Tuesday, February 25, 2014


“I don’t think there’s a competition between the United States and Russia. I think this is an expression of the hopes and aspirations of people inside of Syria and people inside of the Ukraine who recognize that basic freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, fair and free elections, the ability to run a business without paying a bribe, to not be discriminated against because of your religion or your beliefs—that those are fundamental rights that everybody wants to enjoy. Now, Mr. Putin has a different view on many of those issues, and I don’t think that there’s any secret on that. And our approach as the United States is not to see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia.”
 —Barack Obama, February 19 in Toluca, Mexico

I am not particularly familiar with Ukraine. I have never been there or, for that matter, anywhere very near there. Yet I have something of a connection to the place.

It happens that four of my great-grandparents were born in a place called Molotschna Colony, which was located in what is now the province of Zaporizhia in southeast Ukraine. They were Mennonites, a pacifist German-speaking religious sect that had originated in the Netherlands. They had been invited to settle in the area near the Sea of Azov by Catherine the Great, who had recently captured the region from the Ottoman Empire. At the time, this newly conquered land was called New Russia or South Russia. For reasons involving taxes and compulsory military service, my great-grandparents (along with many other Mennonites) abandoned South Russia in the late 19th century for Kansas—well ahead of the rise of Vladimir Lenin or, for that matter, Vladimir Putin.

Given the history, it is no surprise that Russia feels an attachment to Ukraine or that the large Russian-speaking population there feels attached to its larger neighbor.

What has been interesting in following the American coverage of the popular protests that forced President Viktor Yanukovych to flee is the way the portrayal of the situation has evolved. People in the streets expressing anger over the government always makes a dramatic narrative, but several years of Arab springs and color-coded revolutions—including Ukraine’s own Orange Revolution of 2004—have left journalists and international observers a bit less starry-eyed over displays of people power. In the absence of revolutionary romance, the ivory tower academic view seemed to predominate in the early reporting. Or maybe it just seemed that way to me because I listen to a fair amount of National Public Radio.

The early American coverage I heard tended to portray events in the Ukraine as an outbreak tribalism, i.e. the more culturally European west of the country versus the Russian-identifying east. There was also a bit of pointing to far right elements among the protestors, as if to caution news consumers not to get too swept up by emotion. But as the body count mounted and the government was put seriously on the defensive, it was impossible not to get caught up in the drama of the events.

Make no mistake, Ukraine is nothing short of a basket case. Not only is the country culturally divided, it has long been rife with corruption and its economy is on the ropes. To the extent that Russia and the West are in a competition to be Ukraine’s BFF, the country is definitely no prize to the extent that it is going to need a lot of economic help and major improvements in its economic and political culture. And these days the European Union and the United States have enough of their own problems.

So why is Putin so interested in Ukraine? The standard answer is that a somewhat paranoid Russia (Napoleon and Hitler haven’t been forgotten) likes having reliable buffers states on its borders and Ukraine’s location on the Black Sea is fairly strategic. And then there is the little matter of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet based on the Crimean peninsula. There is a word for this sort of domination by a larger power of a smaller country, but you don’t hear it mentioned much anymore: neo-imperialism.

President Obama and his surrogates mock the notion of a Cold War or of a competition between the U.S. and Russia. And most people around the world are more than happy not to see enthusiastic military competition between the two countries. But neither does the president talk of a philosophical or moral competition between the two countries. He occasionally enumerates the values the U.S. and the West adhere to and points out that the U.S. disagrees with Putin’s values, but he never quite moves past the stance of agreeing to disagree.

What was exhilarating about Ukraine’s latest revolution—despite its messiness and dark aspects—was that it was fueled by ideas. In fact, the very ideas that President Obama listed rather eloquently in his remarks in Mexico: “freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, fair and free elections, the ability to run a business without paying a bribe, to not be discriminated against because of your religion or your beliefs”—right before he repeated that the U.S. and Russia aren’t in competition.

This is what the so-called pragmatic/realist view of the world often misses. While the “experts” are busy explaining how everything comes down to what tribe or ethnic group you belong to and that stability is always better than instability, people are going into the street and risking life and limb for ideas. And those ideas—from Tunisia to Egypt to Syria to Venezuela—are very often an aspiration to greater economic liberty and wanting to throw off the yoke of corrupt government. It doesn’t always end well. Not only do the existing entrenched powers (such as the Assad regime in Syria) resist these eruptions of mass frustration, but there are often more organized ideologically driven forces (such as Al Qaeda) waiting for their chance to hijack a revolution.

For those of us who think that liberty is a good thing, it becomes increasingly clear that the mere holding of elections is not sufficient to achieve freedom. Looking around the world we can see that meaningful political freedom does not exist without corresponding economic freedom. Unfortunately, the established name for a system of liberal free markets is capitalism. And the forces that abhor too much freedom among the masses have done a very good job of vilifying that word around the world—including in many places in the West.

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