On February 24, Russian president Vladimir Putin launched a brutal invasion of Ukraine. This war, which has already displaced millions of people and menaced the lives of millions more, presents an existential challenge not just to Ukraine's sovereignty, but also to the liberal international order. It comes at the time when liberal democracy's star has faded across the 29 countries covered in Nations in Transit. This edition of the report, assessing the events of 2021 from Central Europe to Central Asia, marks the 18th consecutive year of democratic decline for the region as a whole.
Putin's war is the latest and gravest expression of his thuggish and malignant influence on neighboring states. When free societies have resisted his efforts to warp their media and corrupt their politicians, he has threatened or actually used military force, as in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. When authoritarian incumbents have teetered in the face of popular demands for change, he has backstopped their regimes and deepened their dependence on Moscow, as in Belarus or more recently in Kazakhstan. But the stakes of the current conflict are even higher. If the Kremlin succeeds in subjugating a sovereign, democratic Ukraine, it will mark the first time that an authoritarian power has overthrown a freely elected national government in the region since the end of the Cold War. Even if the effort fails, it has already destabilized the Nations in Transit region, potentially accelerating the steady antidemocratic transformation that has taken place across Europe and Eurasia.