The fog of war, the ADHD of cable news and the smears of Russian propaganda have combined to obscure some important good news in this dismal summer. In the historic fight over the future of democracy in Ukraine, Kyiv is winning and the Kremlin is losing. That is good news for Ukrainians, but also for Europeans, for the rest of the world—and ultimately for Russians, too.
Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and Syria have taught us that even in conflicts where it is easy to spot the villain, virtuous actors can be much harder to find, and effective virtuous actors can be rarer still. That’s why the early success of the new Ukraine is so significant.
Of course, it’s also true that at every stage in this crisis, Ukraine’s democratic victories have had the perverse consequence of escalating pressure from the Kremlin. That pattern has now led to possibly as many as 45,000 Russian troops once again massed on Ukraine’s border, as Moscow considers how to check the success of the Ukrainian military in re-establishing control over the eastern Donbass region where Russian-backed fighters have been trying and failing for months to create a breakaway republic. NATO and Ukraine’s leaders are warning there’s a significantly heightened threat of Russian invasion.
Russia’s bellicose brinksmanship has made Ukraine’s eastern border the world’s most dangerous tripwire—it is no exaggeration to worry we could be on the edge of the greatest conflict since the World War II. But in determining how to respond, it is essential to understand this standoff has been created by the surprising and growing strength of Ukrainian democracy—and by Vladimir Putin’s refusal to allow a peaceful democracy to exist on his western border.
This crisis is not about an American power play in the former Soviet Union— indeed, it often seems as if President Barack Obama privately wishes Ukraine’s democracy revolution would just fade away. This is entirely about the Ukrainian people’s decision that they were no longer willing to live in an authoritarian kleptocracy—and the annexation and invasion of their territory that was the Kremlin’s response. Ukraine could only have avoided this struggle by not choosing democracy, or by failing in the effort to build it.
No matter how hard Putin tries to spin it (or to turn from attack line into a reality), Ukraine isn’t a failed state, prey to domestic extremists and weakened by civil war. This is a young country swiftly uniting around the democratic idea in the face of foreign aggression. Ukraine’s new leaders aren’t angels. Their ranks include oligarchs with checkered biographies and politicians who were members of past, failed governments. But, after 23 years of chaotic post-Soviet independence, Ukraine now has a wired and educated civil society prepared to fight for democracy and a leadership that knows how the West works and wants to emulate it.
Which is why the right parallel when thinking about how the West should respond to this crisis isn’t with the West’s past decade of military misadventures in the Middle East, it is with Eastern Europe in the 1980s, where civil society overthrew communist regimes and produced leaders who were, albeit with plenty of mistakes and hardship along the way, able to build capitalist democracies in their place.