That notable student of central and eastern European cultures and modern Europe’s struggles to define itself, the late Pope John Paul II, spoke for those millions of Ukrainians when, during his June 2001 pilgrimage to Kiev and L’viv, he declared that “Ukraine has a clearly European vocation,” a judgment that would likely be shared by the creators of modern Ukrainian national consciousness.
The stakes are very high in Ukraine, and not just for Ukrainians who cherish their hard-won independence and wish to live out their “European vocation.” Russia without Ukraine is a power, but not a great power. For Ukraine is not only, as John Paul II described it, “the frontier and gate between East and West,” and thus a land rich in possibilities for cultural encounter. Its considerable landmass is also the buffer between Russia and NATO, and thus its independence is a deterrent to any efforts over the medium and long haul to reassemble the old Warsaw Pact by various means.
One of those means, of course, would be energy blackmail. And here Ukraine’s geographical position comes into play again. Eighty percent of the natural gas headed for the European Union passes through the pipeline network of Naftogaz, the Ukrainian state energy company; both Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev have recently proposed merging Naftogaz with the Russian giant Gazprom. President Yanukovych has been tepid about these proposals to date, but one wonders how long that mild resistance will last. Were Naftogaz to merge into Gazprom, the implications for Europe’s energy security and for a revanchist Russia’s capacity to work its will with impunity in the old Lenin/Stalin empire, and perhaps beyond, would be grave indeed.
In any event, a Ukraine in which the rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University is under secret police surveillance, with his phones tapped, is a Ukraine in which the tremendous work that has been done since 1991 to rebuild the rudiments of civil society and democratic political culture amid the ruin left by Soviet totalitarianism is, like the men and women who have done that work, in danger. That is bad in itself, and it ought to be resisted by the United States and the European Union. Whether either the Obama administration or an EU on the brink of fiscal implosion is up to that task of resistance is, of course, another question; and the likely answer to that question will be of cold comfort to Ukrainian democrats and their friends throughout the West.
All the more reason, then, to raise the alarm by publicizing the drift toward authoritarianism on the Putin model that seems to be accelerating in Ukraine under President Yanukovych. That might be a first step toward energizing the kind of Western nongovernmental support for democracy in Ukraine that was crucial to the success of the revolutions of 1989.
– George Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center.