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Thomas L. Friedman: Why the fate of Ukraine matters

  • New York Times
  • Published Monday, July 7, 2014, at 12 a.m.

You can’t make this up. The Guardian reported last week that Ukrainians crowdfunded the first “people’s drone” to help their army stem infiltration by Russian-supported rebels in Ukraine’s eastern provinces that border Russia.

“Ukraine’s crowdfunding site ‘The People’s Project’ said that it had received enough donations to fund a drone,” the Guardian reported. “The organizers had originally hoped to buy a state-of-the-art Israeli drone – for $165,000 – or a cheaper American one costing $120,000. In the end, however, they managed to build the drone for just $35,000. A designer and other volunteers built the airframe, with a Ukrainian military institute chipping in technical equipment.”

Good for them. The fate of Ukraine matters – as much, if not more, as Syria and Iraq. We don’t have to search for “moderates” in Ukraine. Millions there have already both fought for and voted to align their country with the free markets and free people of the European Union.

In Brussels recently, the newly elected Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, signed a trade pact with the European Union that will lower tariffs on Ukrainian exports to the 28-nation EU market in return for Ukraine implementing anti-corruption, transparency and quality-control reforms designed to bring its economy up to Western standards. It was the same deal that Poroshenko’s predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, refused to sign last November under pressure from President Vladimir Putin of Russia. That set off the revolution in Kiev’s main square that eventually toppled Yanukovych and ignited a rebellion by Putin-directed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Which is why only hours after the deal was signed, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Grigory Karasin, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as ominously warning that the EU-Ukraine accord would have “serious consequences.”

Really? Think about that. One nation threatening another for signing a trade pact in hopes of elevating the incomes of its people, which have badly lagged those of its neighbors, like Poland, who joined the European Union after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I get that the Russians would not want Ukraine to join NATO, a defense alliance still aimed at containing Russian power. I opposed NATO’s expansion at the end of the Cold War and would not support it now. But a trade deal that doesn’t even lead to automatic EU membership? Is this how Russia maintains its power status? By keeping its neighbors poor and energy-starved?

I had argued in May that Putin had “blinked” when, in the wake of Western sanctions and the threat of more, he pulled back troops from Ukraine’s border where he had massed them – hoping first to block Poroshenko’s election and then the signing of the EU deal. But maybe Putin just winked. While he did not invade, he has shoveled arms and proxies into eastern Ukraine to foment separatism in Russian-speaking areas. Last week Poroshenko – fed up with Putin’s lying – moved forces to regain control of eastern Ukraine and his country’s right to choose its future. Putin is clearly afraid of more sanctions. It is time the U.S. and EU imposed them.

In denying Ukrainians the right to choose their own economic and political path, Putin shows how dumb and clever he is at the same time. He is dumb in believing that, in this connected world of newly empowered citizens, he can enjoy the same “sphere of influence” that Russia had in Central Europe in the days of the czars. Sorry. If a leader wants to have a sphere of influence today – in this age of “people of influence” – he either has to earn it by how he behaves or take it all by force. In Ukraine, Putin is in incapable of the former and – for now – doesn’t dare do the latter. The czars never had to deal with people of influence who could crowdfund their own drone.

But Putin is also clever. Or as Russian analyst Vladimir Frolov put it in the Moscow Times: “Putin may fail to secure his goal of derailing Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU, but at home he has already cashed in on his Ukrainian political strategy by completely resetting Russia’s national conversation. His principal achievement has been to eliminate any meaningful debate on alternative futures for Russia. Less than a year ago, there was still political space to advance democratic alternatives to Putin’s system.”

However, the Russian seizure of Crimea and its proxy war in Ukraine, added Frolov, “transformed the national conversation from a healthy debate on Putin’s presidential performance into a toxic discussion on war and Russia’s enemies. Moscow’s propaganda has successfully painted Ukraine’s popular uprising against state capture by a corrupt clique as a ‘U.S.-sponsored fascist coup.’” Therefore, if Putin “is fighting Nazis in Ukraine, then by extension anyone who disagrees with him could be a Nazi collaborator and an enemy of Russia. This closes the political space for all alternative visions for Russia except as a revisionist empire hostile to the West.”

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist with the New York Times News Service.

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