Yet today, all three countries are thriving democracies and NATO allies who contribute to our prosperity and security.
As the crisis in Ukraine continues to fester, we must decide where we stand.
Do we want to return to the dark days of the Cold War or do we want to build on the integrated global order that has delivered peace and prosperity?
Do we believe that people have the right to pursue their dreams or do we bequeath veto power on authoritarian thugs?
In Tom Friedman’s latest column, he sums up the dilemma quite nicely in the very first paragraph:
Sometimes the simplest question speaks the biggest truth. I was meeting with some Maidan activists here in Kiev last week, and we were talking about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistence that Ukraine was part of Russia’s traditional “sphere of influence” and “buffer zone” with the West, and, therefore, America and the European Union need to keep their hands off. At one point, one of the activists, the popular Ukrainian journalist, Vitali Sych, erupted: “Did anyone ask us whether we wanted to be part of his buffer zone?”Friedman’s column is excellent and I urge you to read it, but I think I can add to his points and provide further depth.
First, some background.
The popular Ukrainian journalist that Friedman refers to is someone I know well.
I worked with Vitaly and consider him a close friend.
We still keep in touch.
Vitaly and I had a very healthy working relationship—he would often ask for my advice, but almost never took it (talent is the ultimate authority).
We frequently met at my home for extended discussions over whiskey—a lot of whiskey—that would go on for hours and span the personal, the professional and the political.
So I can say that when he posed the question about whether anyone asked Ukrainians if they wanted to be part of Putin’s buffer zone, it was very much in character.
Vitaly is one of the most independent thinking and insightful people I have ever met.
He is also very open and direct.
His public persona is very much like his private one.
However, I do think Friedman’s column gives less than the full account and three additional points need to be made.
First, while Vitaly was always a strong believer in Ukrainian independence, his support for EU integration is something more recent.
After the Orange Revolution he, like most Ukrainians, wanted a more Finnish style solution in which Ukraine was neither in the Russian camp nor part of NATO or the EU.
Ukrainians just wanted to be left alone.
It has been Russia’s constant infringement on Ukrainian sovereignty, its lack of respect for Ukrainian national ambitions and the sheer incompetence and corruption of Putin’s rule that has driven Ukraine away.
Ukrainians seek greater integration with NATO and the EU not as a matter of ideology, but practicality.
They are choosing a successful model over a failed one.
Second, when I was living in Poland in the late 90’s, I found that many people of the former Warsaw Pact felt much like Vitaly did after 2004.
They wanted to move away from Russia and to achieve better governance and prosperity, but most of all they valued their independence.
Nobody wanted to be a pawn on somebody else’s chessboard.
This was an important national discussion in each of the ascension countries.
Ultimately, strong majorities voted to join NATO and the EU and undergo the extensive reforms necessary to meet ascension requirements.
This took no small amount of sacrifice, but I think it’s pretty clear that it has been more than worth it.
Today, a 100 million people in Eastern Europe have attained a standard of living that could hardly have been imagined a generation ago.
Further, rather than having to forfeit their identity, the increased freedom of expression and rule of law has resulted in a cultural renaissance in many of the former communist countries.
We should be proud of what we helped accomplish in Eastern Europe and we have also benefited handsomely.
Countries like Poland are strong allies and valuable trade partners.
They not only buy our products, but their highly educated workforce contributes to our science and technology efforts.
We have all become better off.
Third, we offered Russia many of the same opportunities—and in some ways more—than the NATO and EU expansion countries.
We sent technical and financial assistance, invited Russia to join important international structures like the G7 and the OSCE and educated its best and brightest through the FSA/FLEX and Muskie programs.
We treated Russia with respect and did our best to address its concerns.
The truth is that the Russians simply failed to take advantage of the opportunities they were given.
They never embraced reform.
When energy prices shot up, the proceeds went to Swiss bank accounts and military hardware rather than to reviving Russia’s dilapidated economy.
Yet instead of taking responsibility for their failures, they chose to blame the world, especially the US.
When I lived in Russia it became clear why:
Russians never accepted that they lost the Cold War.
Like Germany in the 20’s and 30’s, Russia today aspires to be an empire that can terrorize and subjugate its neighbors.
Yes, it has given up Communism, but that was always a farce.
In truth, Russia never truly gave up its Tsarist approach and that remains so even now.
Today, Russia has replaced Communism with a fantastical Eurasian ideal in which it seeks to undermine the international order that we have worked so hard to build—the same order that has brought peace and prosperity to Europe and has vastly reduced the spectre of nuclear armageddon.
While the world today has its share of problems, we should not forget that it is vastly better than the one that preceded it; safer, richer, healthier and more just.
We do not want to go back to a world where the interests of nations override the rights of people.
So this time, it is not enough for Russia to retreat.
It must surrender and forsake its designs to turn back the clock and upend the international order.
Any costs we incur to stop Putin here will pale in comparison to the price we will have to pay later.
Success, even perceived success, will only embolden Russian aggression.
So take my friend Vitaly’s point to heart.
Nobody asked Ukrainians if they wanted to be a “buffer.”
But also, ask the next logical question.
If Putin can subjugate a peaceful country in the heart of Europe without provocation and face no consequences, where will he stop?
Once you do, the answer becomes clear.
Ukraine’s fight is our fight.