The War in Ukraine Surprises in More Ways Than One | Opinion

With multiple Ukrainian cities under siege and entire districts all but wiped out, it's becoming increasingly clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin has no interest in a ceasefire—at least not yet. The Russian military is switching tactics and making inroads. The objective is simple: to grind down the much smaller Ukrainian army in a war of attrition.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has surprised in more ways than one. It has highlighted the multitude of systemic problems within the Russian military as a whole and exposes Putin, usually believed to be a master of geopolitics, ignorant or arrogant of the consequences of his own actions.

Yet the biggest land war in Europe since World War II is also demonstrating that the world is a far more complicated place than leaders thought.

The conflict in Ukraine is unleashing a barrage of commentary about how Putin and his fellow autocrats (people like China's Xi Jinping) are on the march, working together to undermine democratic principles and challenge the so-called rules-based international order. In this interpretation, the world is defined by ideological blocs, with democracies like the U.S. and Germany competing against authoritarian powers like Russia and China in an existential clash for the 21st century. President Joe Biden drew precisely this picture during his March 1 State of the Union address, with the war in Ukraine as a backdrop: "In the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security."

Destroyed apartment building
A Ukrainian serviceman walks in front of a destroyed apartment building after it was shelled in Kyiv on March 14, 2022. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

The reality, however, is exactly the opposite. Russia's war of choice in Ukraine is actually scrambling the democracy versus autocracy concept, not reinforcing it. In some instances, democracies are collaborating with autocracies to mitigate the impact on world energy markets. In other cases, democracies are holding their rhetorical fire in order to preserve relations with Putin's Russia, the so-called autocratic bogeyman.

Turkey, a country that has been trending toward autocratic governance under the purview of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (and arresting members of the opposition under anti-terrorism laws), continues to supply Ukraine with highly capable Bayraktar armed drones in its war against Russia. Those drones have picked off Russian armor stuck in the mud or meandering on the main highways, slowing the Russian military advance toward Kyiv. Based on the simplistic narrative of democracies competing against autocracies, one would expect an authoritarian Turkey to team up with an authoritarian Russia to subdue a democratic Ukraine. Not so.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela are arguably three of the most autocratic powers on the planet. The first two are family-ruled dynasties that don't tolerate domestic dissent; on March 12, Riyadh executed 81 prisoners in what one activist group described as "the opposite of justice." The latter is led by Nicolás Maduro, who has wiped out most of the opposition and is now in firm control over the national assembly and most of the country's governorships after two fraud-laced elections. Yet at a time when crude oil prices have reached their highest levels in nearly 14 years, the Biden administration is making overtures to all three in order to convince them to release more barrels on the market. Senior U.S. national security officials were in discussions with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi about increasing supply even before Putin launched his military operation in Ukraine. Biden's top Latin America adviser flew to Caracas earlier this month to explore a similar bump in oil production (those talks have since withered).

Meanwhile, some democracies aren't willing to follow Washington's lead on Ukraine. India, the world's largest democracy in terms of population, abstained on multiple U.N. resolutions denouncing the Russian invasion. In one of those votes, India refused to take a position on a resolution establishing a commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of war crimes. New Delhi, which prides itself on maintaining positive relations with all major powers, is instead seeking to preserve a foreign policy of independence. It's doing this partly for historical reasons and partly for practical ones—India still relies on Russia for nearly half of its arms imports. Yet the larger point stands: just because a country happens to be a democracy doesn't necessarily mean it will ditch working relationships with partners that happen to be less than democratic.

The same holds true on the other side as well: Autocracies don't automatically support autocracies. The degree of support depends entirely on whether doing so is in the national interest. Much has been written about China's ability to assist Putin in weathering intense U.S. and European economic sanctions. But Chinese President Xi Jinping isn't known for his charity. There is a limit to how far Beijing is willing to go. Washington has made it clear that any attempt by a third-party, including China, to help Moscow evade the technology restrictions imposed by the West will result in similar restrictions. This isn't an ideal threat. China has learned first-hand about how biting U.S. export curbs can be. The Chinese telecoms giant Huawei saw its revenue decline by 28.9 percent last year after Washington prohibited the transfer of semiconductors made with U.S. technology. Is China willing to risk a decoupling from the very Western markets it continues to rely on for growth (in 2021, China's trade with Russia was about one-tenth of what it traded with the U.S. and E.U.) in order to insulate Moscow from economic collapse?

Despite what you may hear, the war in Ukraine doesn't bolster the image of a world characterized by a democracy versus autocracy death match. If anything, it undermines it.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.