It’s not about economics or grand strategy—Russia wants to snuff out democracy on its doorstepby Chrystia Freeland / June 18, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
Prospect has been following the situation in Ukraine closely since November 2013, when then-President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union. That decision ignited the “Maidan” protest movement. In this article, Chrystia Freeland explores the divergent paths taken by Ukraine and Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. While Russia under Vladimir Putin has become a kleptocracy, Ukraine’s new leaders are defining their national identity as inherently democratic. By picking a fight with Ukraine, she argues, Putin is testing its people’s readiness to follow them.
On 24th March last year, I was in my Toronto kitchen preparing school lunches for my kids when I learned from my Twitter feed that I had been put on the Kremlin’s list of westerners who were banned from Russia. This was part of Russia’s retaliation for the sanctions the United States and its allies had slapped on Vladimir Putin’s associates after his military intervention in Ukraine.
Four days earlier, nine people from the US had been similarly blacklisted, including John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Harry Reid, then the majority leader of the Senate, and three other senators: John McCain, a long-time critic of Putin, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Dan Coats of Indiana, a former US Ambassador to Germany. “While I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to go on vacation with my family in Siberia this summer,” Coats wisecracked, “I am honoured to be on this list.”
I, however, was genuinely sad to be barred from Russia. I think of myself as a Russophile. I speak the language and studied the nation’s literature and history in college. I loved living in Moscow in the mid-1990s as Bureau Chief for the Financial Times and have made a point of returning regularly over the subsequent 15 years.
My maternal grandparents fled western Ukraine after Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin signed their non-aggression pact in 1939. They never dared to go back, but they stayed in close touch with their brothers and sisters and their families, who remained behind. For the rest of my grandparents’ lives, they saw themselves as political exiles with a responsibility to keep alive the idea of an independent Ukraine, which had last existed, briefly, during and after the chaos of the 1917 Russian Revolution. That dream persisted into the next generation, and in some cases the generation after that. My late mother moved back to her parents’ homeland in the 1990s when Ukraine and Russia, along with the 13 other former Soviet republics, became independent states.