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America Needs a Ukraine Policy Separate from Its Russia Policy
For more than three decades, Washington has subordinated its relationship with Kyiv to its relationship with Moscow.
THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION’S decision-making during Russia’s war against Ukraine has been criticized for being erratic, slow, overly risk-averse, and internally inconsistent. President Joe Biden’s rhetoric appears to back Ukraine to the hilt, yet his administration’s actions have focused more on comforting traditional allies and managing perceived escalation than on actually helping the Ukrainians win in the quickest—and therefore most humane—fashion. The explanation of these inconsistencies can be found in a fault that the Biden administration shares with most of its recent predecessors: It doesn’t really have a plan for Ukraine. It has a Russia policy, but not a Ukraine policy.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States had great expectations for its relationship with Moscow. But its relationship with Kyiv was more complicated: While supportive of Ukrainian independence, Washington made it clear that its relationship with Kyiv was less important than Russo-American cooperation.
In the early and mid-1990s, subordinating Ukraine policy to Russia policy wasn’t necessarily a poor decision. In the early years of independence, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton saw a historic opportunity to integrate Russia into the Western community of peaceful, cooperative nations. Washington’s policy decisions were based on the false assumption that Russia would become a benevolent international actor. Policymakers saw the first president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, as a defender of democracy, and the policies of his regime as a departure from the aggressive, expansionist policies of his Kremlin predecessors. In 1991, the U.S. embassy in Moscow reported that Yeltsin was “committed to constitutionalism and democracy.”
After the unraveling of the USSR, four post-Soviet states had nuclear weapons: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. (The weapons always remained under the operational control of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces, but their physical status in other states raised issues of how to secure them, service them, move them if need be, etc.) Fearing nuclear proliferation, Presidents Bush and Clinton both prioritized reducing the number of nuclear states from four to one—the one being, of course, a peaceful, cooperative, and democratic Russia. Belarus and Kazakhstan quickly and willingly gave up the nuclear weapons on their territory. Ukraine, however, was divided on the issue, seeing the value of the weapons to deter future aggression. Even if the Ukrainian military would never take operational control of the weapons, keeping them in Ukraine provided a convenient bargaining chip for ensuring the new state’s continued independence.
The leaders of newly independent Ukraine did not share Washington’s perspective on Yeltsin. They recalled that in late August 1991, a statement released in Yeltsin’s name threatened that if Ukraine declared its independence, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic would call into question Ukraine’s existing borders. With an eye toward reclaiming lands like Crimea and the Donbas, Yeltsin sent his vice president, Alexander Rutskoy, to Kyiv to convince the Ukrainians not to declare the sovereignty of Ukraine within its existing borders. The Ukrainians stood firm, and Yeltsin backed down. But Kyiv no longer trusted that Yeltsin, much less any future Russian leader, would respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
For its part, Washington continued to put its faith in Yeltsin’s reputation as a democrat and a constitutionalist. President Clinton even conditioned U.S. support for Ukraine on Kyiv’s willingness to give up its nuclear deterrent against Russia. To underscore that point, Clinton told then-Foreign Minister Anatoly Zlenko that he would not invite Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to the White House until he agreed to denuclearize. (Hearing this, Kuchma canceled his visit to Washington.)
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In the end, Kyiv did agree to give up its weapons in return for security guarantees from the United States and Russia for its territorial integrity. In the negotiations for a final agreement, the United States objected to the use of the word “guarantee,” preferring the non-legally binding word “assurance,” while not objecting to the Ukrainian and Russian words гарантія and гарантия (ga-RAN-tee-ya) in the other official texts.
In the mid-1990s, when Yeltsin was still in his first term and all hopes for a successful transition in Russia from communism to democracy and free markets appeared to rest on him, it wasn’t clearly imprudent to prioritize Moscow over Kyiv. Over the next fourteen years, however, as Ukraine developed a competitive democracy and Russia devolved back into authoritarianism, Washington policymakers never reconsidered their assumptions.
Moscow agreed to respect Ukrainian sovereignty when it signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 and the Russian-Ukrainian Friendship Treaty three years later, but suspected Washington was not serious about providing firm guarantees to Ukraine. Those suspicions were confirmed when, in 2008, George W. Bush failed to convince NATO to give Ukraine and Georgia pathways to membership, and the West stood aside as Russia gobbled up a fifth of Georgia’s territory. In 2014, Putin drove a tank through the huge gap between “assurances” and “guarantees” when he violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity by annexing Crimea and invading the Donbas. Even as Ukraine moved toward democratization and Euro-Atlantic integration—even sending troops to fight alongside Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq—and Russia grew more authoritarian and expansionist, the United States signaled that the sovereignty of Russia’s neighbors was considerably less important than our relationship with Russia itself.
CONCERNS ABOUT RUSSIA continue to shape U.S. policy toward Ukraine, even as we finally have no illusions about the democratic credentials of Russia’s president. While the Biden administration deserves credit for providing billions of dollars in weapons to Ukraine (the Obama administration wouldn’t sell Ukraine lethal weapons for fear of provoking Putin), it has not given Ukraine what it needs for more certain success in the ongoing counteroffensive: long-range artillery and the tools to gain air superiority over the battlefield.
Washington has stopped short because of apparent assumptions that Putin would trigger a larger war if Ukraine used American weapons to strike inside Russia itself (although Ukraine already has struck Russia multiple times with non-American weapons and Putin has not escalated). There’s a certain paternalism inherent in the refusal to give Ukraine what it needs. It’s as if the United States is telling Ukraine, “We don’t trust you to make the right decisions.”
There’s also a moral failure the Biden administration’s refusal to provide the air assets Ukraine needs. It blessed Ukrainian plans for their offensive, knowing full well we would not have sent our own troops into such an attack without control of the air. As a retired U.S. Army officer told the Wall Street Journal in July, “America would never attempt to defeat a prepared defense without air superiority, but they [Ukrainians] don’t have air superiority.” President Zelensky recognized he’d been dealt a weak hand, noting in the same article that “a large number of soldiers will die” in the attack because of the lack of air cover.
The necessary assumption behind subordinating Ukraine policy—and, for that matter, American policy toward Belarus, Moldova, the Caucasus, and parts of Central Asia—to Russia policy was that Russo-American cooperation was far and away the most important American goal in the region, if not the world. That assumption, at long last, can be discarded. As the United States and its allies prepare for what could be decades of prolonged confrontation with Russia, it should prioritize strengthening and protecting the democracies and democratic movements on Russia’s periphery.
Our Ukraine policy must start with Ukraine’s victory. We should make all weapons in our conventional arsenal available. The lack of the full range of conventional weaponry is prolonging the agony of war and undermining our overall strategic goal of ending Putin’s brutal invasion.
Finally, even when the war ends, there will be no lasting peace or stability in Europe until the West provides legally binding security guarantees. The best way to do that is to provide Ukraine with NATO membership, with the Article 5 protection the treaty provides. The recent NATO summit was an opportunity for the Biden administration to be more forward-leaning on the subject, but it declined to lead such an effort.
The United States will have another chance at the NATO summit next year in Washington. What better place to welcome Ukraine into the alliance, signaling to Moscow that the Western community is indivisible, and Ukraine is an integral part of it?