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).
That is why this comity between America and Europe is only temporary. The Europeans essentially believe, to paraphrase Stalin, in democracy on one continent. As for democracy elsewhere, they really could not care less.
They pretend, however, that this opposition to America's odd belief in spreading democracy universally is based not on indifference but on superior wisdom -- the world-weary sagacity of a more ancient and experienced civilization that knows that one cannot bring liberty to barbarians. Meaning, Arabs. And Muslims. And Iraqis.
Hence the Bush-Blair doctrine of bringing some modicum of democracy to the Middle East by establishing one country as a beachhead is ridiculed as naive and messianic. And not just by Europeans, but by their ``realist'' allies here in the United States.
Thus Zbigniew Brzezinski, a fierce opponent of the Bush administration's democracy project in Iraq, writes passionately about the importance of democracy in Ukraine and how, by example, it might have a domino effect, spreading democracy to neighboring Russia. Yet when Bush and Blair make a similar argument about the salutary effect of establishing a democracy in the Middle East -- and we might indeed have the first truly free election in the Middle East within two months if we persevere -- ``realist'' critics dismiss it as terminally naive.
Yet if you had said 20 years ago that Ukraine would today be on the threshold of joining a democratic Europe, you too would have been called a hopeless utopian. Yes, Iraq has no democratic tradition and deep ethnic divisions. But Ukrainian democracy is all of 13 years old, much of it dominated by a corrupt authoritarian regime with close ties to an even more corrupt and authoritarian Russia. And with a civilizational split right down the middle, Ukraine has profound, and potentially catastrophic, divisions.
So let us all join hands in praise of the young people braving the cold in the streets of Kiev. But then tell me why there is such silence about the Iraqis, young and old, braving bullets and bombs, organizing electorate lists and negotiating coalitions even as we speak. Where is it written: Only in Ukraine?
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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