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Surrounded by lackeys, ensconced in his Kremlin echo chamber, Vladimir Putin has come to believe himself the messiah of the Russian nation, the only one who can save it from the encroachment of a corrupt and decadent West.ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images

The conflict in Ukraine is really two wars: the war of arms and the war of ideas. With his overwhelming advantage in troops and firepower, Vladimir Putin seems likely to win the first. The second, he has already lost.

The moment his missiles started landing with a thud around Ukrainian cities, the world recoiled in shock, outrage and disgust. Whatever shreds were left of his tattered mask as a civilized world leader were torn away, exposing him not just as a liar who had claimed to have no intention of invading Russia’s independent neighbour but as a raving conspiracy theorist who saw Nazis hiding under the bed.

Instead of extinguishing the flame of Ukrainian nationalism, he rekindled it. Citizens of the nation he claimed should not even exist rushed to the blue-and-yellow flag, united in their determination to resist and endure. His attack left many of his own people embarrassed and appalled. Russia’s reputation, already so tarnished by his annexation of Crimea, his Olympic cheating, his murderous repression of dissent and his attempts to undermine Western elections, now bears a bright scarlet stain.

None of this may matter much to Mr. Putin now. He seems impervious to shame. But reputation matters. Ideas matter. The Soviet empire whose collapse he so regrets fell apart not just because its superstructure was rotten but because it lost the battle of hearts and minds. The Berlin Wall may have kept East Germans from fleeing to the West, but it showed the world that the Soviet system was a dismal failure, unable to retain its subjects except by penning them in.

Ukraine is Mr. Putin’s Berlin Wall. Military victory there, if it comes, will carry a cost far greater than any ground he may gain.

In Ukraine, Soviet nostalgist Vladimir Putin is trying to rewrite history

For let’s be clear: This attack is about far more than Ukraine. It’s part of a larger struggle between democracy and its enemies. Mr. Putin and his allies in that struggle, notably China’s Xi Jinping, say that they have an alternative to the fractious complexity of democratic life. They say that, with wise and powerful figures such as them in charge, citizens can enjoy prosperity, stability and national pride without the bother of changing leaders every few years.

Mr. Putin’s reckless gamble exposes the critical flaw in that claim. Strongman rule promises order, but it often ends in violence and chaos. Without the democratic checks on their power, strongmen grow isolated, arrogant and often unstable. Mr. Putin is a classic of the type. Surrounded by lackeys, ensconced in his Kremlin echo chamber, he has come to believe himself the messiah of the Russian nation, the only one who can save it from the encroachment of a corrupt and decadent West. Mr. Xi shows the same messianic tendencies.

For a good while, their argument seemed to be carrying the day. Russia came out of its post-Soviet malaise. Mr. Putin fought off challenges from liberal opponents and became a popular symbol of Russian resurgence. Mr. Xi’s China grew rich and powerful without free elections or a free press. Strongmen from Turkey to the Philippines looked on with admiration.

The West cannot concede an inch to Vladimir Putin

Democracy was in retreat. Even some of the oldest democracies were embroiled in internal divisions: Britain’s over Brexit and the United States over Donald Trump.

Ukraine could be a turning point. The world’s democracies, so weak for so long, are more united than they have been for years. NATO has a new lease on life. Even American politicians are for once on the same page.

The Putin attempt to crush Ukraine has reminded us both of the dangers of the unbridled strongman and of the value of democracy, still by far the best guarantor not just of freedom but of order. The reminder is overdue. Too often, we have taken our system for granted or succumbed to doubt about its merits. Too often, we have wondered if its opponents are right when they say they have found a better way. Didn’t Mr. Putin have a point when he said Russia had been humiliated by the West? Wasn’t Mr. Xi correct to say the Communist Party had delivered lasting peace and wealth?

Mr. Putin’s attack has clarified things. It is hard to see it now, as the bombs fall in Kyiv and Kharkiv, but Mr. Putin may have done the democratic cause a great favour.

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