WASHINGTON -- There has been general back-patting in the West about renewed European-American comity during the Ukrainian crisis. Both the United States and Europe have been doing exactly the right thing: rejecting a fraudulent election run by a corrupt oligarchy and insisting upon a new vote. This gives us an opportunity to ostentatiously come together with Europe. Considering our recent disagreements, that is a good thing. But before we get carried away with this era of good feeling, let us note the reason for this sudden unity.
This is about Russia first, democracy only second. This Ukrainian episode is a brief, almost nostalgic throwback to the Cold War. Russia is trying to hang on to the last remnants of its empire. The West wants to finish the job begun with the fall of the Berlin Wall and continue Europe's march to the east.
You almost have to feel sorry for the Russians. (I stress almost.) In the course of one generation, they have lost one of the greatest empires in history: first their Third World dependencies, stretching at one point from Nicaragua to Angola to Indochina; then their East European outer empire, now swallowed by NATO and the EU; and then their inner empire of the Soviet republics.
The Muslim ``-stans'' are slowly drifting out of reach. The Baltic republics are already in NATO. The Transcaucasian region is unstable and bloody. All Russia has left are the Slavic republics. Belarus is effectively a Russian colony. But the great prize is Ukraine for reasons of strategy (Crimea), history (Kiev is considered by Russians to be the cradle of Slavic civilization), and identity (the eastern part is Russian Orthodox and Russian-speaking).
Vladimir Putin, who would not know a free election if he saw one, was not about to let an election get in the way of retaining sway over Ukraine. The problem is that his bluff was called, and he does not have the power to do to Ukraine what his Soviet predecessors did to Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War.
Hence the clash of civilizations over Ukraine and, to some extent, within Ukraine: the authoritarian East versus the democratic West.
But this struggle is less about democracy than about geopolitics. Europe makes clear once again that it is a full-throated supporter of democracy -- in its neighborhood. Just as it is a forthright opponent of ethnic cleansing in its neighborhood (Yugoslavia) even as it lifts not a finger elsewhere (Rwanda, southern Sudan, now Darfur).
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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