Editor’s Note: Editor’s note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
On Sunday, almost by accident, two groups of demonstrators came together in London. One was waving Ukrainian flags; the other Iranian flags. When they met, they cheered each other, and chanted, “All together we will win.”
The uprising in Iran and the war in Ukraine are, on the surface, very different conflicts. At their core, however, they are being fought by individuals who have decided to risk their lives, to do what it takes to defend their right to live as they choose; to push back against violent, entrenched dictatorships.
For decades autocrats have been gaining ground while democracies looked almost spent, in retreat. Now suddenly, when we least expected, a ferocious pushback against two of the most brazen tyrannies has burst into view. In Ukraine and in Iran, the people have decided to defy the odds for the sake of their dignity, freedom and self-determination.
The consequences could prove far reaching.
In Iran, the spark was the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini last month. Known as “Zhina,” she died in the custody of morality police who detained her for breaking the relentlessly, violently enforced rules requiring women to dress modestly.
In scenes of exhilarated defiance, Iranian women have danced around fires in the night, shedding the hijab – the headcover mandated by the regime – and tossing it into the flames.
Their peaceful uprising is not really about the hijab; it’s about cutting the shackles of oppression, which is why men have joined them in large numbers, even as the regime kills more and more protesters.
It’s why women are climbing on cars, waving their hijab in the air, like a flag of freedom, and gathering crowds of supporters in city streets, and in universities, where security forces are opening fire to try and silence them.
Putin’s not-so-mighty military
If the prospects for success in Iran’s “Women, life, freedom!” uprising look dim, consider what the prognosis was for Ukraine when what was supposed to be one of the world’s mightiest military forces set out to seize their country.
After all, it was less than a decade ago that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military entered Syria’s long civil war, helping to save the dictator Bashar al-Assad (as Iran had).
Putin had built up his forces and thought he could conquer democratic, neighboring Ukraine in a few days. Even US intelligence predicted Russia would capture the capital, Kyiv, in a matter of days, if not hours. That’s why the US reportedly offered to evacuate Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky to safety just after Russian forces moved in. But Zelensky refused.
“We will be defending our country, because our weapon is truth, and our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children, and we will defend all of this.” He concluded, “That is it. That’s all I wanted to tell you. Glory to Ukraine.”
And still Ukraine is pushing ahead, is doing very well in fact, and very possibly winning this war.
Western support and weaponry have proven key, but the indispensable element in Ukrainians’ success to date is the spirit of their fight. Like the women in Iran, they occupy the moral high ground. They are fighting for their lives, for their freedom. The other side is fighting for power and control over others.
Because they hold the moral high ground, the struggles of the Ukrainian and the Iranian people have inspired support around the globe among backers of democracy and human rights. In this era of social media, their anthems against fascism have gone viral, as has the brutality of their foes.
Is it any wonder that Putin’s first trip outside the former Soviet Union since the start of his Ukraine war was to Iran? Is it any wonder Iran has trained Russian forces and is now believed to have provided Russia with advanced drones to kill Ukrainians?
These are two regimes that, while very different in their ideologies, have much in common in their tactics of repression and their willingness to project power abroad.
Iran’s prisons are filled with regime critics and courageous journalists – including Niloofar Hamedi, first to report what happened to Mahsa Amini. In Russia as well, journalism is a deadly profession. So is criticizing Putin. After trying and failing to kill opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Putin’s people manufactured charges to keep him in a penal colony indefinitely.
Multiple Putin critics have suffered mysterious deaths. Many have fallen out of windows. And both Iran and Russia have become leading practitioners of transnational repression, killing critics on foreign soil, according to Freedom House and other democracy research and advocacy groups.
Moscow and Tehran have sought to foment their ideologies beyond their borders. That’s why the struggles of the Ukrainian and Iranian people will have repercussions beyond their countries.
For people in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, there’s more than passing interest in the admittedly low probability that the Iranian regime could fall. It would be transformative for their countries and their lives, heavily influenced by Tehran. After all, Iran’s constitution calls for spreading its Islamist revolution.
For people living in autocracies supported by Putin, the Ukrainian war could change everything at home.
For the rest of the world, it’s a time of uncertainty and expectation. Seven months ago, some viewed Putin as something of a genius. That myth has turned to dust. The man who helped suppress uprisings, entered wars, and tried to manipulate elections across the planet now looks cornered.
Nobody knows what happens next. No one knows how all this ends. As the people in Ukraine and Iran fight for their freedom, for self-determination, the world stands at an inflection point. History waits to be written.