Testimony before European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs

Hearing: "Transatlantic Cooperation Following Russian Aggression on Ukraine"

March 14, 2022
On Monday, March 14, 2022, ASD Director Laura Thornton testified before European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs during a hearing on "transatlantic cooperation following Russian aggression on Ukraine." Read her written testimony below.

Ukraine and Global Democracy

Thank you, Chair David McAllister and Rapporteur Tonino Picula, honorable members of the Committee, for gathering on this important topic. Putin’s war in Ukraine is the devastating example of the ongoing competition between autocracy and democracy. It should be a wake-up call for a transatlantic response that puts democracy front and center of our security cooperation, enabling us to be quicker to act when the warning signals are there.

I am truly honored to be among such esteemed experts here today. I certainly do not represent their deep foreign policy bench or Russian expertise. Rather I come to you as a democracy practitioner who has spent the last 25 years living around the globe providing technical assistance to democratic institutions and actors, monitoring elections, and training activists and civil society groups. I lived in troubled dictatorships, fragile new democracies, and states in between; from Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia to the country Georgia. I’ve lived through democracies rising and, sadly, falling to autocrats.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is about democracy. It is also of course about Putin’s delusions of reclaiming a fallen empire, fantasies of ethno-Russian nationalism, paranoia about consequences of NATO and EU expansion, and humiliation of waning global influence. At the core, as Ukrainian activist Hanna Hopko and I wrote in an op-ed recently, Putin’s big fear is democracy, particularly at his doorstep. Democracy is contagious, and any spread at home poses an existential threat to being tsar. His brutal war not only aims to reclaim a sovereign democracy under his autocratic rule but also signals globally the strength of the authoritarian grip. If the world allows such capture, a message is sent to not only Putin but to other authoritarians who are eyeing power grabs of their own.

Just a few months ago, one hundred countries joined President Biden’s Summit for Democracy to reenergize global commitment to democracy. Lofty pledges were made, and the White House announced 2022 as a “year of action” during which countries are supposed to hone their commitments to democratic reform. Meanwhile the very aims of the Summit are being tested in real time. The threat of autocratic takeover is not a theoretical thought exercise; it’s happening.

Autocrats are clearly committed to their own year of action. Burkina Faso, one of the many fragile yet promising new democracies, suffered a military coup, following others in West Africa. Sudan and Myanmar have sunk into more violence after the military tightened their grip on power. China used the Olympics as a glossy PR cover-up of the genocide of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Russia has invaded Ukraine.

In addition to the most egregious tool of violent takeover being employed by Putin, autocrats are acting in other ways to undermine democracies with a non-kinetic toolbox—economic coercion, civil society subversion, cyber operations, information operations, and malign finance They are forging alliances, sharing tactics and technologies to suppress civil society, media, and opposition voices, all while blasting our information channels with poison to sow chaos and distrust in democracy as a viable form of governance. Some, like China, are making the case that they represent a better governance model and a quicker pathway to economic growth, supporting infrastructure development and, with it, creating built-in dependencies.

These autocrats come from without but also from within, amplifying each other, and taking hold in both older and newer democracies. There is also the rising demand problem. We are choosing autocrats through the ballot box.

Russia had been using these tactics as part of its Ukraine strategy for years. Through domestic and international state media outlets, troll farms, and useful idiots, the Kremlin has flooded the information space with narratives aimed at sowing division and undermining democracy. Russia laundered money through oligarchs and businesspeople to support influence operations, including advocacy and destabilization campaigns, as well as attempted to capture Ukrainian political leaders. Russian intelligence services have recruited Ukrainian officials to gain access to information and leverage them to create instability in the country.

Despite these tactics, Ukrainian democracy, warts and all, proved resilient. So Russia resorted to war.

Transatlantic cooperation to defend Ukraine will require a broad arsenal of measures. Additional sanctions so we do not continue to finance Putin’s war by buying Russian oil and gas and launder his money through our banks; the provision of arms and aid; and a new defense posture and security arrangements that look beyond a “great powers” struggle and ensure Ukraine’s place at the table.

But to the question I was asked to address in this hearing: How can the U.S. and EU (and I would add the global democracy community) cooperate to promote democracy worldwide? Ukraine should be a five alarm call to take this task seriously. Authoritarians, from outside and in, are watching closely.

To start, we must understand democracy as a matter of global security, not simply a values proposition. We are in the midst of war, piling on top of a global health pandemic and a catastrophic climate crisis that will reshape our world and society, increasing conflict, migration, and resource scarcity. Autocrats weaponize such crises to undermine our belief in institutions, governance, and democratic processes—the very things needed to address these challenges. How we respond both internally and globally matters.

First, we need a coordinated global democracy network. This could be done through the Summit for Democracy framework, or other existing global institutions and initiatives. Several democracy organizations have advocated for the establishment of a new commission or D10 alliance of democracies, including civil society actors, to provide collective security and early warning systems. It could address our economic and energy dependencies on autocracies. We are now, for example, looking to Saudi Arabia—an autocratic country bombarding civilians in Yemen—to make up for Russian oil. We need a strategy to disentangle. And if this isn’t a clean energy reckoning, I don’t know what is.

The grouping could also coordinate efforts to ensure accountability for bad actors and implement sanctions, such as a Global Magnitsky Act. It could formulate a task force on donor engagement to ensure USAID, EU, SIDA, DFID, UNDP and other large supporters of democracy assistance are coordinating their strategies and sharing best practices.

Second, we must get our own houses in order. According to international democracy assessments, old as well as new democracies are under threat. We are all in this together, and the learning must go both ways. Democratic governance is failing to deliver policies and programs that reflect the needs and improve the quality of life of citizens. Corruption and political finance have thwarted the representative process, resulting in inequality of voice. Information disorder has heightened divisions and fear. This has eroded trust in institutions, leaders, and elections, creating the perfect vacuum for malign actors and strongmen. We must view democracy promotion as including ourselves, undertaking our own reforms to ensure democracy delivers.

Third, democracy assistance should go after the authoritarian playbook.

  • We must support countries to deter and build defenses against mal/mis/dis information. Countries, including our own, need initiatives that go beyond defensive whack-a-mole approach to preemptively recognizing and pre-bunking information operations. Our aid should support high-quality independent journalism, investing in local and investigative media. Our governments should collaborate across the Atlantic on how to challenge the business models of social media platforms that profit from conflict and lies. The U.S. and EU can take the lead to build a clearinghouse of best practice, drawing from successful interventions from Finland to Taiwan, to guide others.
  • Democracy assistance should prioritize efforts to thwart malign finance through greater financial transparency and disclosure requirements, restrictions on foreign political activity, and support to grassroots anti-corruption watchdogs and activists.
  • International aid should prioritize technical support to parliaments to enhance legislative oversight, which can curb autocratic influence by detecting and preventing harmful conduct and holding governments to account for how taxpayer money is used and whether it serves the public’s interest. I have experienced how effective parliamentary scrutiny has thwarted the purchasing of equipment from or trade arrangements with malign foreign actors.

Fourth, transatlantic democracy investments should focus on the demand-side—building resilient communities and publics. I’ve worked for decades providing support to institutions, such as legislatures, political parties, election bodies, and government agencies. This is critical work. But we need to also go local, investing in communities to foster faith in democracy and inoculate people against the siren calls of authoritarians. Research on resilience has shown that communities with a strong sense of civic life—whether from Girl Scouts or religious institutions or rec centers—and an active and inclusive local government are more durable. To build a more resistant and discerning citizenry, we should invest in civic education, digital and media literacy education, civic infrastructure, and experiments in national civil service efforts.

Fifth, we must enhance our support to democrats in closed societies. My biggest complaint about Biden’s summit was its focus on states as participants, leaving out democrats struggling in non-democracies. I know first-hand that this is complicated, fraught work. It requires providing much needed aid and training to civic actors and journalists working from within. They need to feel part of a broader global democracy ecosystem.

The transatlantic community’s democracy promotion efforts already have included some of these recommendations, including in Ukraine. And it was working. When I was at the National Democratic Institute, the U.S., U.K., Canada, and EU nations funded our democracy programs in Ukraine, and we saw progress in the conduct of elections, functions of parliament, participation of women, and capabilities of civil society and media. And we see today the heroism of Ukrainians fighting for their democracy. We now need to manifestly expand these efforts, but also coordinate them—working in tandem, sharing best practices, and providing more thorough and multi-faceted defenses. Democracy should be woven into our security apparatus, and we must be quicker to act when the warning signals are all there. For which democracy is next?