Although a welcome development, the recent US and European escalation of arms shipments to Ukraine is insufficient to curb Russian President Vladimir Putin’s designs on expanding illiberalism.
That’s because the Kremlin isn’t alone: Both Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping view the expansion of democracy as a threat to their grip on power and key to the advancement of US and allied influence around the world. Disrupting democracy and strengthening authoritarianism globally are therefore central elements of their strategic competition with the United States.
Before Putin’s brazen invasion of Ukraine, both he and Xi had long recognized that interference in open societies to advantage illiberal friends is preferable to and far less costly than military invasion. There is no shortage of examples: In Ethiopia and Kenya, for instance, Beijing has invested in training the ruling parties on the same strategies and tactics the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses to stay in power. It has also poured money into countries such as Cambodia and Serbia without demanding progress on human rights or democratic development, reinforcing authoritarian trends there. For its part, Russia actively uses a range of online information operations to advantage illiberal populist allies abroad—from bolstering euroskeptic actors in the Netherlands to promoting a Kremlin-friendly narrative in government-controlled media in Hungary.
Chinese and Russian efforts to undermine democratic institutions and bolster illiberal leaders also frequently complement one another. Russian disinformation campaigns and efforts to exacerbate societal divides are often more effective in countries that are increasingly dependent on Chinese investment and convinced by its promotion of an authoritarian development model. While these efforts are typically undertaken independently, there is mounting evidence of coordination, particularly on propaganda and disinformation.
The Kremlin’s evident failings in Ukraine will likely spark fear among Putin, Xi, and their elite support networks that this could snowball into more democratic successes in their neighborhoods. As this perceived threat escalates, so too will the dedication among the leaders of Russia and China to advance illiberalism and undercut democratic movements. Beyond its immediate periphery, Beijing’s protection of its expanding global interests will increasingly result in efforts to prevent inconvenient political transitions. Its recent deal with the Solomon Islands allowing it to send security forces “to assist in maintaining social order” is only a harbinger of things to come. Meanwhile, Russia’s war has injected new life into the NATO alliance and broader transatlantic relationship.
The United States needs to strike while the iron is hot to establish deeper collaboration with allies to shore up democracy. There are two steps that can keep the West ahead of Putin and Xi as they shift their promotion of authoritarianism into overdrive.
First, the United States must secure the resources necessary to protect democracy from Beijing and Moscow—in Eastern Europe and beyond. While President Joe Biden’s proposed fiscal year 2023 budget rightfully includes increases for the Pentagon (bringing its budget to $773 billion) to enable US armed forces to address simultaneous threats from China and Russia, the challenge from Moscow and Beijing is not a unidimensional military one. From Ukraine to Taiwan, Central African Republic to El Salvador, Putin and Xi use a multiplicity of political, economic, and diplomatic tactics to exert influence and undermine fledgling and established democracies.
Democracy has not faced as significant a challenge from expansionist authoritarianism in decades—yet the US budget to protect and promote democracy by non-military means is a mere $3.2 billion, or less than one-quarter of the cost of a single aircraft carrier.
Congress must address this discrepancy between today’s threat profile and the resources at the disposal of the United States. Swiftly passing legislation such as the bipartisan Democracy in the 21st Century Act, introduced late last year by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Chris Coons (D-DE), would be a good place to start: The bill provides forty million dollars to a “Fund to Defend Democracy Globally.” These modest funds could go a long way toward girding vulnerable democracies against adversaries’ attempts to undermine institutions, discredit elections, spread disinformation, and co-opt elites.
Second, the United States also must capitalize on Europe’s newfound recognition of the protracted contest it faces with both Russia and China, having watched Beijing’s craven response to the tragedy in Ukraine. They must collectively amplify a powerful allied narrative about the need to protect democracy and punish adversaries who seek to undermine it. This is essential at a time when Beijing is trying to redefine the very meaning of democracy, claiming the concept as its own while gleefully cataloging the failures of US democracy and promoting its own repressive system of governance.
The United States has done well to rally European and key Asian allies against Russia, bringing them together to levy sanctions, transfer arms, and present a joint diplomatic front. This same grouping can do more to support and fund democratic activists and critical journalists working to expose opaque deals between their own governments and the CCP and the Kremlin. Electoral processes, the lifeblood of any democracy, must also be shored up against Russian and Chinese interference and corruption.
Democratic allies also need stronger partnerships with platforms and regulators to share best practices on combating disinformation. China’s brazen campaign amplifying Russian lies about the horrors unfolding in Ukraine underscores their joint challenge to the global information ecosystem.
Joining forces against autocracy
To achieve maximum strategic impact ahead of an expected uptick in authoritarian pressure on democracies, developed democracies must play to their strengths. The United States and its allies should together determine how national aid agencies, diplomats, development finance institutions, and democracy promotion and civil society organizations can combine forces and split responsibilities to bolster critical institutions and democratic actors in countries targeted by China and Russia.
To its credit, the Biden administration has updated the shopworn sanctions playbook by going big—targeting Russia’s foreign currency reserves, for instance—rather than using the meager measures deployed after Putin’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas in 2014. The United States should build on this by exploring forceful penalties other than sanctions that are sufficiently consequential to alter the behavior of adversaries.
At the moment, Russia and China are employing the equivalent of hypersonic weapons to undermine democratic processes, while the United States and its allies are fighting with something akin to Cold War-era rifles. To defeat Putin and confront the long-term challenge both he and Xi pose together, the democracies of the world need to arm Ukraine but also redouble their arsenal in support of democracy.
Patrick W. Quirk is senior director for strategy and research at the International Republican Institute and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Previously, he served on the US Secretary of State’s policy planning staff.
David O. Shullman is senior director of the Global China Hub at the Atlantic Council. Previously, he served as deputy national intelligence officer for East Asia on the National Intelligence Council.