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Key takeaways from Russia’s brutalizing of Ukraine

This terrible war should clarify several critical matters of debate.

Field engineers of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine conduct mine-clearing among destroyed vehicles on a street of Bucha on Tuesday. Ukrainian officials say over 400 civilian bodies have been recovered from the wider Kyiv region, many of which were buried in mass graves.GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images

As Russian troops have retreated in some areas of Ukraine, they have left behind evidence of torture, rape, and murder, as well as acres of urban destruction, that shock the conscience and beggar belief.

In a just world, this war would end with Russia forced from Ukraine and Russian despot Vladimir Putin pushed from power and tried for war crimes. Yet that’s rarely the way the actual world works. Unless Putin’s inner circle acts against him — or rumors are true that he is critically ill — the likelihood is that he will rule Russia for the foreseeable future. That reality means there are important lessons this country and the rest of the West must learn.


The value of Western liberalism

Relax, conservatives. In this context, liberalism describes a type of governance, not a set of policies. That is, it doesn’t connote progressivism or greater government spending or tax increases on the wealthy. Instead, it denotes a system of government where power ultimately resides at the individual level; where people are governed only with and according to their periodic, electorally bestowed consent in free and fair elections; where there is equal treatment under the law and where individual rights are not only well-established but also protected by charter and statute, with judicial recourse. And where speech and the press are free.

That liberal order is now locked in a long daylight struggle with authoritarian nations, the leading examples of which are Russia and China. In such a system, power rests with the state and is exercised by an autocrat who is largely unaccountable to the people and nigh unto impossible to remove short of a coup or a revolution. Elections, if they occur at all, are constructed and conducted in ways that benefit the strongman in power. Credible opposition figures are often imprisoned. A free media doesn’t exist. Dissent is circumscribed and undertaken only at personal risk.


It’s such a system that has given Putin free rein to wage war on Ukraine, without organized and concerted political opposition in Russia. Indeed, Putin’s murderous military marauding can’t even be identified as the war or invasion it is. Those who protest it are regularly detained.

Worldwide, we have seen a decade and a half slide toward authoritarianism, according to Freedom House. Last year, 60 nations saw declines in liberal governance, with only 25 moving toward freer and more open systems, says the freedom-tracking nonprofit.

“The global order is nearing a tipping point,” Freedom House warned in a recent report, “and if democracy’s defenders do not work together to help guarantee freedom for all people, the authoritarian model will prevail.”

Why that dangerous trend? Perhaps the best explanation comes from behavioral economist Karen Stenner, who predicted several decades ago that the expanding rights, cultural clashes, and freewheeling and sometimes raucous debates of liberal Western democracies would trigger a backlash. And so it has, as voters with authoritarian inclinations responded to the promise of strongmen to preserve tradition and culture and resist developments, whether in the form of ideas or immigration, that dilute their notion of national identity. In Europe, reaction to the supranationalism of the European Union has seen a number of democracies tilt toward right-wing authoritarianism. In this country, too, some have embraced populist nationalism as a preferred alternative to a pluralistic multiculturalism.


With Russia, the world can now see the danger of authoritarian regimes, where a de facto dictator with a warped will and idea can embark on a brutal, unprovoked war. That should stand as a warning about the further erosion of liberal democracy, whose safeguards keep figures like Putin from consolidating nearly unchecked power.

The need for energy disentanglement — and independence

US presidents have long cautioned Europe about its addiction to Russian energy. We are now seeing the folly of that dependence. It’s not a problem easily or instantly addressed.

For some on the right, the solution to higher energy prices here is as simple as drill, baby, drill.

But the war hasn’t changed the imminent threat from climate change. The true imperative for the world is to move rapidly away not just from Russian natural gas and oil but from carbon-based energy as well.

Those dual realities underscore the importance of passing President Biden’s big incentive-based climate package. Nuclear power, which can provide an abundant and steady supply of baseload power regardless of the weather, will probably need to be part of a longer-term solution.

The importance of allies

The previous US administration was dubious not just about the value of NATO, but also skeptical about this country’s first-among-equals role as leader of the West. Both parties have neo-isolationist elements, so it’s unlikely those impulses will fade completely. Still, this terrible war, with its shocking savagery, demonstrates once again the high value of a united Western world — and liberal democracy.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.