Ukraine’s crisis is almost a year old, first triggered by its drive for close economic ties with Europe. After a democratic revolution in Kiev, a war that has left thousands dead, and now an uneasy truce, it is more evident why Russian leader Vladimir Putin reacted so harshly.
Ukraine has upset his project to expand “Russian civilization” to millions of Russian-speakers in nearby lands. “We will always defend ethnic Russians in Ukraine,” said Mr. Putin in July.
His concept of a russkiy mir (Russian world) with no defined borders is based on two beliefs, both with historical roots but re-envisioned over the past decade by a few Russian intellectuals: One is that Russia is spiritually superior to a corrupt West; the other is that the state – meaning the Kremlin – controls this civilization.
Putin may have specific interests, such as keeping a naval base in the now-annexed Crimea and relying on Ukraine as a buffer state against a future invasion. But the animating spirit is his civilizing project. And it is reflected by Ukraine's pro-Russia separatists in their self-proclaimed “people’s republics.” They demand that the “space of the entire Ukraine-Russian civilization” be preserved.
The people in the West, however, hear about a different “civilization” at stake.
In a speech Thursday before the US Congress, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko stated: “The choice is simple: It is between civilization and barbarism.”
By civilization, Mr. Poroshenko means the need to honor territorial integrity, freedom, security agreements, rule of law, and other ideals. With the incursion of Russian troops into Ukraine, he says, “it is Europe’s and it is America’s war, too. It is a war for the free world.”
How should the United States and Europe resolve this apparent “clash of civilizations”?
President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have taken a cautious approach, imposing sanctions on Russia but keeping an “offramp” available for Putin to leave Ukraine alone. Poroshenko has played along with this somewhat by offering a degree of autonomy for eastern Ukraine.
Congress, however, may take a stronger stand, at Poroshenko's request. In November, the Senate will take up a bill to provide $350 million in arms and training to Ukraine – other than the blankets and night goggles that Mr. Obama has provided so far. Many senators, both Republican and Democratic, see a need for a stronger military response, even officially calling Ukraine an ally.
Critical to resolving these two different reactions to Putin, and indeed to the clash of civilizations, will be the Oct. 26 nationwide election in Ukraine. Unlike in Russia, where recent elections have been controlled in Putin’s favor, this one will be free and open, even monitored by European observers. Ukraine’s governance, even its civilization, will be decided by the people, or from the bottom up.
Putin’s concept of civilizing a people starts with him, or top down. The state shapes society, even if by force. In a free Ukraine, society shapes the state. Ideals are expressed by a consensus of individuals, not imposed from on high.
The clash is not one of civilizations but a question of whether individuals, working in concert peacefully, can define the good for society. In that definition, civilization is neither American, European, Russian, nor even Chinese. It is a project unto itself, for everyone to choose, freely.