Ukraine Is Committed to Europe and Democracy
Ukrainians deserve credit for fighting for their democracy.
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 twenty-seven member states of the EU can see Ukraine’s future clearly, why can’t Thomas Graham?
In a recent essay, “Political Hurdles on Ukraine’s Way to EU Membership,” Graham, a former senior director for Russia at the National Security Council, Yale professor, and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, seriously mischaracterizes the state of democracy in wartorn 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 collective twenty-three years of service in Kyiv and our close following of Ukrainian developments over the past quarter century or more, we believe that he fundamentally misunderstands the major trends of Ukrainian political development.
Graham’s article gets off on the wrong foot. Its opening sentence 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 scheduled signing of an association agreement and free trade pact with the EU. Originally a pro-EU demonstration, the protest morphed into a broader protest against Yanukovych’s authoritarianism and epic corruption. In late February 2014, after special police units fired on unarmed protesters, killing some 100, European foreign ministers brokered a settlement between Yanukovych and opposition leaders. Shortly after signing the settlement, Yanukovych fled Kyiv for Russia. Faced with a president who had abandoned his office and disappeared, Ukraine’s elected parliament chose an acting president, pending an election held three months later. Calling Yanukovych’s abdication in the face of overwhelming popular pressure an “overthrow” mimics the Kremlin’s description of it as a “coup,” though in reality it was no more a coup than Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency in 1974.
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Graham goes on to state that Ukraine’s process of accession to the European Union will “prove long and arduous.” That is true—EU accession negotiations always are—but he also asserts that some EU members might later reconsider supporting Ukraine’s membership as “they seek to form a durable security system that includes Russia.” Even as rank conjecture, this is preposterous. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has shattered the previously existing European security system. Its successor will be designed to defend against and to contain Russia, not to include 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, the allies reiterated that Ukraine’s future is in NATO, and there was significant sentiment among allies (though no consensus) in favor of extending Ukraine an invitation to join the alliance then and there.
The assertion that Ukraine has “made little progress in consolidating democratic rule since it gained independence in 1991” does not reflect the Ukraine we know. First, the country has a vibrant civil society. The population showed their support for democracy in the 2004 Orange Revolution after an attempt to steal the presidential election, as well as in the Maidan Revolution nine years later.
Second, Ukraine has held six presidential elections since 1991. Only once has the incumbent been re-elected. Incumbents losing elections is a good indicator of democratic health.
Third, it is hardly the case, as Graham asserts, that “Freedom House has consistently rated [Ukraine] as only ‘partly free.’” Freedom House placed Ukraine in the “free” category for four years following the Orange Revolution. It fell back to “partly free” only after Yanukovych’s election in 2010. While the country continued to rank as “partly free” after 2014, no knowledgeable observer would assess that democracy in the 2015–2021 period did not improve compared to the previous four years (even if the improvements weren’t captured by Freedom House’s methodology). And Freedom House has made clear the reason for the low score since early 2022:
The Russian military’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 led to 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 geographical area, regardless of whether they are affected by the state, nonstate actors, or foreign powers.
Graham makes much of Ukrainian legislation that prohibits holding elections during martial law and the decisions to postpone parliamentary elections last fall and likely the presidential election scheduled for this spring. Those decisions have wide support not only from the Ukrainian people but also from civil society nongovernmental organizations, political leaders across the spectrum, and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. Furthermore, it’s not clear how the suspension of elections while large portions 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 conditions of war?
Given Ukraine’s democratic history, there is no basis for the article’s speculation that the suspension of elections in wartime could become “self-perpetuating” even after the war with Russia ends.
Curiously, Graham faults Kyiv for “promoting Ukrainian language and culture” even prior to Russia’s invasion. (Promoting French language and culture has never endangered French membership in the EU.) As evidence, he points to actions of the Ukrainian government prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, but after the invasions of Crimea and Donbas in 2014. It is true the Ukrainians shut down Viktor Medvedchuk’s television channel in 2021, but Graham omits important context: Putin is godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter; Medvedchuk was widely viewed, inside and outside of Ukraine, as a Russian agent; Moscow traded many Ukrainian POWs to secure his release to Russia; and in 2014, the U.S. government sanctioned him for engaging “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 Americans enjoy (as do many other EU countries), but the case of Medvedchuk hardly amounts to a “complex” and “fraught” “situation with minority rights,” as Graham alleges.
Similarly, the Ukrainian government’s support for a national Orthodox Church of Ukraine separate from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that is subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church should surprise no one. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been “seen by the government as an insidious avenue for Russian influence” because it is one. Russian Orthodox priests bless weapons intended to kill Ukrainians. Those who oppose the war risk censure within the church or being charged with “discrediting the Russian military.” When protests erupted in Russia following Putin’s mobilization of conscripts to fight in Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, announced that “sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins.” Nevertheless, the Russian-subordinated Ukrainian Orthodox Church continues to operate in Ukraine, though many of its parishes have switched to the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (which the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople granted autocephaly in 2019). This stands in sharp contrast to the repression of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and Evangelicals and other Protestant denominations in those parts of Ukraine occupied by the Russians.
Graham’s reference to “egregious infringements on civil and political rights” hardly seems correct, given the circumstances. Ukraine is at war with Russia. Russian forces have killed thousands of Ukrainian civilians and frequently strike civilian targets and infrastructure. Adding Ukrainian military personnel killed defending their country, homes, and families, the number of dead rises to the many tens of thousands—all due to Putin’s unjustified neo-imperialism. Steps taken in a war that Ukrainians rightly view as existential should not be interpreted as diminishing the country’s overall commitment to democracy, just as Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War did not signal an American turn against democracy. Ukrainians have shown time and again that they want a democratic state and are prepared to fight for it.
Graham offers no basis for his suggestion that, if Ukrainians succeed in defeating Russia and preserving their sovereignty, they will then prove reluctant to hand some of that sovereignty to the European Union. Ukrainians understand what EU membership means and requires. Polls have shown strong support for joining the European Union going back twenty years, if not more.
For all his faults of facts and logic, Graham is right about one thing: “In the end, a free, democratic, and prosperous Ukraine anchored in the West would mark the final defeat of Russia’s aggression.” That goal is feasible. Ukrainians are giving their lives for it every day. They deserve not only help, but 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.