By Steven Pifer, Carlos Pascual, John Herbst, William Taylor, John Tefft and Marie Yovanovitch
LAST MONTH, THE EUROPEAN UNION formally agreed to begin accession negotiations with Ukraine, recognizing Ukraine’s future as a free democracy and a full member of the community of European nations. If the EU’s twenty-seven member states can see Ukraine’s future clearly, why can’t Thomas Graham?
In a recent essay: “Political obstacles on Ukraine’s path to EU membershipGraham, a former senior director for Russia at the National Security Council, Yale professor and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, paints a gravely false picture of the state of democracy in war-torn Ukraine and its EU prospects. Ukraine has work to do in building a democratic state compatible with EU norms and standards. However, based on our combined twenty-three years of service in Kiev and close monitoring of Ukrainian developments over the past quarter century or more, we believe that he fundamentally misunderstands key trends in Ukrainian political development.
Graham’s article gets off on the wrong foot. The opening line claims that the Maidan Revolution “overthrew” former President Viktor Yanukovych. The Maidan Revolution, known in Ukraine as the Revolution of Dignity, began in November 2013, when Yanukovych, under intense pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin, postponed the planned signing of an association agreement and a free trade agreement with the EU. Originally a pro-EU demonstration, the protest turned into a broader protest against Yanukovych’s authoritarianism and epic corruption. In late February 2014, after special police units shot at unarmed demonstrators, killing around a hundred people, European foreign ministers reached a settlement between Yanukovych and opposition leaders. Shortly after signing the settlement, Yanukovych fled Kiev to Russia. Faced with a president who had left office and disappeared, Ukraine’s elected parliament chose an acting president ahead of elections three months later. By calling Yanukovych’s abdication an “overthrow” despite overwhelming popular pressure, the Kremlin seems to be calling it a “coup”, although in reality it was no more of a coup than Richard Nixon’s resignation as president in 1974.
Graham further states that Ukraine’s accession process to the European Union will prove “long and difficult.” That’s true – EU accession negotiations always are – but he also claims that some EU members might later reconsider their support for Ukraine’s membership because “they are trying to form a sustainable security system that Russia is part of.” Even as gross conjecture, this is ridiculous. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has destroyed the previously existing European security system. His successor will be aimed at defending and containing Russia, not involving it, as evidenced by the decisions of Sweden and Finland to abandon their neutrality and join NATO. At the alliance’s 2023 summit in Vilnius, allies reiterated that Ukraine’s future lies in NATO, and there was significant sentiment among allies (though not consensus) to extend an invitation to Ukraine at that time to join the to join an alliance.
The claim that Ukraine has “made little progress in consolidating democratic rule since it became independent in 1991” does not reflect the Ukraine we know. First, the country has a vibrant civil society. The population showed its support for democracy during the 2004 Orange Revolution, after an attempt to steal the presidential election, and during the Maidan Revolution nine years later.
Second, Ukraine has held six presidential elections since 1991. The incumbent president has only been re-elected once. The fact that incumbent parties lose elections is a good indicator of democratic health.
Third, it is hardly the case, as Graham claims, that “Freedom House has consistently assessed [Ukraine] if alone ‘partly free.’” Freedom House placed Ukraine in the “free” category for four years after the Orange Revolution. Only after Yanukovych’s election in 2010 did the country revert to ‘partly free’. Although the country remains ‘partly free’ after 2014, no knowledgeable observer would estimate that democracy has not improved in the period 2015-2021 compared to the four previous years. years (even if the improvements were not captured in Freedom House’s methodology). And Freedom House has done just that made clear the reason for the low score since the beginning of 2022:
The large-scale invasion of Ukraine by the Russian military in February 2022 led to a significant deterioration in the political rights and civil liberties enjoyed by Ukrainians. . . . Freedom in the World reports assess the level of political rights and civil liberties in a given geographic area, whether influenced by the state, non-state actors, or foreign powers.
Graham is paying close attention to Ukrainian legislation banning elections during martial law, as well as decisions to postpone parliamentary elections last fall and likely presidential elections scheduled for this spring. These decisions have broad support not only from the Ukrainian people, but also from non-governmental civil society organizations, political leaders across the spectrum and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. Moreover, it is not clear how suspending elections while large parts of the population remain displaced, abroad or under occupation is undemocratic. Would it be more democratic to hold incomplete, haphazard, dangerous and only partially contested elections under war conditions?
Given Ukraine’s democratic history, there is no basis for the article’s speculation that the suspension of wartime elections could be “self-sustaining” even after the war with Russia ends.
Curiously, Graham accuses Kiev of “promoting Ukrainian language and culture” even before the Russian invasion. (Promoting French language and culture has never jeopardized France’s membership of the EU.) As evidence, he points to actions by the Ukrainian government before Russia’s large-scale invasion in February 2022, but after the invasions of Crimea and the Donbas in 2014. It is true that the Ukrainians shut down Viktor Medvedchuk’s television channel in 2021, but Graham leaves out some important context: Putin is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter; Medvedchuk was widely seen, inside and outside Ukraine, as a Russian agent; Moscow exchanged many Ukrainian prisoners of war to secure his release to Russia; and in 2014, the U.S. government sanctioned him for his involvement in “actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine and actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine.” Ukraine lacks the First Amendment protections that Americans enjoy (as do many other EU countries), but the Medvedchuk case hardly amounts to a “complex” and “fraught” “minority rights situation,” as Graham claims.
Likewise, the Ukrainian government’s support for a national Orthodox Church of Ukraine, separate from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church, should not surprise anyone. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is “viewed by the government as a treacherous avenue for Russian influence,” because it is. Russian Orthodox priests to bless weapons intended to kill Ukrainians. Those who oppose the war risk censure within the church or being accused of “discrediting the Russian military.” As protests broke out in Russia following Putin’s mobilization of conscripts to fight in Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said: announced that ‘sacrificing in the performance of your military duty washes away all sins’. Nevertheless, the Russian-subordinate Ukrainian Orthodox Church remains active in Ukraine, although many of its parishes have switched to the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (which the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople founded). promised autocephaly in 2019). This is in stark contrast to the repression of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and evangelicals and other Protestant denominations in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.
Graham’s reference to “serious violations of civil and political rights” hardly seems accurate given the circumstances. Ukraine is at war with Russia. Russian forces have killed thousands of Ukrainian civilians and regularly attack civilian targets and infrastructure. If we add the Ukrainian soldiers killed defending their country, homes and families, the death toll rises to many tens of thousands – all as a result of Putin’s unjustified neo-imperialism. Steps taken in a war that Ukrainians rightly view as existential should not be interpreted as a reduction in the country’s overall commitment to democracy, nor should Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of the war habeas corpus during the Civil War did not mean that Americans turned against democracy. The Ukrainians have shown time and time again that they want a democratic state and are willing to fight for it.
Graham provides no basis for his suggestion that, if the Ukrainians manage to defeat Russia and retain their sovereignty, they will prove reluctant to transfer some of that sovereignty to the European Union. Ukrainians understand what EU membership means and requires. Opinion polls to have shown strong support for accession to the European Union going back twenty years, if not more.
For all his flaws in facts and logic, Graham is right about one thing: “Ultimately, a free, democratic and prosperous Ukraine, anchored in the West, would mark the final defeat of Russian aggression.” That goal is achievable. Ukrainians give their lives for it every day. They deserve not only help, but also credit.
Steven Pifer, Carlos Pascual, John Herbst, William Taylor, John Tefft and Marie Yovanovitch served as the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and ninth U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine.