Ukraine as a geopolitical ally
Ukraine broke free from the Soviet Union in 1991, along with other former republics. Since then, U.S. policymakers have been keen to keep Ukraine in Washington’s fold. Why? The country of more than 40 million people is by size the biggest in Europe. It lies at the crux between the East and West — more specifically, between Russia and Europe. Ukraine is also a major agricultural exporter, once held the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, and has other coveted natural resources such as natural gas. Everyone, in short, wants a piece of Ukraine’s pie.
Even though the Cold War is over, the United States still sees Ukraine through the prism of Russia. A former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Stephan Sestanovich, told the Council on Foreign Relations last month: “The big questions, and these have been on the minds of American policymakers now for almost 30 years, are these: Is Ukraine going to lean East or West? And that means in its international dealings, but also in the composition of its internal affairs. Is it going to be an oligarchic state or is it going to find progress toward the rule of law?”
The 1994 Budapest Memorandum
When the Soviet Union unraveled in 1991, Russia suddenly found its nuclear arsenal scattered across its former republics, including Ukraine. The stockpile included about 1,900 strategic nuclear weapons with the capability of hitting the United States and many of its allies.
The uncertainty needed to be contained. In 1994, the United States, Ukraine, Russia and Britain signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, a diplomatic memorandum (i.e. not a treaty) in which Ukraine pledged to return its nuclear weapons to Russia. In return, Russia promised to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and not make a fuss over the United States providing financial aid to Ukraine.
There were some hiccups along the way. But the biggest challenge came in 2014. That’s when Russia backed an insurgency in eastern Ukraine, thrusting the region into an ongoing war that has killed more than 13,000 people. Moscow also annexed Crimea from Ukraine after a referendum that was denounced by the United States and allies in the West. The voting took place as Russian forces occupied the Black Sea peninsula.
The 2004 elections and Orange Revolution
A lot happened in Ukraine in the decade that followed. But U.S. policymakers were on high alert in November 2004, when Russian-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych announced he had won the election — despite evidence that it was rigged. The opposition candidate, Western-leaning Viktor Yushchenko, called on Ukrainians to protest. Hundreds of thousands of people did, in what became known as the Orange Revolution (a nod to Yushchenko’s electoral campaign color).
A month later, Ukraine’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of Yushchenko and called for a new election, which he won.
Washington came out in support of Yushchenko and the protesters. Moscow, meanwhile, fumed and blamed Washington for fomenting the unrest.
Over the next decade, America and Russia continued their diplomatic tug of war over Ukraine as the Orange Revolution coalition succumbed to political infighting, corruption charges and failed political and economic policies.
The 2013 Euromaidan Revolution
Flash forward to 2013. Ukrainians were once more in the streets. In November 2013, Yanukovych (after being ousted, he was reelected in 2010) abruptly ended talks with Brussels over a free-trade deal with the European Union and announced that he was instead reviving economic ties with Russia. (Remember: He is pro-Moscow.)
Many Ukrainians had other plans. Thousands took to Kyiv’s central Independence Square and stayed for months in a bloody standoff with the government.
In December 2013, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) came to rally protesters. “We are here to support your just cause, the sovereign right of Ukraine to determine its own destiny freely and independently,” he said. “And the destiny you seek lies in Europe.”
Moscow similarly played a familiar role, offering money to prop up Yanukovych and accusing Washington of paying and training protesters.
In February 2014, Ukraine’s parliament voted to oust Yanukovych, who fled to Russia. An interim government took charge.
The 2014 war in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine
Only it didn’t end there. At the end of February, Russian troops moved into Crimea, a semiautonomous Russian-speaking peninsula that’s part of Ukraine. Russia had all but declared war.
Moscow next set its sights on Ukraine’s relatively pro-Russian east by backing separatists in an insurgency against the Ukrainian government, along with sending troops of its own. (Russia denies any involvement.)
The United States continued to support Ukraine. “Since March 2014, many Members of Congress have condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, promoted sanctions against Russia for its actions, and supported increased economic and security aid to Ukraine,” according to a 2019 report by the Congressional Research Service. “In 2014 and 2015, the House and Senate passed a number of resolutions condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and expressing support for increased aid.”
But the Obama administration initially held off on providing lethal aid as part of the military assistance, fearful that doing so would touch off a possible war with Russia.
In contrast, the Trump administration initially signed off on more military assistance. In 2018, it sold Ukraine $47 million worth of antitank missiles.
Then other aid was halted. That’s where the impeachment investigations pick up.
2019 election of President Volodymyr Zelensky
In April, Ukrainian voters elected Volodymyr Zelensky — a TV actor and political newcomer — as president. His rise was seen as a protest vote against the political establishment. Despite two revolutions, Ukraine was still mired in corruption and political infighting.
Then came Zelensky’s July 25 call with Trump, and the whistleblower’s report.
In the meantime, Ukrainians are far from thrilled to become a pawn in America’s unrelenting political drama.
“They’re worried about the picture that reporters and talking heads are painting of their country of 40 million people, which is struggling to root out corruption, trying to jump-start its economy, and fighting for literal survival in a war fueled by an authoritarian ruler — Russia’s Vladimir Putin — who is hell-bent on seeing it collapse,” Ukraine-based journalist Christopher Miller wrote in BuzzFeed.
He continued: “They see no upside to being a part of the drama. Heavily reliant on bipartisan consensus in Congress for crucial support — not least of which is military aid and upholding sanctions against Russia — they are damned if they do speak, and damned if they don’t.”