Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 marked a sharp break with the past: the post–Cold War interlude, a time when peace and democracy spread across the globe, was over, and a new, more aggressive era, had begun. Since then, Western governments have had to relearn the forgotten art of deterring attacks and protecting their countries’ borders. They have failed to see, however, that the attacks can also be aimed at their democratic institutions. Liberal democracy may remain the world’s preferred model of governance, but it is under debilitating pressure from threats both internal and external.
A poll released by Dalia Research in 2018 highlighted just how much citizens of democracies have lost faith in their governments. Sixty-four percent of respondents living in democracies said their governments rarely or never act in the public interest, whereas only 41 percent of those in autocracies said the same. Politicians in democracies are partly to blame: there is more than a grain of truth to the view that they have ignored concerns about such issues as living standards and immigration and that they often say one thing and do another.
But malign foreign powers—led by Russia—have worsened the problem, by weaponizing the infrastructure that underpins democratic societies. They have hacked the Internet, media, and even voting databases to sow discombobulation, discontent, and disunity. From the 2016 Brexit referendum, to the 2016 U.S. presidential primaries and general election, to the 2017 French presidential election, foreign meddlers have systematically sought to skew the democratic debate.
The Kremlin has been testing its interference playbook in countries throughout eastern Europe, and especially Ukraine, ever since those states escaped Soviet rule in the early 1990s. Only in recent years has it begun following that playbook in western Europe and the United States. The attacks are an assault on every citizen’s fundamental right to elect his or her own representatives. Yet even though democracies on both sides of the Atlantic have been targeted, their responses have lacked urgency and coordination.
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