Why Ukraine's Success Is Pivotal

At a conference in Kyiv last May of world-class intellectuals that was convened Timothy Snyder and Leon Wieseltier, the Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, said that Ukraine was “the epicenter of the global struggle for democracy.” It still is.

The goal of that meeting was to rally Western political, economic, and military support for Ukraine’s fight to become a democratic European country. But here we are, almost a year later, and despite the readiness of the Ukrainian people to sacrifice and die for European and democratic values, economic assistance has been inadequate, military aid is minimal, sanctions have had less effect on the Russian economy than the drop in oil prices, and political support has been at best ambivalent. For all intents and purposes, Ukraine has been abandoned by a confused, fearful, and self-absorbed West.

We are all familiar with the various rationalizations that are used to justify this Western paralysis. Some say that Ukraine is part of Russia’s sphere of influence, even though that geopolitical idea is inconsistent with contemporary norms of international law and human rights. Some accept Vladimir Putin’s view that Russian actions in Ukraine are an understandable reaction to NATO enlargement and the alleged humiliation of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many say that there is no military solution to the conflict, but they never explain how a political solution is possible without a military balance.

Many oppose providing Ukraine with defensive military aid because they fear that Russia would just up the ante, and that the West would never be able to match Russian escalation. Such an attitude is an admission of weakness, and it also fails to appreciate the impact on the global order of perceived Western impotence in Ukraine.

And then there are people like the Czech President Milos Zeman who deny that Russia has invaded Ukraine at all, ignoring the overwhelming evidence that it has. NATO Supreme Commander Philip Breedlove has said that Russian “air defense, command and control, resupply equipment [are] coming across a completely porous border.” And former Supreme Commander Wesley Clark, warning of an imminent Russian offensive, said recently that Moscow has deployed 9,000 troops to bolster 30,000–35,000 local fighters in eastern Ukraine, and that it has armed the force with 400 tanks and 700 pieces of artillery.

I talked to many Ukrainians while in Kyiv in late April, and what I found remarkable is that no one I met complained about being abandoned by the West. The closest that anyone came to a complaint about the lack of military aid was a comment by a journalist and former member of Parliament that since Ukraine had given up its weapons two decades ago in the Budapest agreement, it deserved to get some weapons back now. Everyone I met demonstrated an attitude of pride and self-reliance, a mood of sober determination, and a firm confidence that Ukraine will not fail to seize the historic opportunity it now has to break with the past and become a genuine democracy that is a part of Europe.

Of course, Ukraine has no choice since it is facing an existential challenge. This reminds me of something that was said in the aftermath of the Six-Day War by the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who was born in Kyiv in 1898. Our secret weapon, she said, is that we have no alternative.

Ukraine also has no alternative, and it must fight not just on one but on two fronts. On the military front, it has resisted the aggression by the Russians and their separatist proxies and is fighting them to a standoff, despite the absence of any meaningful aid from the West.

Ukraine has also not buckled on the domestic front. It has begun the process of deep and comprehensive economic reform, even as the economy contracted last year by 6.8 percent, output plunged by 15 percent, inflation surged to 45 percent, and the gap between what donors have pledged and what Ukraine needs to support its recovery is more than $15 billion.

In the face of this crisis, Ukraine has held two successful democratic elections. Following the victory of the reform forces in the parliamentary elections last October, scores of Maidan activists entered the Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian Parliament) and are now hard at work implementing a new package of anticorruption legislation, a new law on procurement, and the reform of the energy sector, which has included the quadrupling of subsidized household gas prices, with offsetting compensation for the poor. Dependency on Russian gas, once 100 percent, is now down to 30 percent.

Ukraine is beginning to fulfill the promise of the Euromaidan, which was not just a political uprising but a revolution of dignity. As a result, it has become a nation composed of citizens who are ready to take responsibility for the well-being of the country. With the war in the east having produced more than 1.1 million internally displaced people, a spontaneous army of volunteers has come to their aid with food, clothing, and hygiene supplies. Volunteers are also fighting the Russian propaganda offensive with truth-telling media platforms like StopFake and Ukraine Under Attack. And young people from western Ukraine, through groups like The Freedom Home in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, have helped rebuild homes destroyed by the war, and have created a welcoming cultural community where young people who grew up in a closed post-Soviet space can network, exchange ideas, and learn.


Ukraine is pursuing democracy and a European path at a time when many people fear that democracy is in decline around the world. But it is not true that democracy is in decline. The first democratic beachhead in the Arab Middle East has now been established in Tunisia. Against all expectations, reform forces in Sri Lanka ousted an autocratic government in elections last January. And just a few weeks ago in Nigeria, Africa’s largest country, tens of thousands of citizen journalists, empowered by social media and networks of young people and NGOs, transformed what many feared would be a fraudulent election leading to civil war into a peaceful step forward for democracy.

The problem is not that democracy is in decline. The problem is that the democratic West is in crisis. It has lost the will to affirm and defend democratic values. It is my hope that a successful democratic struggle in Ukraine will help revive the democratic spirit in Europe and the United States. It can also profoundly influence the future of Russia.

If Ukraine succeeds, it will provide a model of democracy in a country neighboring Russia where millions of people speaking Russian enjoy freedom of expression. Such a model will inevitably strengthen those in Russia who look to Europe and want a society free of the corruption, hatred, and violence.

If Ukraine succeeds, it will also mean the defeat of Putin’s effort to restore the Russian Empire, which requires reversing a century history that saw the collapse of all other empires. If Putin’s revanchism fails, Russia will have the chance to become a normal country, at peace with its neighbors and devoted to the well-being of its citizens.

Not least, if Ukraine can prevail against Putin’s military aggression, it is likely to set in motion a process of democratic change in Russia. In the past, Russian military failure has been an impulse for democratic reform. Its defeat in the Crimean wars in the 1850s demonstrated the backwardness of Russia’s autocratic system and led to the abolition of serfdom and liberal reforms, including the establishment of local self-government and trial by jury. Its defeat decades later in the war against Japan led to the 1905 revolution, the first elected Parliament, and the reforms of Pyotr Stolypin. The setbacks in World War I led to the collapse of czarism and the 1917 revolution, which began as a democratic revolution before the Bolshevik coup later that year. And the disastrous invasion of Afghanistan led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Putin wants Ukraine to fail. But he will fail if Ukraine succeeds.

Ukraine can succeed, and if it does, it will not just be a triumph for the Ukrainian people. It will also make possible a Europe that is whole and free. And if that happens, it becomes possible to think of a world that is whole and free, or at least a world much closer to that ideal than we are now. The Heavenly Hundred and so many others who have made the ultimate sacrifice for Ukraine have not died in vain. They bring glory to Ukraine and challenge the democratic West to live up to its values.

Carl Gershman is the president of the National Endowment for Democracy. This article is based on remarks delivered in Kyiv on April 26, 2015, at the conference “Democracy at a Crossroads: New Politics and Civil Society in Ukraine.”

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