Since the start of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, many democratic states around the world have provided support to the Ukrainian resistance. Although these nations have not placed their troops on Ukrainian soil, they accompanied their heavy sanctions on Russia with heavy armament and continuous aid to Kyiv.
However, the West’s preoccupation with this conflict reveals an interesting contrast when comparing its reaction to other conflicts around the world. The West’s support for Ukraine has been presented as a fight to preserve democracy, and as an imperative defense of the Ukrainian people. Contrastingly, the wars in Yemen, Libya, or even in the former Yugoslavia never featured any similar form of Western retaliation against the aggressor. In regards to the conflict in Ukraine, however, Russia is paying a heavy price for its invasion.
Hence, the extent to which the West has a genuine regard for democratic values and for the morality of the conflict in Ukraine can be questioned. Is the West supporting Ukraine because it is truly preoccupied with democracy, or, rather, simply because the conflict involves Russia?
Evidently, such a controversial topic requires numerous clarifications. First and foremost, the term ‘West’ is used relatively ambiguously here – numerous non-western states have also provided support to Ukraine. The use of this term simply attempts to simplify a grouping of democratic states based on average geographical distribution.
Furthermore, the global system’s bipolarity must be taken into account. The Cold War introduced a new world order, whereby the political world can be divided into two poles – the ‘West’ and the ‘East’. Contemporarily, this division has applied more significantly to the United States opposite Russia and China, rather than capitalist and communist blocs.
With these clarifications in mind, it is easier to evaluate the West’s intentions in its indirect intervention in Ukraine. The lack of a similar response in other conflicts suggests the West is not any more preoccupied for Ukrainian stability than it is for the stability of other conflicted states. Rather, it can be disputed that the West is providing more support to Ukraine because the conflict features Russia – this conflict can be seen as a metaphor for the threat to the bipolar world order. In more simple, yet provocative terms, some may argue that the West’s preoccupation with Ukraine is not directed towards the local population’s well-being, nor the stability of Kyiv’s internal affairs, but towards preserving Western domination on a global scale.
The breakup of Yugoslavia is remembered for a notoriously high number of war crimes. Many were conducted by NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a Western defense pact). In Libya, the West’s influence entirely destabilized the nation. There are countless historical examples which contradict the West’s stated objective of introducing democracy all around the world. Democratic peace theory – a theory heavily argued amongst political scientists – suggests that democratic states only engage in war to spread democracy. Critics of this theory point out the previously mentioned conflicts – particularly the conflict in Iraq – to demonstrate that democratic states also engage in warfare for their own benefit (and not always with the objective of spreading democratic values).
The ongoing Ukrainian conflict is too contemporary to be used as a case-study to put this theory to the test. Nonetheless, the question stated earlier remains – is the West truly helping Ukraine to preserve democracy, or is it simply utilizing the conflict to maintain its political superiority over the ‘East’?
Truthfully, this question cannot be answered objectively. Stakeholders from various perspectives will argue using a vast array of evidence. Yet, as emphasized in an IE Discussion Panel on the war in Ukraine (hosted a month ago), Russian President Vladimir Putin’s governance and impulsive decision-making are unveiling a weakness in the ‘Eastern Bloc’.
Russia – which has so desperately attempted to keep its former-Soviet members in its ideological sphere of influence – is gradually losing its capability to do so. The nations that once served as ‘buffer states’ between the West and the East are progressively experiencing democratic transitions. Ukraine is only the latest of these nations.
Many international political scientists from the realist school of thought use this evidence to push the idea that Putin is, in fact, rational in his recent decisions – the West’s outreach to former-Soviet nations can be perceived as a Western offensive (even indirectly). In fact, a common argument amongst these political scientists is that the West knew the potential consequences of inviting Ukraine to join NATO. Despite knowing the Kremlin could perceive this as an act of hostility, the West proceeded with this strategic move.
Hence, the root of the problem can be found. A sizable portion of Ukraine’s population desires democracy, and the West is using this to weaken Russia’s influence. Putin’s “hot-headed” invasion of Ukraine provided the West with an opportunity to sanction Russia even further, further destabilizing its sphere of influence.
The moral question of whether the West has a genuine regard for democracy in Ukraine is extremely multifaceted. Perhaps, the West has a true desire to respond to Ukraine’s call for democracy. However, the West’s historical interventions in Yugoslavia, Yemen, Iraq, or even Libya provide a record that paints its actions as more strategic, preserving and expanding its bloc’s influence. Ukraine may very well be another instance of this, simply embellished as an act of ‘spreading democracy’.
Similarly to most complex political topics, there is no real objective answer and each individual is entitled to their own interpretation. Nevertheless, this reflection prompts even more questions. If the West has a genuine preoccupation with democracy in Ukraine, why has this not been the case in other conflicts around the world? Moreover, does the West’s hesitation in employing direct military force against Russia support Western interest for democracy in Ukraine?