People from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, controlled by pro-Russia...

People from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, controlled by pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine, head for Russia Monday. Credit: AP

After weeks of tensions, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a televised speech Monday which made his intentions clear. After a lengthy ramble about Russia’s historical and more recent grievances, he announced that Russia was recognizing the independence of two Ukrainian regions seized by so-called separatist rebels in 2014, the "People’s Republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk. Moments later, he signed an order to send Russian "peacekeeping troops" to those regions.

This is not only a blatant assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty, but also an attack on the international liberal order — a challenge that should force us to confront the question of whether liberal democracy has the will to defend itself.

It is difficult to overestimate just what an explosive situation Putin’s move creates. Large parts of the territory where he is sending "peacekeepers" are currently under the control of the Ukrainian government, with Ukrainian troops stationed there. A clash between Russian and Ukrainian forces could easily become a pretext for Russia to move into other Ukrainian regions and unleash all-out war, with the goal of toppling the government in Kyiv and replacing it with a puppet regime — or perhaps even annexing all of Ukraine. (Putin’s speech made it clear that he regards Ukrainian statehood as fundamentally illegitimate.)

After more than seven years of waging an illegal undeclared war in Ukraine by propping up the breakaway statelets, Putin has moved to the next stage of open war.

Obviously, what the world can do is limited by Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal. For the United States or European powers to take direct military action in defense of Ukraine — which is not required by any treaty obligations — is to risk World War III. But there are other things that can be done to make war as costly as possible for Russia, from economic sanctions like the ones President Joe Biden announced Tuesday to aiding Ukraine with weapons and supplies.

A strong response to Russia requires seeing the current conflict in the stark terms of authoritarianism vs. the free world. Ukraine, for all the flaws and weaknesses of its democratic institutions, is a country seeking to join the community of liberal democracies. The Kremlin regime has been seeking to thwart this quest.

Yet the situation is complicated by the fact that hostility to liberal values and institutions has been on the rise in many democracies, the United States above all.

A large number of American right-wing pundits today, such as Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, are frankly hostile to Ukraine and sympathetic to Putin’s excuses for invasion. In addition to this rhetoric is an even more basic rejection of liberalism by conservative intellectuals who believe that liberal democracy inevitably leads to moral decadence, tyranny against traditional religious communities, and loss of cultural self-confidence — and that decadent liberal states are helpless against authoritarian powers whose cultural self-confidence is undiminished.

The left is not off the hook. The past few years’ radical progressivism, while addressing some real problems, often demonizes liberal societies and institutions in toxic and self-destructive ways. If you barrage people with the message that freedom is just a smoke screen for white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, calls for defending the free world won’t sound very compelling.

We are in a new Cold War with liberal democracy’s adversaries, mainly Russia and China. But those who cherish the liberal order also need to win a cultural cold war on the homefront.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, are her own.