The Crisis in Ukraine is America’s Fault

by Benjamin Studebaker

I am an American and I love America, but we got this one wrong and we need to collectively own up to our screw up. American foreign policy decisions have been direct causes of the Russian military intervention in Ukraine. The narrative in the popular American press, that Putin is behaving aggressively or even irrationally, is incorrect. In truth, Russia is acting from motivations that are grounded in its desire to defend its legitimate security interests. Here’s why.

There are two primary ways in which the United States through its actions allowed and encouraged Russia to intervene in Ukraine:

  1. The United States forced Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons in 1994, leaving it defenseless.
  2. The United States has taken actions that the Russians legitimately perceive to be threatening in Eastern Europe.

Let’s talk about each.

Disarming Ukraine

When the Soviet Union broke up, four of the subsequent rump states possessed nuclear weapons: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. In the interests of reducing nuclear proliferation, the United States insisted that Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine give up their nuclear weapons to Russia, thereby reducing the number of countries with their fingers on the button from four to one. These countries signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, in which they acceded to America’s demands on condition that Russia, the United States, and the UK gave assurances that they would do several things:

  1. Respect Ukrainian independence and sovereignty within its existing borders.
  2. Refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine.
  3. Refrain from using economic pressure on Ukraine in order to influence its politics.
  4. Seek United Nations Security Council action if nuclear weapons are used against Ukraine.
  5. Refrain from the use of nuclear arms against Ukraine.
  6. Consult with one another if questions arise regarding these commitments.

France and China later sent individual letters echoing the sentiment, but that’s all the memorandum was–sentiment. Russia, the US, and the EU have all used economic pressure to intervene in Ukraine’s domestic politics in recent months. From the Russian perspective, the US and EU disrespected Ukrainian sovereignty by supporting the Euromaidan protests that overthrew Viktor Yanukovych, who was the freely elected leader of Ukraine. From the American and European perspective, Russia has disrespected Ukrainian sovereignty by threatening to use military force against Ukraine. In any case, should the Russians actually use force in Ukraine, it is highly unlikely that the United States or European Union would commit military forces to Ukraine’s defense because doing so is quite costly and because Russia has nuclear weapons.  Given that fundamental reality–that the US and Russia are not going to go to war over Ukraine and indeed would almost certainly never do so due to the risk of nuclear annihilation, it was foolish in the extreme for Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to accept the token assurances contained within the memorandum. But what was perhaps even more foolish was the American move to disarm these countries in the first place.

Think about it. If the United States is not prepared to go to war with Russia to defend the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the Ukrainians do not have nuclear weapons, how is the territorial integrity of Ukraine to be defended in the event that Ukrainian-Russian relations sour and Russia attempts to use its superior conventional forces to coerce Ukraine? If the Ukrainians can’t defend Ukraine and the Americans won’t, it was merely a matter of time before the Russians found themselves in a scenario in which using military force against Ukraine would be useful to them, and there would be very little anyone would be able to do to stop them. This argument was made in the early 90’s by John Mearsheimer and foolishly ignored. If Ukraine had nuclear weapons, Russia could not use military force against it and this crisis would be impossible, at least in its current military form.

Spooking Russia

The United States made a terrible strategic mistake during the 90’s and the 00’s. It’s easy to forget now, but the United States had decent relations with Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s previous president (who famously got spectacularly drunk with Bill Clinton at the White House) and even with current President Vladimir Putin. Early in his first term, George W. Bush said this about Putin:

I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.

Most Americans now consider this incident strong evidence that George W. Bush was not very good at international politics, and they may well be right about that, but think about the context of that period:

  • Like the United States, Russia worries about nuclear proliferation.
  • Like the United States, Russia worries about terrorism.
  • Like the United States, Russia worries about a rising China.

Russia’s military and economy were utterly wrecked. It no longer posed a credible threat to the United States in Europe, and there was every potentiality that the United States and Russia might work together on proliferation, terrorism, and China. What happened instead? The United States continued to treat Russia like the Soviet Union. In the years that have followed, America has spread NATO, a military alliance whose entire original purpose was the containment of the Soviet Union, to Russia’s very doorstep:

The message this sent to Russia was clear from where Putin was sitting–the United States still considers Russia a threat, and it still wants to contain and weaken Russia. From the Russian point of view, it is the United States that has continued the Cold War. On top of this, the United States began installing missile defense batteries in Poland and other Eastern European countries during the mid-00’s. America claimed those batteries existed to protect Europe from an Iranian strike. Not only did the Russians not believe this, but Putin thought this is so ridiculous as to be laughable:

The support the Obama administration is currently showing for the revolutionary government in Kiev is only confirming for the Russians their suspicion that the United States intends to bring Ukraine into NATO–indeed,George W. Bush stated his support for just that in 2008. Even today, the United States sent Secretary of State John Kerry to Kiev to issue support for the revolutionary government, further accentuating, as far as the Russians are concerned, US involvement in the Ukraine.

Now, it has to be acknowledge that the traditional security dilemma is certainly at work here–as the US has undertaken policies to defend against Russia, the US has simultaneously undertaken policies that the Russians perceive as threatening, and the policies they undertake to counter those threats themselves serve to further inflate the American perception of the Russian threat. But let’s be perfectly clear here–Russia is not Nazi Germany. It is, in comparison to the EU and the United States, quite weak. This is quite clear when we look at the relative share of European wealth the Russian Federation presently controls:

Europe BoP with US

For comparison, Nazi Germany’s share relative to the USSR, UK, Italy, and USA in 1941 was 22%. That share is three times larger than Russia’s, and in 1941 none of these nations had nuclear weapons. The idea that Russia in 2014 with a mere 7% of European wealth is going to pose a serious threat to the NATO alliance, which includes the US, Germany, France, the UK, Italy, and many other countries is a ludicrous Cold War fantasy. There is no need whatsoever for the United States to be treating Putin like Stalin or Hitler. The far greater geopolitical concern for the United States in 2014 is China in East Asia:

East Asian BoP with US

Russia is a comparatively puny power in the East Asian region, and there’s no reason it should not be cooperating with the United States, a country with no territorial ambitions in East Asia, to contain China, a country that shares a border with Russia and has highly revisionist intentions.

So what should the United States do? The American goal should be to demonstrate to the Russians that the Chinese, not the United States, pose its greatest security risk. That means that America announces, publicly, that it will never invite Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, or any other former Soviet Republics into NATO. It means that the United States should take sanctions off the table and swear off taking any punitive action at all against Russia. Hawks may note that this will fully enable Russia to do whatever it wants in the Ukraine, and this is true, but because America took away Ukraine’s nuclear weapons and is not willing to defend Ukraine itself, it is already without sufficient leverage to stop the Russians from doing whatever they want in Ukraine. The best the US can do now is to attempt wholeheartedly to reverse the decay in US-Russian relations. Doing so is not appeasement. This isn’t Munich because the Russians are vastly less powerful than Nazi Germany and because most of the various other countries in Europe that Russia could pick on are already part of NATO and consequently off limits to it. Russian tanks are not about to roll into Poland, and if the Russians tried to roll into Poland, NATO would annihilate them because it is tremendously more powerful than Russia is. The Russians are not suicidal maniacs.

Many Americans are trying to pin this on the Obama administration, and the Obama administration is certainly responsible for openly helping the revolutionaries in Ukraine overthrow their government and thereby frightening Russia, but this represents a grand failure of American strategy in Eastern Europe, a strategy that dates back to both the Bush and Clinton administrations. By continuing to treat Russia like the Soviet Union, America has created a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the Russians are forced to act defensively in much the same way a much-weakened USSR would likely act. The answer is not to “get tough” with Putin, to further damage relations and further entrench in the attitudes of both peoples the Cold War mentality, but to do an about-face and recognize that given Russia’s relative weakness, it is not a serious threat, and that US and Russian interests broadly align on most of the critical issues impacting both powers today.

By resisting further NATO expansion, the Russians are really just acting on their own version of our Monroe Doctrine.  As the US government claimed in 1823:

We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.

Replace “United States” with “Russian Federation” and “this hemisphere” with “former Eastern Bloc”, and you have Putin’s policy. It that really so unreasonable? Can we really not accommodate it and cooperate with the Russians on more pressing issues?