Ukraine and the clash of civilizations

But the current crisis in Ukraine, and the uneasy standoff between the country’s generally more pro-Russian eastern half and its more Westernized west, invites a new and far more favorable look at Huntington’s thesis. The late Harvard University political scientist’s views may even point the way to a resolution, one that will take into account both the “Eurasian” self-identity of Ukraine’s eastern region and the yearnings of its other half to join the European Union.

In the decade after the dissolution of the Soviet Union on Dec. 26, 1991, it appeared that Huntington had read things wrong. Except for the ethnic bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet bloc and communist countries each went peacefully democratic. Similar developments took place in Latin America and East Asia. Even China opened itself up more to the rest of the world. Instead of a clash of civilizations, the dominant trend seemed to be global integration, a convergence of economic systems (capitalism) and political systems (democracy) that played out more along the lines of Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis.

But more recently global convergence appears to have ground to a halt, and nowhere more so than in the mind of Vladimir Putin. The Russian president’s blitzkrieg occupation of Crimea was hardly an isolated act. Rather it should be seen as part of a long-term effort by Putin to resurrect Russia’s cultural and political dominance in the former Soviet sphere, even as he has gradually turned himself into a quasi-czar/Soviet-style ruler and subverted Russian democracy. Putin’s brazen bid to buy off ousted President Viktor Yanukovych and induce him to join a “Eurasian Economic Union” including Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan — based on what Putin called “the best values of the Soviet Union” — may have been politically motivated, but it was largely justified on cultural grounds.