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Intern Debate: “that the defence of Ukraine is the defence of democracies everywhere”

Published 24 Apr 2024

On Tuesday 9 April our current interns debated the proposition that the defence of Ukraine is the defence of democracies everywhere. The affirmative case was put by Paris Fleury, Jie Rui Lin and Isabella Crowe, and the negative by Hattie Shand, Jacob Barry, and Adam Scislowski.

The affirmative team contrasted the limited western response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and armed conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region to the strong response against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two years ago. This time, western democracies had demonstrated their commitment to Ukraine’s right to self-determination and their opposition to authoritarian Russia’s strategic and economic objectives in seeking dominance in Ukraine. During the Cold War the control of Ukraine had been critical to ensuring the strength of the Soviet Union, a situation Putin’s Russia was determined to restore. And taking over Ukraine’s prosperous economy, with the highest GDP in Europe, would offer substantial economic advantages to Russia: it would gain access to Ukraine’s rich agricultural land, its numerous natural resources, the gas and oil pipelines to western Europe, and access to Black Sea. Democracy in Ukraine would undermine these objectives; a Russian victory would position it to remove democratic structures in surrounding countries and would encourage autocratic regimes everywhere.

The global response to Russia’s invasion underscored the importance of holding firm to human rights within democratic frameworks: condemnation of Russia’s actions by 141 countries in the United Nations General Assembly reflected the shared international commitment to defend the principles of democracy. There were flaws in Ukrainian democracy, aggravated by the war, but defending Ukraine means defending its capacity to continue to strengthen its democratic institutions. A Putin victory would threaten democracies further into Europe. In protecting Ukraine to the best of our ability we signal to the rest of the world that democracy is strong and that the lives, liberties and free choices of the people must be protected.

The negative team argued that the Ukrainian struggle was not about democracy around the globe but about the defence of international rules of behavior against Russia’s blatant defiance of international law, including the UN Charter. The lack of high standards of mature democracy in Ukraine meant that it was unrealistic to suggest that attacks on Ukraine risk subverting democracy elsewhere. In fact if Ukraine fell to Russia, democratic countries such as NATO and AUKUS members would be strengthened by a renewed commitment to the defence of democracies everywhere.

While the defence of democracy is noble and idealistic, it was simply not credible to argue that the fall of Ukraine would lead to the collapse of other democracies. The battle for Ukraine was a battle for sovereignty, independent of the political nature of the country under attack. Ukraine’s fledgling democracy was under threat from Russia but that does not mean that democracy elsewhere is under threat. Characterising this war as a democracy-versus-authoritarianism conflict is counter-productive: the key issue is the misbehavior under international law of a great power. In fact many democracies were not actively supporting Ukraine against Russia (for example in Asia and Africa), while non-democratic countries like the UAE had provided support to Ukraine for their own strategic reasons. If Ukraine is defeated, other countries – democracies or not – may well be reinforced in resisting Russian expansionism; but the Ukraine conflict is about sovereignty, international rules-based behaviour and the lashing out of a declining great power desperate to maintain its global position.

In his adjudication, AIIA NSW President Ian Lincoln praised each team for their thorough preparation and very effective coordination. The affirmative team had the advantage of arguing in favour of democracy, a position arousing sympathy and support. But the negative team had argued the harder proposition that the war is about other issues, notably international law and great power behaviour. On balance, this had been the more convincing argument and, by a narrow margin, he awarded victory to the negative team.


AIIA NSW interns, February-June 2024
(from left) Paris Fleury, Hattie Shand, Adam Scislowski, Jie Rui Lin, Isabella Crowe, Toby Barry