The Fight for Democracy During a Rise of Authoritarian Rule

by Jack Conway


December 8, 2022

Over 8 months ago, on February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.”1 The invasion came after years of Moscow alleging that there has been genocide of Russians in Ukrainian territory without presenting any sound evidence to back their claims. Putin has also claimed that most Ukrainians want to be part of Russia, pointing to the referendums taken in recent weeks in occupied regions of Ukraine, which his critics have claimed are fraudulent.2 Many outside of Russia believe the Russian government invaded because of concerns about Ukraine’s growing ties with the west. This view is shared by Maria Snegovaya, a visiting scholar at George Washington University’s Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, who said, “It looks like Putin is committed to preventing the deepening cooperation between Ukraine and the US/the West, which he views as Russia losing Ukraine.”3

Russia found success early on in the war, surrounding several major Ukrainian cities and catching unsuspecting Ukrainians completely off guard. By March 2, Russia had taken over Kherson and surrounded Mariupol, reaching the outskirts of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, just nine days later.4 Regardless, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy refused a US offer to flee, saying, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”5 Valiant comments such as this one are part of the reason why Americans give President Zelenskyy the highest approval rating among international leaders.6 After the early Russian blitz and the initial phase of the invasion slowed, Russia turned to long-range missile strikes which caused substantial damage to Ukrainian military assets, urban residential areas, and communication and transportation infrastructure.7 

In late March, Russia announced they would “reduce military activity” near Kyiv and Chernihiv following a thwarted attempt to seize the Ukrainian capital. Many believe Russia planned to take Kyiv within weeks, but one of the world’s strongest militaries was embarrassingly stopped by the extremely resolute Ukrainian army. With morale very low, Russia began a new phase of the war, beginning to seize and secure control of eastern Ukraine, also called the Donbas region. By May, Russia had finally gained control of Mariupol, a strategic port city that had been under siege for months. Drone footage revealed the brutality of the Russian attack on the city. Most of the infrastructure was reduced to rubble, and a massive humanitarian crisis ensued.8 

Throughout the summer of 2022, Russia used cruise missiles, bombs, cluster munitions, and thermobaric weapons (bombs that use oxygen to create an explosion) in an attempt to take over the eastern regions of Ukraine. In early September, Ukraine tried to seize momentum as it started a major counteroffensive. It was largely triumphant, this time catching the Russian military off guard. Ukraine was able to reclaim a great deal of land in the northeast. Russia still controls much of Ukraine’s southeastern territory, but to the surprise of Russian forces, Ukraine claims to have recovered significant territory in the Kharkiv region.9 

Following these Ukrainian counteroffensives that liberated towns previously under Russian control, several accusations have surfaced regarding heinous acts committed by the Russian soldiers against Ukrainian troops and civilians. These war crime allegations led the United Nations Human Rights Council to set up the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine. Erik Møse, head of the commission, said, “Based on the evidence gathered so far during the Commission’s existence … we found that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine.”10 In addition, United Nations investigators found evidence of bombings in civilian areas, numerous executions, torture, and sexual violence committed by Russian soldiers, stating, “We were struck by a large number of executions and other violations by Russian forces, and the Commission received consistent accounts of torture and ill-treatment.”11

Another concern held by experts around the world regards the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is one of the ten biggest atomic power plants in the world. Russian troops took control of the power station on March 4, Russian engineers were unable to operate Zaporizhzhia due to recent equipment upgrades. In response, Russians held Ukrainian personnel captive in order to operate the plant. Despite the risks of a nuclear disaster, shelling continued around the plant, with both sides blaming each other. Due to major safety concerns, the plant was switched to a “cold shutdown mode” on September 11.12 However, this does not eliminate the risk of a nuclear accident. Like any other nuclear power plant, ​​Zaporizhzhia requires electricity to cool its reactors. If electricity were to be cut, the plant would have to turn to emergency diesel generators; Zaporizhzhia only has enough fuel to sustain the cooling system for ten days.13 To this day, shelling continues around the plant, even as independent agencies have called for nearby fighting to stop.

Recently, following several defeats during the Ukrainian counteroffensive, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu revealed plans to enlist 300,000 men with prior military experience to bolster Russia’s invasion.14 The surprise announcement sparked rare anti-war demonstrations across Russia, with arrests taking place across the country due to draft and war-related protests. In addition, more than 200,000 Russians have left their country for Georgia, Kazakhstan, and the European Union in just the first week of the drafting.15 Some believe the draft was another miscalculation by President Putin in a desperate and frenzied attempt to turn the tide of the war.

On October 8, Ukraine made the unpredictable move to blow up the Crimean Bridge, the only bridge connecting Russia and Crimea, which was formerly part of Ukraine but annexed by Russia in 2014. Ukraine did not initially claim responsibility, but the explosion was later revealed to have been a Ukrainian intelligence operation.16 While Ukraine may have harmed Russia strategically, this decision did not come without a cost. Beginning on October 10th, Russia retaliated by launching its most vicious attacks on Ukraine in months, striking military and energy facilities as well as several purely civilian areas during rush hour.17

Over 8 million Ukrainians have been displaced from their country during the war, a number that will only grow as the fighting continues. While the war’s wrath has clearly impacted both armies, it has also affected civilians in countries throughout the world. For example, blockades of Ukrainian grain exports have worsened food shortages in East Africa, adding to an already dire situation and causing mass starvation for over 3 million.18 Before the conflict, Ukraine had been the largest supplier of commodities to the World Food Program, which provides food to vulnerable populations. Since the war started, however, the country has been unable to contribute as much.19 In addition, the war has caused tremendous economic pain by fueling already high inflation in America (over 5,000 miles from the conflict), causing Americans to pay more for anything and everything. Russia also exports crude oil and electricity to places all around the world, but above all, to Europe. In response to the invasion, many countries have stopped using these Russian imports to show support for Ukraine, which has also driven up prices, despite being the morally right thing to do.During a time in history in which authoritarian governments are replacing democracies at growing rates, this war represents more than just the fight for Ukraine: it is a microcosm of the dynamics of the wider world. A dictator-led military superpower previously could not conquer a smaller country without major cause. After 16 straight years of decline in global freedom, these tensions were bound to reach their breaking point.20 And this might be it. We are currently experiencing a crucial time period in human history, and that should be recognized and kept in the back of our minds. So while this war may be half a world away, there are still a multitude of reasons for people at BUA to care, even if they don’t think they are directly affected.







7 See 1.

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