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 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT