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 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT