Many people think of pre-war Ukraine and Russia as very similar. Right before the full-scale invasion on February 24, a few people even wondered out loud if it would be so bad to have Ukraine become part of Russia. Ukraine has been called “Little Russia”, including by an Italian TV host. But it would be a mistake to think that just because the two countries are next to each other and share a common history that they are interchangeable. Not just because of differences in language and culture. The chart below, based on pre-war statistics, highlights just how much more democratic and free Ukraine is. Ukraine is significantly more free than Russia when it comes to political and civil freedoms as well as freedom of the press. Even on the metric they are closest on, LGBTQ equality, Ukraine is clearly leading.
Some additional information to put these statistics into context.
1. Russia is not just effectively a one-party state but a one-man state. Political opponents who are too powerful are jailed or killed. The only reason a neo-Nazi party doesn’t exist in Russia is because Putin decides what kind of party gets to symbolically challenge him. Ukraine, for all its faults, is much more of a democracy.
2. Even before the war, Russia systematically suppressed dissent, violently if necessary. Peaceful protests were “nearly impossible.” Ukraine has a long (albeit imperfect) history of peaceful protests and free speech.
3. Russia has tight controls on the media and speech more generally. This has gotten (much) worse since the war. Ukraine’s media freedom rating, while not great, was much better than Russia’s, even before the war.
4. Russia’s regime has a proven track record of extreme nationalistic rhetoric. The linked article, from April 2021, ominously warns that Putin’s “increasingly nationalistic rhetoric now risks triggering a major war, possibly against his wishes.” Ukraine’s government, by contrast, is focused on closer ties with the EU and the West more generally.
5. Russia’s 2013 law banning gay “propaganda” and the accompanying rhetoric have marginalized LGBTQ individuals even more and led to more violence against them. The LGBTQ community in Ukraine is afraid of what will happen to them if Russia occupies the country.
Of course, Ukraine can do even better. Closer ties with the West and the EU will help. But first, we need to do everything to help Ukraine win this war. It’s not just a fight for land, it’s a fight for freedom.