Moscow apparently believes it can intervene in Ukrainian politics, and in effect choose the president of Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin intervened openly in the election campaign, twice visiting Ukraine to back his candidate. Putin has in effect told the world that only elections won by his candidate would be democratic. But democracy is not about the preferences of outside leaders, it is about a process. This process was abused in Ukraine, in all likelihood with Russian funding, and certainly with the help of Russian advisors. As of this moment, President Putin and the dictatorial President Lukashenko of Belarus are the only leaders to have congratulated Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovitch, declared the victor after the fraudulent tally.
Russia is making a mistake. Such interference in Ukrainian affairs will require, sooner or later, the use of military force. This would be a horrible miscalculation by the Russian leadership. Russia cannot control a country of fifty million people, the vast majority of whom care of about their own independence, without destroying itself. Regardless of whether they voted for Yushchenko or Yanukovitch, Ukrainians were not voting for Russian control of their country. Russian soldiers in a foreign country shooting foreign civilians would be a catastrophe for all concerned, perhaps especially Russia. Rather than supporting his man come what may, President Putin should join the call for peaceful discussions and negotiations. He still has time to take a position in line with this international consensus. This is a point that the European Union and its member states must make to Russia now. Those who care about the future of Russia should be the first to argue for a Ukrainian solution that respects the will of Ukrainians.
Important as it is to prevent such a disaster, the European Union has a larger role to fill than diplomacy with Russia. The European Union is a center of democracy in the world. If Europe is to be a power of any kind, even a regional power, it must have some influence upon its neighbors, especially its immediate European neighbors. It must translate its enormous economic power and cultural appeal into foreign policy. Now is the time to try. There are moments in history, as in 1945 throughout western Europe, as in 1975 in Spain, as in 1989 throughout eastern Europe, as in Ukraine today, when leaders must think broadly. To secure democracy in Ukraine is in the interest of the European Union, because democratic neighbors are peaceful and prosperous neighbors. It is also a test for a Europe that wishes to play a role in the world. Yet above all democracy is also a goal which Europe must pursue if it is to be true to itself.
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Timothy Snyder is Associate Professor of East European history at Yale University and currently a Visiting Fellow at the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen. His article was published in German in “Der Standard” on November 26.