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What Putin Feared Most About Ukraine: It's A European Democracy

For authoritarian leaders from Beijing to Moscow, it’s unbearable that democratic institutions like the European Union succeed. So it is vital that we Europeans build measures to protect democratic sovereignty.

What Putin Feared Most About Ukraine: It's A European Democracy

At an anti-war protest in Krakow, Poland

Jacques Attali


PARIS — For a dictatorship to endure, it needs more than just surveillance and terror. It must also be able to convince the people it enslaves that their future, in a regime of freedom, would not be sufficiently better to justify taking the risk of rebellion.

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So dictatorships have always done everything possible to discredit any neighboring society their subjects could look to for a comparison. Before starting the war, Nazi Germany spent its time denouncing the weaknesses of European and American democracies and ridiculing their leaders. It must be admitted that the latter provided it with good arguments to do so.

The Soviet Union did the same for 70 years, describing to the point of caricature the racism, inequalities, misery and corruption that reigned, and still does, in American society.

Proximity matters

Today, the Beijing government wants to get its hands on Hong Kong to destroy the democratic model left by the British. This determination and its plan to regain control of Taiwan is not just the desire to take back territory and the historical heritage that has found refuge there. It is also an ambition to eliminate a democratic regime on Chinese soil, which could inspire reformists or revolutionaries on the mainland.

Now it is the turn of Ukraine, a stuttering but real democracy, so close to Russia culturally.

What has been happening in Moscow for the last few years — and the war that Russia has just declared — is also inspired by the same reason. Of course, there is the will not to let the former republics of the Soviet Union escape from Moscow's control (as Azerbaijan, which has now become part of the Turkish orbit, has done very skillfully). But above all, it is the will not to let them be won over by democratic influences, which could put independent thoughts in the minds of the Russian people.

This has resulted in the takeovers of Belarus and Kazakhstan. Now it is the turn of Ukraine, a stuttering but real democracy, so close to Russia culturally.

We should not take democracy for granted

Ondrej Deml/CTK/ZUMA

Moscow and Beijing have similar targets

Modern dictatorships can no longer prevent their people from knowing what is going on elsewhere. They can no longer take away from their middle classes the hope of having the same rights as the citizens of neighboring democracies — to consume, to own, to make a fortune, to criticize, to speak freely.

Nor can they prevent them from understanding that it is good to live in a democracy, that two democracies never go to war with each other and that it is in a democracy, despite all the defects of this system, that everyone can best realize their potential.

Dictatorships must therefore discredit democracies at all costs and demonstrate that they are incapable of ensuring full employment and the well-being of those who live in them. This means sabotaging democratic economies, even if it is to the detriment of those of their own companies that trade with them.

Democracy is our most precious asset

This concerns us to the highest degree. For if there is a counter-model for these dictatorships, a democratic, harmonious and free entity where life is good for many, it is the European Union.

So it is vitally unbearable for any dictator that the European Union should succeed. It will probably be the main target for Moscow and Beijing, who see it as the absolute political counter-model that must not be allowed to prosper.

Can't depend on America

At first, in the EU, we will not be attacked militarily, but we will be prevented from helping those who are. They will try to destroy the credibility of our political, economic and social models. This is already happening with increasingly massive resources.

And what about us? What are we doing in the face of these attacks, which have only just begun? We are doing nothing. What do we have planned to counter the provocations, the sabotage, the rumors, the false news, which are likely to increase in the next few years?

Not much. Not economically, not institutionally, not culturally, not in the media, not militarily. And let's not count on the Americans to protect us. Subject to the same attacks, they will be occupied with defending themselves.

Democracy is our most precious asset. We wrongly take it for granted. We should not. A considerable number of people have an interest in our failure. Let us wake up. Let us unite.

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