Skip to main content

Frum: Beware Russia's power play in Ukraine

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
December 2, 2013 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
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
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 0730 GMT (1530 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT