Skip to main content

Frum: Beware Russia's power play in Ukraine

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
updated 2:51 PM EST, Mon December 2, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: Democracy failed in Russia and a top officer of KGB, Vladimir Putin, became president
  • Frum: Putin and his coterie want to resurrect Soviet Union and want to keep Ukraine in thrall
  • Frum: Ukrainians want to enter EU and lessen dependence on Russia; Putin fighting to stop it
  • He says Ukrainian protests met with brutal suppression; time for U.S. to pay attention

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- A superpower needs a super attention span. Unfortunately, Americans seem to take little interest in the troubles of the world around them, even when those troubles threaten soon to vex Americans themselves.

Americans fought two world wars -- and faced nuclear annihilation in a protracted Cold War -- to defend the freedom of Europe. In the thrilling days of 1989-91, four generations of American sacrifice were magnificently vindicated. The communist regimes of central Europe collapsed. The Soviet Union itself broke apart into smaller and less threatening pieces.

For four centuries, the rulers of Russia had sought security for themselves by dominating first their own people, then their neighbors, then their neighbors' neighbors, then their neighbors' neighbors' neighbors ... until their power extended from Berlin to the Pacific Ocean.

David Frum
David Frum

Then, abruptly, that imperial project broke apart. Subject nations regained their freedom. The Russians themselves gained a new opportunity -- perhaps the first in their national existence -- to choose a government that served its people.

Ukraine protesters block government offices, call for strike

The former rulers, unfortunately, had other ideas. Democracy did not take root in Russia after 1991. How and why it failed is a long story, with many villains, but let's cut to the end result: A former top officer of the KGB maneuvered his way into the Russian presidency in 1999-2000. Vladimir Putin restored to power the old secret police apparatus.

Since then, Putin and his coterie have attempted to reconstitute as much of the old Soviet Union as they could, while plundering Russia's wealth for themselves.

One step to that reconstitution of the Soviet Union was absolutely indispensable: Reasserting Moscow's power over Ukraine.

Turmoil in Ukraine
Ukrainian President rejects EU trade deal
2012: Boxing champ enters political ring

No nation suffered more from Soviet communism than the Ukrainians. Ukrainian farmers lost their lands and homes to Soviet collectivization in the 1920s; millions died in the man-made famine that followed in the 1930s. Their language and culture were stunted under Moscow rule; their intellectuals and writers were suppressed, banished, murdered, and defamed. In 1991, Ukrainians seized their chance to build a country of their own.

Ukrainian independence liberated not only the Ukrainian people, but all Europe. Russia without the nearly 46 million people and vast natural resources of the Ukraine is a large and powerful country, but it is no superpower.

Since Putin's entry into power, Russia minus Ukraine has sought to influence and corrupt the democracies of Europe. A Russia that reintegrated Ukraine would possess the power -- like the Soviet Union of old -- to intimidate and bully democratic Europe. Russia minus Ukraine can aspire to become a normal nation state, a democracy, even a liberal democracy. A Russia that holds Ukraine by force must forever be a militarized authoritarian regime, a menace to its own people as much as to the rest of the European continent and the democratic world.

Upholding Ukrainian independence is thus a deep concern, not only to the Ukrainians, but to all the free countries of Europe -- and thus to the United States, free-Europe's security and trading partner.

Vladimir Putin understands all this too, and he doesn't like any of it. Since he came to power, he's worked to undermine and subvert Ukrainian independence. He has been successful. Ukraine imports its oil and natural gas from Russia, and Putin has used energy dependency to sway Ukrainian politics and bribe Ukraine's dauntingly corrupt leaders.

But every once in a while, Putin goes too far. He went too far in 2004, collaborating with Ukrainian former communists to rig a presidential election. Blatant fraud inspired Ukraine's famous "Orange Revolution" -- and a temporary swing in Ukraine's political orientation to the West.

Now Putin is trying again -- and again he is meeting massive resistance in the Ukrainian streets. Over the past years, the European Union negotiated a trade pact with Ukraine. The pact would enrich ordinary Ukrainians, today the third poorest people in Europe, after the Kosovars and Moldovans. The pact would lessen Ukraine's economic dependence on Russia -- and prepare the way for Ukraine's own eventual membership in the EU.

Under extreme Russian pressure, the Ukrainian president -- the very same man whose election fraud triggered the Orange Revolution nine years ago -- has repudiated his own treaty, and his country's best hopes.

Tens of thousands of protesters have filled the streets and squares of the capital, Kiev, two weekends in a row. Police have suppressed the protests brutally, injuring many people. The regime's controlled courts have banned any further public demonstrations until January.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed disappointment in muted tones after a November 28 summit with the Ukrainian leadership: "Unfortunately not all expectations have been fulfilled. We will make very clear here that the EU is ready to accept Ukraine as an associate member, to sign the association treaty. Then we will see. We have no hope that it will happen this time, but the door is open."

Don't be fooled by the muted words, however. What's at stake in the streets of Kiev is the future of the European continent -- and American prosperity and security. An inward-looking America is averting its attention from its own most important interests and highest ideals.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
updated 5:22 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
updated 12:08 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Sat September 13, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT