If Ukraine Wants To Stand for Liberty and Democracy, It Should Rethink Some of Its Wartime Policies

“There can be no question that the actions of Russia under Vladimir Putin put the country on the side of autocracy and repression. But the West should be clear-eyed about the ways that Ukraine is, and isn’t, living up to its end of the democracy-and-liberty formulation.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been hailed as a classical liberal hero, the inspirational leader who captured the world’s attention with a series of video messages immediately following the Russian invasion in which he celebrated those who had taken up arms to repel the attack and pleaded with foreign governments to lend a hand. But Zelenskyy has not merely urged his fellow countrymen to follow his lead. With the declaration of martial law in February came a prohibition on male citizens aged 18–60 leaving the country. Then in March, the government combined the country’s national TV stations into a single state-approved broadcast and suspended 11 opposition political parties it described as “pro-Russian.” 

With Ukraine scrambling to defend itself against Putin’s lawlessness, the impulse to shut down anyone with Russian sympathies is understandable. But to act on that impulse is to inflict punishment on Ukrainian citizens, including those who voted for the Opposition Platform for Life, which held about 10 percent of seats in Ukraine’s parliament and was the main party challenging Zelenskyy before he disbanded its activities. Ukraine has a large Russian-speaking population, and those who have generally favored maintaining close ties with Russia rather than pursuing greater integration with the European Union have a right to their views, and to representation in government, even at a time of war. 

Meanwhile, all Ukrainians have a right to share and access information. There was a disconcerting irony in Biden identifying the country as a combatant on the side of free speech and freedom of the press at the same time its president was clamping down on television stations’ ability to present the news to their viewers as they think appropriate. At least one outlet with ties to a Zelenskyy rival has been excluded from broadcasting on the new national channel, reported NPR this month. Zelenskyy’s office defended the consolidation, reported Reuters at the time, by “citing the importance of a ‘unified information policy,'” a phrase that should be chilling to anyone who values free expression.”

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