Democracy at Russia’s Front Door

imagesOn March 18 of 2014 Vladimir Putin, the longstanding autocrat of Russia, stood behind the pulpit and addressed a mass of Russian parliamentarians and aristocracy. “Therefore,” he spoke, “an overwhelming majority of people of Crimea, and an absolute majority of Russian citizens support the reunification of the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol with the Russian Federation.” Never mind the members of the United Nations who overwhelmingly voted that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was illegal. Before he could delve further into fiction, the audience began to rhythmically applaud, and Putin the politician paused for emphasis. Some faces in the crowd looked stoic, some blank, others grinned, their heads swiveling above their blasé ties as if searching for a high-five. We won, they seemed to beam. As this conflict has developed since that speech in March, the atmosphere has grown more unsteady; the game Russia has played to win Crimea was rigged, and their trophy has since earned them universal condemnation.

The Ukraine crisis, beginning late last year with the Euromaidan riots, and continuing to this day with pro-Russian riots in eastern cities of Ukraine, took on a new context after Moscow annexed Crimea. What it did most notably was highlight the dire need for western powers to intervene on behalf of the Ukrainian people, a need expressed by both Ukrainian nationals and those who support Ukraine’s autonomy. If left unchecked Russian soldiers will continue to flood further into Ukraine and the chance of a bloody civil war will only increase.

Intervention is not a word to be taken lightly when considering the circumstances which Russia and Ukraine (i.e. western, democratic countries) are under. To trade blow-for-blow, matching Russia’s use of military force with our own, forges a path towards inevitable destruction, on a national and possibly global scale. But idly observing, watching the tentacles of Russia creep around its neighbor has not been the strategy taken by the U.S nor its allies. Of course allusions to the Cold War are abundant in articles circulating around the Ukraine crisis, and to think that our country is sailing back into those uncertain waters is unsettling. So what are the options, in what ways can we intervene while avoiding the perils of a cold war?

Thus far the Obama administration has relied upon economic sanctions, and covert military aid in the form of  shared CIA intelligence and the alleged use of private security forces from Greystone Ltd, a company with connections to Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater. Visits to Ukraine by the director of the CIA John Brennan, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Vice President Biden signify further American support. More drastically, Russia was booted from the G8, which effectively became the G7, and things continue to roll downhill. Intervention than has shifted, from a question of acting or not to one centered on the degree of intervention. The predicament the west, and Russia, finds itself in is volatile to say the least. Interviewed at the age of 94 in 1998 by Tom Friedman, the American adviser, diplomat and political scientist George Kennan now seems prophetic in his thoughts on NATO expansion taking place during the Clinton administration: “I think it is the beginning of a new Cold War.” Kennan’s words seem to echo the reality which we find ourselves in today; in order to maintain semblance and avoid nuclear war, the nations on either side of the fence have already begun to resort to covert measures, the Americans feeding strategic information to the Ukrainians, Russia disguising its own troops as pro-Russian protesters, pushing them to wreak havoc in eastern Ukrainian cities.

We all have our lenses through which we view the world, they’re inevitable and tough to jettison. Studying to become a teacher, I am subconsciously constructing the lens of an educator and a mediator. What I see in Russia’s actions against Ukraine are those of a bully. Just the other day in one of my education courses, students were engaged in a conversation about bullies, a conversation in which a realization dawned on me: Russia is blatantly insecure. And insecurity has been studied and confirmed as the source of most frustration felt by those who bully others, the reason he acts unkindly towards his neighbors. The insecurities Russia (and Putin) is afflicted by have been transcribed onto history’s pages. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, an event celebrated by most, weighs heavily on Putin, who regards the loss of the Soviet empire as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” The subsequent 1991 referendum in which Crimean’s voted unanimously to remain independent of Russia was a neglected point in his March 18 speech; also left out were any words concerning the protests of thousands within Russia against Putin and his administration, most recently a gathering of 10,000 people in Moscow gathering against Putin’s actions in Ukraine. Battling internal and external pressure, Russian officials refuse to address the myriad concerns of so many. Rather, they terrorize and assail a vulnerable the vulnerable and confused Ukraine.

Writing from the perspective of a citizen living within a westernized, capitalistic society, my position and opinion advocating for more direct intervention and aggression towards Russia is painted with bias. Of course it is! I subscribe to the notion that I live within the confines of a lesser evil however. A less absurd, less dystopian, more tolerant evil; and frankly an evil I feel lucky to live in when compared to that of Russian society. Not so long ago Putin put forth a plan to revitalize the image of Russia, the crowning achievement being the Sochi Olympics. That plan failed epically: the Sochi Winter Olympics were the most expensive ever, more than all the previous Olympics – both summer and winter – combined. The bigger issue though, besides the 51 billion dollar price-tag was the discrimination against those belonging to the LGBT community. While recognition of such communities is a relatively new concept in American politics, the existence and acceptance of LGBT people is nothing new; which is why the reaction to an anti-gay bill signed by Putin outlawing “non-traditional sexual relations” was so vociferously attacked by so many. In a nation which refuses to acknowledge the simple rights of its citizens, slanders women on live television, and invades countries under false pretexts’ where can one find any lasting qualities, anything to boast about? I honestly can’t, and I believe allowing Russia to takeover – by force – other countries without intervening directly is to allow the spread of such backward ideals.

In a world in which a battle unfolds between two evils, I guess hailing from the lesser of the two is significant in some way. For a country which loudly advocates for freedom and world peace, we still have the world’s largest army and attempt to keep our hands clean by funding rebel movements in countries like Syria and Libya. Lists of nefarious activities could stretch on infinitely, and avoiding complete cynicism, it’s something my education, experiences (and Game of Thrones) have taught me: the world is not black and white, but a sea of grey. Advocating for the independence of Ukraine can only go so far, the country was ranked 144 on Transparency International’s Corruption list after all. So the lifeblood of any democracy, the citizens which it is composed of, must make the choice for themselves. For the ethnic Ukrainians that choice has been yelled loud and clear since the Euromaidan riots: we want the west. It is up Ukrainian leaders and western powers to help them achieve that goal.

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