A Fight for Democracy: Why Ukraine Matters

A Fight for Democracy: Why Ukraine Matters

NED President Carl Gershman’s article as it appeared in the World Affairs Journal on January 22, 2015.

On November 19th Washington commemorated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia by unveiling a bust of Vaclav Havel in the US Capitol. Two days later there was another post-communist milestone that was just as important but much less noticed: the first anniversary of the Maidan uprising in Ukraine, which occurred on November 21st. Remembering Havel was a way to reaffirm core democratic values. Recognizing the importance of what started in Ukraine a year earlier was a much more urgent and contemporary exercise focusing attention on issues that affect our core national security.

It’s hard to believe that so much has happened in just one year: the Euromaidan uprising with its sustained protests in sub-freezing temperatures, the repression, the martyrs, the fall of President Viktor Yanukovych, then the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, and now Russia’s continuing slow-motion aggression in eastern Ukraine. Even if they have sometimes taken place in the periphery of our vision, these have been transforming events, with consequences that have reverberated far beyond Ukraine.

A new Ukraine has emerged from all of this turmoil and struggle. It’s a more unified country than ever before, with a much stronger sense of national identity. Professor Volodymyr Vassylenko, who served as Ukraine’s ambassador to Great Britain and who is one of Ukraine’s leading experts on international law, recently said that Vladimir Putin’s ultimate objective is nothing less than the destruction of Ukraine’s national identity. But in an ironic way, it is because of Ukraine’s struggle, and therefore also because of Putin’s deep enmity, that Ukraine has become a new country, a unified state where language and other divisions are no longer as difficult as they once were; a country that wants to become a modern, European state with democracy and the rule of law.

I was in Ukraine last May for a solidarity conference of intellectuals organized by Professor Timothy Snyder of Yale University and Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic. There was a session bringing together religious leaders from different faiths—Greek and Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Muslims, and Jews. There was also a panel of seven Jewish leaders. Everyone there was speaking as a Ukrainian. This could never have happened before, and it’s happened because of the Maidan and because Ukraine is increasingly defining itself in the struggle against the Russian aggression and attempt to destroy Ukrainian nationhood.


The Maidan uprising was not only a momentous historical event but also a profoundly democratic one, with the protesters embracing a concept of citizenship involving individual responsibility to uphold democratic values and to serve the larger community. Ukraine took another step toward democracy more recently on October 26th when it held parliamentary elections. One of the most significant things that happened in the elections was that civil society activists, journalists, and other leaders from the Maidan entered politics for the first time. Their decision to run for Parliament was not an easy one because politics and politicians have such a bad reputation in Ukraine—for good reason, since the way it has been practiced until now has made it a dirty business. But they knew that they could not defend the revolution and achieve the radical reforms contained in the Reanimation Reforms Package—a reform initiative by more than fifty NGOs, three hundred and fifty experts, and twenty-two working groups—if they did not make the jump from civic activism to politics and seek a role in the governance of the country. This is something that the protesters in Egypt’s Tahrir Square could not do, which is why in the end Egypt’s revolution fared so badly. And so it’s very encouraging that activists like the journalist Mustafa Nayyem (whose Facebook post launched the Maidan protests), the investigative journalist Serhiy Leshchenko, and the ecology advocate and journalist Hanna Hopko made the difficult decision to move from protest to politics.

The entry of into politics of activists like Nayyem, Leshchenko, and Hopko—they were all elected members of Parliament—is especially important now when there is an urgent need to implement real reforms. Anders Aslund, a leading specialist on post-communist economic transition, has described the current economic situation in Ukraine as “desperate, though not hopeless,” an assessment that seems optimistic given the facts: GDP plummeting by ten percent this year, according to the Economist; the budget deficit rising to twelve percent of GDP; and the value of the hryvnia, Ukraine’s currency, falling by half in the last year and by nearly one-quarter in just the first weeks of November. Inflation for this year will exceed twenty percent, and of course Russia’s ongoing war in the east has caused billions of dollars in damage.

In a policy brief published by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Aslund offers “An Economic Strategy to Save Ukraine.” Among its key points are that the reformist forces that won the parliamentary elections need to agree as soon as possible on the formation of a highly competent coalition government. This was achieved at a special evening session on December 2nd, when the new Parliament boldly added a new element of giving three ministerial portfolios to foreign nationals, one of them an American, Natalie Jaresko, who will take over the powerful Finance Ministry. The government is now positioned to implement the kind of radical reforms contained in the Reanimation Package. These include cleaning up the government from the top down, including the purge of corrupt officials from the old regime, especially in the judiciary and police; abolishing the legal immunity of parliamentarians so that they can be held accountable for their acts; closing or merging superfluous or even harmful state agencies, and laying off excess staff while raising qualifications and salaries; cutting public expenditures by one-tenth of GDP in the next year; and reducing energy subsidies by unifying energy prices—meaning putting an end to the trading of gas between low state-controlled prices and high market prices, which Aslund calls “the main mechanism of corruption” in Ukraine.

In addition to implementing such radical reforms, Ukraine will need much more financial support than it has received to date from the IMF and other international financial institutions—not in the form of credits, which Ukraine won’t be able to repay, but as aid to rebuild its collapsing economy. Aslund has called for a Marshall Plan to save Ukraine, but for such a plan to work it will be necessary to stabilize Ukraine’s currency, a problem that needs to be given the highest priority by the international lending institutions. With the Parliament now having approved a new cabinet, Ukraine may be ready to rise to the challenge of radical reform. But it will not succeed in becoming a modern European state if the West does not rise to the challenge as well with concrete financial, technical, and political support.


If anything, the challenge now confronting Ukraine is more difficult than the one faced by postwar Europe because it needs to rebuild economically while the war is still going on—in this case, the war caused by Russia’s continuing aggression in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine is now fighting a war of survival against a very brutal, dangerous, and powerful enemy. Russian forces have crossed the border into southeastern Ukraine with tanks, artillery and troops; and they have done so with impunity. Putin has totally ignored the September Minsk peace accords calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the region. As the Economist has noted, he denies violating the agreement because he claims that Russia has no troops in Ukraine in the first place. Of course he’s lying—a United Nations report issue on November 20th said that nine hundred and fifty-seven Russian troops have died in eastern Ukraine since the peace accords—but the West is not calling him on it. The Economist notes that Putin’s standard operating procedure is to escalate the conflict and then agree to go no further in exchange for concessions, and he has been getting away with it. The paper quotes Kirill Rogov, a Russian political analyst at the Gaidar Institute in Moscow, as saying that “Putin likes to open talks by putting a knife on the table first.” Yet somehow we continue to think that Putin is a potential partner in securing a more peaceful world order.

The German government called the most recent Russian moves into eastern Ukraine “incomprehensible,” but they’re perfectly comprehensible if one keeps a record of what has happened since the Crimean invasion. When the latest Russian advances into Ukraine occurred, the new foreign policy chief of the European Union, Federica Mogherini of Italy, urged moderation, saying that the West can’t let the peace process break down because it will be so difficult to start it again. But what peace process was she speaking about? As a recent Wall Street Journal editorial pointed out, “Putin has never stood down”—not in Chechnya in 1999, when he used the Chechen war to take power; not in Georgia in 2008; not in 2012, when he whipped up anti-Americanism and domestic repression to crush his own anti-government street protests; and so far not in Ukraine. He will stand down only if and when he is forced to do so.

Far from being a partner in peace negotiations, Putin has demonstrated a fierce and obsessive anti-Americanism. The Washington Post editorial page was on the mark in its characterization of his speech in Valdai in October: “a poisonous mix of lies, conspiracy theories, thinly veiled threats of further aggression, and, above all, seething resentment toward the United States.” Putin exceeded even his own standard of bombast the following month when he said, “When a Russian feels he is right, he is invincible.”


What are we to do? More important, really the first question, is what are we dealing with here? If rather than a partner, Putin’s Russia is an adversary, or an opponent, or even an enemy—which is certainly how Putin himself views it—how does this affect us?

I suggest that Putin seeks nothing less than a different kind of world order from the one that followed the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, which he has called “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century.” That’s why he “[drove] a tank over the world order,” as the Economist put it last March after the invasion and annexation of Crimea. Putin is seeking to reverse the verdict of 1989, as the American writer George Weigel has said, which he considers to be an unjust and humiliating defeat for Russia.

Asserting that the world is in the midst of an authoritarian surge, the Russian analyst Lilia Shevtsova adds, “Today’s Russia is an advance combat unit of the new global authoritarianism, with China . . . waiting in the wings to seize its own opportunities.” She warns that if the West chooses to respond with appeasement, “this will give a green light to the Authoritarian Internationale, signaling that the West is weak and can be trampled underfoot.” It will certainly open the way for Putin to threaten and attack other countries in addition to Ukraine—Moldova, the Baltic states, Poland, and Kazakhstan.

Should this matter to the United States? Are our own interests involved, leaving aside those of Ukraine and our allies? Why should we care? Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute has responded to these questions by pointing out that Russia, a country with seventeen hundred strategic nuclear warheads and four hundred and eighty-nine strategic missiles, is in the grip of a leader with a messianic, revanchist ideology and historic grievances against the United States. That must matter to us. If Putin wants to destroy NATO and the EU, it affects us so directly that we must care. To do otherwise would be to admit that we have no sense of what our national interest is and what we must do to defend it.

We are entering a new moment in our international as well as our national politics. After the 2014 elections, we can expect a much tougher tone in the debate in Congress over foreign policy, and more pressure for a stronger response than we’ve seen so far to Putin’s aggression. There will certainly be an effort to expand sanctions to sharpen the economic crisis that is growing in Russia. The ruble has fallen by more than forty percent in the last five months alone, and Putin’s inability to restore confidence in the currency through repeated interest-rate hikes shows how vulnerable he really is. The collapsing currency is just part of the problem. The sharp drop in oil prices is hurting the Russian economy even more than sanctions. The outflow of capital is expected to hit $110 billion this year. The combination of the exceedingly high external debt of Russian firms—more than $500 billion—and Russia’s dwindling reserves, which the Economist believes are $100 billion less than the official figure of $370 billion, further exacerbates Russia’s severe economic difficulties. Until now, many analysts have assumed that Putin has about two years to maneuver before the Russian economy collapses. According to the Economist, “a crisis could happen a lot sooner.”

This doesn’t mean that the West should sit back and wait. What is most urgent, as Senators Carl Levin and Jim Inhofe wrote in the Washington Post this past October, is the need to give Ukraine the weapons it must have to defend itself. They don’t want US boots on the ground, but on the other hand blankets and food rations are hardly enough, as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told the US Congress in September. Ukraine needs what is provided for in the bill adopted with bipartisan and unanimous support in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: anti-tank weapons to defend against Russian-provided armored personnel carriers, ammunition, vehicles and secure communications equipment, and intelligence support and training. An equivalent bill in the US House of Representatives was introduced at the beginning of December.

Key leaders in the US and Europe worry that weapons for Ukraine might make Ukrainians think that there is a military solution to the conflict. Unfortunately, that is exactly what Putin himself seeks: a military solution. He has used military escalation to achieve his victory—bisecting Ukraine and freezing the conflict in a way that will destabilize the country for the foreseeable future and deny it membership in the European Union and NATO. Military aid to Ukraine may not by itself bring the conflict to an end, but no political solution is ever possible in the absence of military pressure, and Putin is much more likely to end his aggression if his forces in Ukraine suffer more casualties, which he is desperately trying to hide from the Russian people.


If Putin does fail in Ukraine, the consequences could be even more severe than the impact of an economic collapse. Clearly, Putin hopes that the invasion and annexation of Crimea and the attack on eastern Ukraine will help him gain support in Russia and resist pressures for internal change. But he’s playing a very dangerous game. In 1904, the czarist interior minister, Vyacheslav Plehve, said, “What this country needs is a short victorious war to stem the tide of revolution.” He had in mind Russia’s war against Japan. But what happened? Plehve was assassinated, Russia lost the war, and the defeat precipitated the revolution of 1905, which brought about Russia’s first Parliament and the reforms of Pyotr Stolypin and ultimately to V. I. Lenin himself. This was not the only case of a Russian military defeat or setback leading to political change, as has been noted by both the Russian analyst Vladimir Kara-Murza (also a regular contributor and blogger for this publication), and the Georgian writer Ghia Nodia. They point out that Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War of 1853–56 demonstrated the backwardness of its autocratic system and led to the abolition of serfdom and other liberal reforms, including the establishment of local self-government and trial by jury. Russia’s devastating setbacks in World War I contributed to the collapse of the czarist system and the Russian Revolution of 1917, which began as a democratic revolution before the Bolshevik coup. And the failed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan precipitated the disintegration of the Soviet Union. If Ukraine can successfully defend its sovereignty, and in the process impose heavy costs on the Russian invaders, Putin may learn that he is not as invincible as he imagines.

Some argue that the fall of Putin would itself present a great danger because he will likely be replaced by someone even worse. They say that Russia, with its autocratic history and authoritarian culture, is not capable of establishing a real democracy. But is that true?

According to Kara-Murza, who now works in Moscow for Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia which seeks a democratic opening and a European future for Russia, anti-democratic forces have always done badly in Russian elections whenever they were free and competitive. The first election ever was in 1906, when the Constitutional Democratic Party, which had campaigned for liberal reforms and a British-style parliamentary system, won a plurality of seats in the State Duma, while the far-right monarchists failed to get even a single candidate elected. In 1917, in the election for the Constituent Assembly held after the Bolshevik coup, the Bolsheviks lost to the pro-democracy Socialist Revolutionary Party by forty percent to twenty-four percent, which is why the Bolsheviks then dispersed the “bourgeois” assembly by force. The next time the Russians had a chance to vote, according to Kara-Murza, was in 1991, when Boris Yeltsin, backed by the opposition Democratic Russia movement, overwhelmingly defeated the Communist candidate, former Soviet Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov, by fifty-seven percent to seventeen percent. Even in the 1993 parliamentary elections, when ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky won a plurality, the centrist and liberal parties out-polled the combined total received by Zhirinovsky and the Communists by forty percent to thirty-five percent. And in 1996, even though Yeltsin was an unpopular incumbent and in poor health, he was able to defeat the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov by fifty-four percent to forty percent in the second-round presidential runoff.

I am not saying that democracy is inevitable in Russia, only that it is possible, and that one should not resign oneself to Putin’s continued rule on the grounds that the only possible alternative to him would be worse. The greatest threat to autocracy in Russia would be a successful and a democratic Ukraine, which will be a powerful model for Russia itself. Putin knows that a neighboring Ukraine, with millions of Russian-speaking people freely expressing themselves, will be a magnetic symbol of democratic freedoms for people inside Russia. This is what Putin fears most, because the neo-imperialism that Putin represents will wither if Russia cannot control Ukraine. Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, as Zbigniew Brzezinski has often said. It is possible that out of the present crisis Russia will become a more normal country, even a democracy, where the central concern will no longer be expanding the power of Greater Russia but providing for the welfare of its people.

So the strategic goal for people who want to see a more peaceful and democratic world is a Russia that, like Ukraine, wants to be democratic and a part of Europe. Right now such a scenario seems very unlikely. But if Ukraine succeeds, there is the possibility for a better outcome. That is why Ukraine’s struggle for democracy, independence, and territorial integrity has consequences for the whole world. And it’s why the US has a profound stake in its success. By standing with Ukraine, we are not merely supporting their struggle. We are also defending our own national security and advancing the values of human freedom that America, with all its troubles, continues to represent.