only partly military) and subsequent collapse greatly weakened the appeal of communism.

Both of these lists can easily be extended. Throughout human history, ideologies have risen and fallen in part based on success and failure in military and geopolitical conflict.

Much of this reflects irrational factors in public opinion formation. Victory in war doesn't actually tell us much about the merits of the winner's ideology. Might does not make right.

If Germany had won World War II, that would not have somehow proven that Nazism is good and just. It would simply have enabled the Nazi regime to perpetrate even greater evil. The communist victory in Russia set the stage for decades of massive oppression in every nation that tried to imitate the Bolshevik experiment.

But in a world where public opinion is heavily influenced by ignorance and bias, people routinely use crude information shortcuts to make political judgments. One such shortcut is the presumption that it's good to be on winning side. If adherents of an ideology prevail in a high-profile war, there must be something to their ideas! Such biases may be reinforced by the fallacious, but widespread assumptions that it's necessarily good to be "on the right side of history" and that the "arc of the moral universe bends towards justice." If so, one way of telling which side has a just cause is by looking to see who wins!

Given this dynamic, a decisive Ukrainian victory is likely to give a strong boost to liberal ideology, while a Russian one would boost authoritarian nationalism. More so than any other major conflict since the Cold War, this one is widely (and in large part correctly) perceived as a clash between these ideologies. A Ukrainian victory could even help discredit authoritarian nationalism within Russia itself, just as defeat in World War I discredited the ideology of the czars, and defeat in the Cold War helped undermine Communism. If so, we might end up with a more liberal and less menacing Russia. That would be a great boon to Russians, Ukrainians, and Westerners alike.

The unexpected success of Ukrainian resistance and the poor performance of  Russian forces has already weakened the appeal of Putin's ideology, at the margin. Before the war, some Western conservatives, such as Sen. Ted Cruz, liked to contrast Russia's supposedly manly army with the allegedly "woke" and "enmasculated" US military, filled with "pansies." Western admirers of Putin's Russia were often attracted to its seeming strength—a perception boosted by Putin's seemingly triumphant seizure of Crimea and parts of the Donbass in 2014. Such attraction is far less common today, and might disappear almost completely if Ukraine prevails in the current conflict.

It doesn't follow that pursuing military victory is the exclusive means of winning the war of ideas against Putin's nationalist authoritarianism. We should also do what we can to differentiate between the Russian government and ordinary Russians, avoiding imputations of collective ethnic guilt. Along similar lines, we should welcome Russians fleeing Putin, which can boost Western prospects in both the ideological and military struggle. But helping Ukraine prevail on the battlefield is nonetheless crucial. History strongly suggests there is likely to be an ideological impact that goes far beyond the nations most immediately involved.

The considerations covered above aren't the only factors that should be considered in determining Western policy regarding the war. Obviously, there are also questions about the cost and likelihood of achieving any given degree of victory. I cannot properly assess those issues here, and will not even try. The world has enough armchair generals already.

But Ukraine's impressive battlefield performance so far suggests that it might achieve further success. And the ideological and moral dimensions of the conflict at least strengthen the case for pushing for a more sweeping Ukrainian victory than we might want to pursue otherwise.