Ukraine Shares the Blame for Russia's Aggression
Plagued by internal strife and self-inflicted economic hardships, Russia has traditionally blamed external forces for her problems, and used expansionist policies to divert attention from her domestic failures. Ukraine is the latest installment in this serial. With a large ethnic Russian population (17% average, but higher in the eastern provinces), the country is an easy target for Kremlin nationalistic rhetoric and aggression, the annexation of Crimea being the latest but probably not the last concrete manifestation.
However, Ukraine shares the blame for Russia’s aggression. After her independence in 1991, the country had a choice: look west and embark on a course of more political and economic freedom, or remain entrenched in the Soviet-era mindset of political and economic corruption, cronyism, and favoritism. Former Soviet republics such as Estonia, Lithuania, Georgia, and Latvia looked west, resulting in a rocky but steady increase in economic freedom and prosperity. Ukraine did not.
Today, more than twenty years later, Ukraine is still one of the least free countries in the world. The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom ranks Ukraine in 155th place of 178 countries, classifying her as repressed, which is behind Russia in 140th place, classified as mostly unfree. In contrast, Estonia (11th – mostly free), Lithuania (21st – mostly free), Georgia (22nd – mostly free), and Latvia (45th – moderately free) have made significant progress.
Economic freedom and prosperity are not substitutes for national security. But all other things being equal, they contribute greatly to staving off nationalistic tendencies. The Russian minority in the Baltic countries (Estonia 25%, Latvia 28%, Lithuania 6%) may have emotional ties to the mother country. But having more economic freedom and being more prosperous than their fellow Russians across the border tend to curb the enthusiasm for “re-unification.”
Switzerland provides another example. Composed of ethnic Germans, Italians, and French, she has remained happily unified for hundreds of years thanks to her political and economic freedom and prosperity. Rarely if ever have there been calls by the respective ethnic groups to join their brethren across the German, French, or Italian borders, as the Swiss would have had nothing to gain and everything to lose, both politically and economically.
If Ukraine had embarked on a path of economic freedom and prosperity twenty years ago, distancing herself from her larger neighbor and the ways of the old Soviet regime, her ethnic Russian population may have been less inclined to support the call for annexation. And the black soil of Ukraine may not have been as fertile ground for the subversive tactics of Vladimir Putin.
If we are inclined to feel sympathy for the people of Ukraine, we should remember that they are harvesting what they have sown. The U.S. should stay out of the conflict as long as American lives and property are not at stake. Our focus should instead be on leading by example at home: increasing our own political and economic freedom, and unleashing growth by reducing taxes, government spending, and regulations. This will show the rest of the world what the path to prosperity looks like and, if needed, provide an abundance of funds for our national defense when we really need it.
If we should take any blame for the Ukrainian debacle, it is that we haven’t looked after our own house; we haven’t been the role model at home that would have set the example for others to follow, as was the case earlier in our country’s history. The American Revolution ignited calls for political reform both in Europe and in the Americas, culminating in the revolutions of 1848, which replaced age-old monarchies with parliamentary systems that were partly based on the American model. And the economic freedom of America’s Gilded Age – the second half of the 19th century – which produced unprecedented growth and increased prosperity, forced other countries to copy parts of our formula for success to stem the brain drain caused by emigration to America.
Today, the Heritage Foundation ranks the United States in 12th place on the Index of Economic Freedom, after Estonia and just ahead of Bahrain, with the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world to have decreased her economic freedom each of the past seven years. Reversing this trend should be our chief concern, not the saber-rattling of Crimeans and Cossacks.