The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The long-ago invasion that offers clues as to Vladimir Putin’s thinking on Ukraine

When France invaded Spain over fears of having a liberal democracy on its border.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, in Moscow this month. (Sputnik/Pavel Bednyakov/Pool via REUTERS)
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Russia has 100,000 troops poised to invade Ukraine, and while that scenario conjures up memories of the Cold War or other recent bouts of aggression such as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the most illustrative historical parallel is actually a forgotten episode from nearly 200 years ago.

In January 1823, not unlike today, a more powerful country ruled by an authoritarian leader deployed 100,000 troops to its border with a weaker neighbor governed by a liberal constitutional regime. But on that occasion, the countries were France and Spain. French King Louis XVIII worried that Spain’s liberal constitutional regime could bleed over into his country, putting his reign at risk.

Louis XVIII’s fears shed light on the current situation in Eastern Europe. Russia has demanded that NATO commit to never admitting Ukraine as a member, but the 1823 French invasion of Spain suggests that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s worries may be far deeper. He, too, may view a democratic neighbor as a threat to his regime and its international position.

In 1820, Spain underwent a revolution that forced its king, Ferdinand VII, to submit to a constitution and effectively retire.

This concerned Louis XVIII in two ways. Both had to do with the tendency of liberals across borders to sympathize with and help one another. The French king’s most pressing fear was that the liberals’ triumph over Ferdinand in Spain would strengthen liberalism in France. The French Revolution and Napoleon were gone, but liberal networks still threaded across Europe, working for more uprisings and sharing information and moral support. The 1820 revolution that laid Ferdinand low had already spread to Portugal, Piedmont, Naples, Greece and even to Latin America. Louis’ fellow absolute monarchs across Europe were likewise terrified that revolution abroad could produce revolution at home.

Louis’ more remote, but still serious, fear was that a liberal Spain would get out from under French influence. Ferdinand and Louis were both in the House of Bourbon; Ferdinand’s power was a carrier of French influence in Spain. But Spanish liberals hated the Bourbons, which meant that French influence in the country depended on restoring Ferdinand to full power.

And Louis saw this as key to France’s international influence and power. If Spanish liberals stayed in power, they could align with the relatively liberal Britain. Even though the great powers were at peace in the “Concert of Europe,” France still worried about holding onto its traditional sphere of influence. Spain also remained a strategically important country.

France waited until springtime, April 1823, to invade Spain. The French force met little resistance and soon restored Ferdinand’s absolute rule. For a time, Louis and France’s influence were secure.

Yet, the intervention was not enough to secure absolutism in either country for long. In the spring of 1830, revolution erupted in Paris, eventually ousting the Bourbon Charles X and placing in power Louis-Philippe, the “Citizen-King,” a constitutional monarch on the British model. As for Spain, within four years, it was to descend into a series of civil wars between liberals and absolutists that did not end until 1876.

The Bourbons, then, could not fend off liberalism forever. But recent social science implies that Louis may have read the geopolitical situation correctly and extended his rule in France. Rebellion can, indeed, travel across international borders, as dissidents draw encouragement from one another’s successes. Most recently, Middle Eastern despots learned that during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

Louis also was correct that countries’ foreign alignments are often linked to their ideologies or domestic regime types. It’s the reason that France and the other great powers of the 19th century — and, later, superpowers like the United States in the 20th century — often promoted their regime type in smaller states to put their friends into power and gain allies. International institutions such as NATO can reinforce this tendency, buttressing democracy in member states by normalizing it as a form of government. A country’s form of government and its foreign alignments, it turns out, are entangled; each can reinforce the other.

Which brings us to 2022. In the abstract, neither democracy in Ukraine nor the eastward advance of NATO threatens Russia. But Putin is reading the situation as Louis did in 1823.

Putin understands that liberal democracies on his border threaten his authoritarian regime, both by emboldening Russian liberals and by tipping the balance of power against Russia in Europe. “We will not permit the realization of another so-called color revolution scenario,” he told his fellow Eurasian autocrats after their recent joint intervention to prop up Kazakhstan’s autocracy. He meant the serial revolutions earlier in this century — Rose in Georgia, Orange in Ukraine, Tulip in Kyrgyzstan — that brought pro-democratic, anti-Russian regimes to power. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia; in 2014, Ukraine. Both invasions aimed to weaken the democratic regimes in these countries and scuttle their bids to join NATO.

It is by no means certain that Putin will invade Ukraine. He faces much stiffer international opposition than Louis did in 1823, including from the United States. But promising not to invite Ukraine into NATO may not be enough to prevent Russia from attacking, or at least from toppling Kyiv’s democracy and replacing it with authoritarian rule. Putin knows that constitutional self-government in Ukraine would perpetually threaten to spill over into Russia and loosen his grip on power.

Putin also understands that a democratic Ukraine would always be under pressure from its own people to move away from Russia and toward the West. In the second quarter of the 19th century, many European countries were internally divided between liberals and absolutists. Being a liberal meant wanting to distance your country from absolutist powers such as France (until 1830) or Austria; it meant wanting your country to align with liberal Britain. In 2022, in the divided countries of Eastern Europe, the situation is similar: being a liberal means opposing alignment with Russia and a strong wish to join NATO and the European Union.

Regardless of how the immediate crisis in Eastern Europe plays out, Russia under Putin will still desperately want to keep democracy away from its borderlands, and with good reason. The conflict between Russia and the United States is deep because the two countries have very different political regimes and values. Putin may be paranoid, but he is at least correct about this: Democracy is his enemy.