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.
The first success is the consolidation, maturity and determination of Ukraine's civil society. Remember all of those warnings from Putin and other Russians about the dangerous power of the far right and the worries that the euphoria of the pro-Europe protesters who rallied in Kyiv's Maidan Square last winter would give way to rule by armed, brown-shirted militias?
The May 25 presidential election, in which Petro Poroshenko, a Russian-speaking centrist businessman from the south, won a strong majority on the first ballot in a field of 17 candidates, gave the lie to that putative threat. Ukraine's two far-right candidates polled less than 2 percent each, far less than the hard right polled in European Union parliamentary elections held on the same day.
Ukrainians didn't elect Poroshenko for his charisma or his barnstorming speeches. They voted for him because he backed the Maidan protesters from the start, he was the frontrunner, and he is competent. His most effective campaign slogan-which appeared with no photo or visual image, just words, on billboards across the country - was "to stop the war, let's elect a president on the first ballot." Ukraine is normally a sort of Slavic Italy-a disputatious society that revels in political disagreement and debate. It is a measure of the gravity of the moment that Ukrainians accepted Poroshenko's argument and, for the first time since independence, chose a president on the first ballot and with strong backing from across the country.
Ukraine's second success is its unprecedented degree of national unity. That reality is obscured by the lazy shorthand that often frames the conflict in eastern Ukraine as a Yugoslav-style civil war, driven by ancient cultural, linguistic and religious divisions. In fact, the fight in Ukraine is almost entirely a political and even ideological struggle. This isn't about Russian speakers vs. Ukrainian speakers-an absurd idea in a country so at ease with its nearly universal bilingualism that everything from television interviews to jokes to parliamentary debates are conducted in an easy back-and-forth between Ukrainian and Russian.
The dividing line in what Ukrainians call their "dignity revolution" is instead the choice between Western liberal democracy and the Kremlin's neo-authoritarianism. What has been striking is how determinedly most of Ukraine has chosen democracy. For Ukrainians, this isn't about the reshaping of the world's geostrategic chessboard-who would chose to be a pawn in someone else's power play? But Ukrainians have now seen both Western democracy and Putin's post-Soviet kleptocracy up close. They have made the same choice all of us would, and they are proving they are willing to fight, and to die, for it.
We saw that first with the Maidan, where Ukrainians defied freezing weather, tanks and finally snipers to bring down their authoritarian regime. The next proof points came in the fraught months between the flight of President Viktor Yanukovych and the presidential election won by Poroshenko, which gave Ukraine the stability of a democratically elected leader.
During that fragile interregum, Russia worked hard to undermine the new Ukraine. The Kremlin started by sending in "little green men," as the Russian troops infiltrating Ukraine wearing uniforms but no official government ID have come to be called, to Crimea. The little green men swiftly took control of the government and military infrastructure there. Moscow followed up with the unexpectedly aggressive step of explicitly annexing the peninsula. Russia then attempted to replicate the Crimean scenario in the geographic arc running from its satrap Transniestria in the southwest, along the Black Sea coast, then north to Kharkiv in the east. These efforts had some success in the Donbass, but it is important to appreciate how completely they failed in the rest of what Putin has named "Novorossia," or New Russia.
Chrystia Freeland, Politico