By Steven Pifer, Carlos Pascual, John Herbst, William Taylor, John Tefft and Marie Yovanovitch(Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
LAST MONTH, the European Union officially agreed to open accession negotiations with Ukraine, recognizing Ukraine's future as a free democracy and a full member of the community of European nations. If the 27 EU member states can clearly see Ukraine's future, why can't Thomas Graham?
In a recent essay entitled “Political Hurdles on Ukraine's Path to EU Membership,” Graham, former senior director for Russia at the National Security Council, Yale professor and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, examines the state of democracy seriously misrepresents war-torn Ukraine and its EU prospects. Ukraine still has a lot to do to build a democratic state compatible with EU norms and standards. However, based on our combined 23 years of service in Kyiv and our close following of developments in Ukraine over the last quarter century or more, we believe that he fundamentally misunderstands the key trends in Ukrainian political development.
Graham's article gets off on the wrong foot. The opening sentence states 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 pact with the EU. Originally a pro-EU demonstration, the protest grew into a broader protest against Yanukovych's authoritarianism and epic corruption. After special police forces shot at unarmed demonstrators in late February 2014, killing around 100 people, European foreign ministers brokered an agreement between Yanukovych and opposition leaders. Shortly after the agreement was signed, Yanukovych fled Kiev for Russia. Faced with a president who had left office and disappeared, Ukraine's elected parliament elected a sitting president until an election was held three months later. Calling Yanukovych's abdication a “overthrow” in the face of overwhelming popular pressure is akin to describing the Kremlin as a “coup,” when in reality it was no more a coup than Richard Nixon's resignation from the presidency in 1974.
Graham goes on to say that Ukraine's accession process to the European Union “will prove to be long and arduous.” That's true – this is always the case in EU accession negotiations – but he also claims that some EU members may later reconsider supporting Ukraine's membership as “they strive to create a permanent security system, which includes Russia.” Even as a mere guess, this is absurd. Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine has shaken the existing European security system. His successor will serve to defend and contain Russia, not to include it, as shown by Sweden's and Finland's decisions to abandon their neutrality and join NATO. At the Alliance's 2023 summit in Vilnius, Allies reaffirmed that Ukraine's future lies in NATO, and there was broad agreement (though not consensus) among Allies to occasionally extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance.
The claim that Ukraine has “made little progress in consolidating democratic rule since its independence in 1991” does not reflect the Ukraine we know. First, the country has a vibrant civil society. The population showed its support for democracy in the Orange Revolution in 2004, after an attempt to steal the presidential election, and in the Maidan Revolution nine years later.
Second, Ukraine has held six presidential elections since 1991. The incumbent was re-elected only once. The fact that incumbents lose elections is a good indicator of the health of democracy.
Third, as Graham claims, it is hardly the case that “Freedom House consistently rated.” [Ukraine] as just '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 it return to “partially free”. Even after 2014, the country continued to be considered “partly free”, but no knowledgeable observer would assess that democracy has not improved in the period 2015-2021 compared to the previous four years (even if the improvements are not reflected by the methodology of Freedom House). And Freedom House has made clear the reason for the low score since the start of 2022:
The Russian military's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 resulted in a significant deterioration of Ukrainians' political rights and civil liberties. . . . The Freedom in the World reports assess the level of political rights and civil liberties in a given geographical area, whether influenced by the state, non-state actors or foreign powers.
Graham makes much of Ukraine's legislation that prohibits holding elections during martial law, as well as decisions to postpone last fall's legislative elections and likely presidential elections scheduled for this spring. These decisions have broad support not only among the Ukrainian people, but also among civil society non-governmental organizations, political leaders of all parties and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. Furthermore, 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, arbitrary, dangerous and only partially contested elections under wartime 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 threatened France's membership in the EU.) As evidence, he points to actions taken by the Ukrainian government before Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022, but after the invasions of Crimea and Donbas in 2014 It's true that Ukrainians shut down Viktor Medvedchuk's TV channel in 2021, but Graham leaves out important context: Putin is the godfather of Medvedchuk's daughter; Medvedchuk was widely viewed 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 imposed sanctions on him for “engaging in actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine, and in actions or policies that undermine peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or threaten the territorial integrity of Ukraine.” Ukraine lacks the First Amendment protections enjoyed by Americans (as do many other EU countries), but the Medvedchuk case hardly represents a “complex” and “tense” “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 and subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church, should surprise no one. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church was “viewed by the government as an insidious avenue for Russian influence,” because it is one. Russian Orthodox priests bless weapons designed to kill Ukrainians. Those who oppose the war risk being criticized within the church or charged with “discrediting the Russian military.” As protests erupted in Russia after Putin mobilized conscripts to fight in Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, announced that “sacrifices in the performance of military service wash away all sins.” Nevertheless, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is subordinate to the Russian Federation, continues to operate in Ukraine, although many of its congregations have defected to the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (to which the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople granted autocephaly in 2019). This is in sharp contrast to the oppression of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and Evangelicals and other Protestant denominations in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.
Graham's reference to “egregious violations of civil and political rights” hardly seems right given the circumstances. Ukraine is at war with Russia. Russian forces have killed thousands of Ukrainian civilians and frequently attack civilian targets and infrastructure. If you add Ukrainian military personnel killed defending their country, homes and families, the death toll rises to tens of thousands – all because of Putin's unwarranted neo-imperialism. Moves in a war that Ukrainians rightly view as existential should not be interpreted as harming 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 time again that they want a democratic state and are prepared to fight for it.
Graham offers no basis for his suggestion that if the Ukrainians manage to defeat Russia and retain their sovereignty, they will be reluctant to cede some of that sovereignty to the European Union. Ukrainians understand what EU membership means and requires. Polls have shown that there has been strong support for joining the European Union for twenty years, if not longer.
For all his errors in facts and logic, Graham is right about one thing: “Ultimately, a free, democratic and prosperous Ukraine anchored in the West would mean the ultimate defeat of Russian aggression.” This goal is feasible. Ukrainians give their lives for this every day. They deserve not only help, but also recognition.
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.