Vladimir Putin’s disdain for democracy is no secret.
He has quashed dissent at home, and the passage on Tuesday of a new “Blogger Law” is only the latest move by the Kremlin to control media and police the internet. As Arch Puddington and David Kramer of Freedom House have put it, “Putin has based his presidency on the suppression of the political opposition, and he has achieved this by marginalizing opposition parties and by relentlessly crushing civil society.”
Over the past few weeks Putin has expanded his campaign against democracy to include Ukraine. Russia’s propaganda machine has gone into overdrive, depicting Ukraine’s government in Kiev as fascists, anti-Semites, and a “junta.”
To be sure, they are nothing of the sort. But Putin’s worst fear is a legitimate government in Kiev that refuses to allow Ukraine to be forcibly integrated into Russia’s sphere of influence. In turn, he has gone to great lengths to disrupt and delegitimize Ukraine’s democratic institutions.
It is to this end that Putin has sponsored militias in eastern Ukraine, who have recently acquired weapons capable of downing Ukrainian military helicopters. It is also to this end that he has vacillated in his support for new presidential elections and a referendum on the independence of the East.
Putin’s message is that he can’t be bothered with Ukraine’s internal democratic process. By devaluing the outcomes of Ukrainian elections and referenda, he devalues the democratic system they embody.
A recent poll showed that only 15% of Crimeans voted in favor of annexation by Russia, not the 96.7% that the Kremlin reported. Putin clearly does not believe that Ukrainians can decide their own fate.
Instead of Ukraine’s democracy determining the country’s future, Putin intends to determine that future himself.
He has shown no regard for Ukraine’s sovereignty – he has been quoted as saying “Ukraine is not even a country” – or for the integrity of its borders and government. In short, Putin views Ukraine as an erstwhile Russian possession, and he will not let democracy stand in the way of his revanchism.
So why is Obama letting Putin get away with all this? Why is the United States allowing a functioning if imperfect democracy to be short-circuited and overwhelmed by a revisionist autocrat with a Cold War worldview?
Certainly, America is weary of intervention and adventurism abroad. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have turned most Americans off from active engagement in world affairs.
But Ukraine is not Iraq or Afghanistan. This is not a country where democracy needs to be built from scratch. The Maidan protests of this past winter demonstrated how hungry most Ukrainians are for real, Western-style democracy. Ukraine’s political and business communities are begging for American and European support and aid so that they can build a better future for their country. Again and again they are disappointed by a lackluster response from Washington and Brussels.
In his 2009 Cairo speech, Obama voiced “an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”
I would like to believe that these were not empty words.
But if Obama claims that when people rise in defense of democracy “we will support them everywhere,” then certainly we should support them in Ukraine.