In fact, corrupt oligarchs, backed by Russian money and Russian political technology, are a lot stronger than anyone ever expected them to be. They have the cash to bribe a parliament’s worth of elected officials. They have the cynicism to revive the old Soviet technique of selective violence: One or two murders are enough to scare off many thousands of demonstrators; one or two arrests will suffice to remind businessmen who is boss. They have also learned to manipulate media (as the Russians do) to multiply their money in Western financial institutions (as the Russians do), even to send threatening text messages. They have crafted a well-argued, well-funded, alternate narrative about Western economic decline and cultural decadence. A friend jokingly calls this the “all your daughters will become lesbians” line of argument, but it is surprisingly powerful.
The recent history of Ukraine should lead us to abandon another myth as well: the belief that some kind of post-Cold War order still prevails in Europe and the United States is an important part of it. It is true that European Union leaders have engaged with Ukraine for several years at many levels — presidential, ministerial, bureaucratic — in an effort to create a broader relationship. It is true that their effort failed, following a concerted Russian campaign of targeted trade boycotts, veiled military threats, big bribes (a lower gas price), many smaller bribes and a massivepropaganda effort designed to make Ukrainians believe “Europe” would be bad for them.
The U.S. response, meanwhile, has been negligible.