Ideas
May 9, 2022 6:00 AM EDT
Kagan is Senior Fellow and Director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a confrontation of a dictatorship against a free people. The free people are winning in no small part because they are free.

Ukraine and Russia both emerged from the ruin of the Soviet Union with the burden of generations of oppression. Both countries struggled to rebuild themselves as free countries with market economies and democratic systems. Russia’s initial prospects for success might have been somewhat better: President Boris Yeltsin defeated efforts by leftist nationalists and then communists to seize power and return Russia to autocracy. Ukraine’s leadership in the 1990s lacked Yeltsin’s vision and determination.

The two countries’ trajectories crossed in the 2000s, however. Yeltsin gave Russia to Vladimir Putin, who moved rapidly to consolidate power that soon reached dictatorial levels. Ukraine’s politics, on the other hand got messier. The 2004 Orange Revolution showed the Ukrainian desire for honest elections on the one hand. Oligarchs developed economic and political power-bases and struggled for control of the state on the other. Corruption flourished in Ukraine as it did in Russia, but whereas Putin centralized corruption in his hands, Ukrainian corruption decentralized among the competing oligarchs and others. Putin’s centralization made governing Russia easy; Ukraine’s decentralization made governing Ukraine hard.

Then the 2014 EuroMaidan Revolution in Ukraine overthrew a Russia-friendly autocratically-minded leader and brought to power a pro-Western and pro-democracy president. Decentralization still made Ukraine hard to govern, as did corruption that continued at lower levels despite steady efforts to combat it, but the new leadership committed Ukraine to a freer path, hoping to join NATO and the European Union.

The Russian seizure of Crimea and invasion of Donbas in 2014 galvanized Ukrainians. It drove a burst of Ukrainian patriotism that had been slowly awakening since the country’s independence. It did not bring order to the Ukrainian government or economy. It did not lead to centralization. It did not end corruption. But it fueled an explosion of Ukrainian civil society activity as Ukrainians came together to try to fight off the Russian attack. The weaknesses and flaws in Ukraine’s government and economy in the face of Russian aggression forced its people to make themselves strong and resilient.

Russians had the opposite experience. The Yeltsin-era market reforms and economic boom of the 2000s driven by high oil prices allowed them to build a more prosperous society than they had ever known—prosperous enough for the elites that they mostly did not object loudly as Putin eroded their freedoms and centralized control in his own hands. Corruption went deeper and deeper in Russia, but it was largely centralized corruption, and Putin took pains to make it look orderly and to make those he trusted reaped the benefits. A small number of brave Russians continued the post-Soviet effort to build civil society organizations, but most Russians felt little need to join or support them, especially as Putin began to harass and, over time, crush them. Power, money, and favor flowed from Putin, and no external threat or worry drove Russians to feel the need to organize themselves—especially when doing so was likely to cost power, money, favor, and possibly more.

Read More: Inside Volodymyr Zelensky’s World

As 2022 dawned, the world saw what looked like a strong Russian military run by a powerful ruler in control of his state and people facing in Ukraine a chaotic, messy, decentralized, confused, and confusing smaller state. The outcome seemed obvious—Russia would crush Ukraine underfoot and Putin would impose his will on a people who never stood a chance.

The war took another course. Russia’s military proved to be a Potemkin force. The systemic corruption and lying to civilian and military leadership that is the normal state of affairs in kleptocratic autocracies had hollowed out Russia’s armed forces. Essential equipment had been stolen, sold, or simply never delivered. Russian soldiers had learned how to look good to their superiors in exercises that didn’t prepare them to fight. Putin’s dictatorship had restored and reaffirmed the Soviet traditions of never taking initiative, always waiting for orders, doing as little as possible to satisfy the bosses, and not owning responsibilities. Obedience and avoidance of responsibility had gone so deep that, confronted by staunch Ukrainian defenders and logistical and other unexpected problems, Russian soldiers and commanders froze.

Ukraine, on the other hand, showed that the messiness of a free people can be a strength. Ukrainians, seeing Russian armored columns coming at them, didn’t freeze. They didn’t call back to Kyiv for orders. They didn’t wait to be told what to do. They acted. They fought back, but they also reached out through their own human networks, made robust by years of efforts to build civil society. They communicated what they saw, what they were doing, and what they needed. They figured out how to get essential supplies and equipment, how to solve problems, how to make things happen. It was messy, confusing, and inefficient—but successful. Many of the things that had made Ukraine so hard to govern in relative peace made it so hard to defeat in war.

Many other factors went into Russia’s shocking failures and Ukraine’s amazing successes, of course. And we must never take for granted the incredible heroism of the Ukrainian people, their willingness to fight and die for their country even when the odds seemed impossible to overcome, and their fortitude through incredible hardships. Not all free peoples have such traits.

Nor has Ukraine suddenly become a perfect society without flaw or blemish. When peace returns to a Ukraine that has won its freedom it will still be hard to govern, fractious, chaotic, and messy. But it will also still be free.

The future holds no such promise for Putin’s Russia. Russians may be rallying around the flag in polls, but they are not coming together as citizens to help Russia win this war. Russian civil society, such as Putin has allowed to persist, has largely come together to oppose the unjust act of aggression Putin has committed. Putin has responded by seeking to crush it utterly. When Ukraine emerges with its freedom and civil society strengthened, Russia will have sunk ever deeper into the abyss of one-man autocratic rule. Ukrainians are learning again that coming together as individual citizens to solve problems for the greater good leads to success. Russians are seeing that there is no greater good in an evil dictatorship and that coming together as citizens leads to jail or worse.

The self-loathing that has become an American and European specialty over the past decades has eroded our own people’s belief that freedom is good and valuable. It had led some to wonder if the Chinese model wasn’t better than the Western one.

This war should lay that thought, at least, to rest.

Freedom is messy. It is flawed, and its flaws are always on display. The injustices of our society are real and important. Our disagreements with each other may be deep and powerful. We know all that because we talk about it all the time. We point out the flaws of our society and try to persuade each other to fix them. We get frustrated with our leaders and try to solve things ourselves. And we, rightly, complain about all these problems, which make us feel bad about our society, ourselves, and sometimes our very ideals. They can make us feel weaker than countries that present smoother faces to the world.

But the smooth faces autocracies present conceal much greater injustices, flaws, problems, and weaknesses. Dictatorial systems often conceal those weaknesses even from their own dictators, as Putin has discovered to his fury. China is much stronger than Putin’s Russia. But even Xi Jinping would be wise to wonder what his people are hiding from him and to worry if he can find out before it’s too late.

As for us, we, like the Ukrainians, already know our weaknesses and flaws. As we watch a free people humiliate the military of an ostensibly far stronger dictatorship, however, we should also reflect on our most important source of strength. That is not our wealth, our size, or our armed might. It is our habit of working together to solve problems without waiting to be told what to do. It is our freedom, messy though it is, which we must embrace, as the Ukrainians have done.

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