In 2014, Russian-backed rebels took over eastern Ukraine and Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea. But the West paved the way for Moscow to advance on its former Soviet states well before then.
In 1994, Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal under the Budapest Memorandum of Security Assurances in hopes that America would protect it from Russian expansionism. Clearly, with “little green men” running around Ukraine, we now know that Washington had no intention of militarily protecting Kiev’s sovereignty.
A 2011 Brookings Institute report written by Steven Pifer, the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine between 1998 and 2000, reveals how Washington failed to appreciate that Moscow was not ready to fully accept Ukraine as a sovereign nation after 1991. For example, the Russian Duma regularly took up the question of whether Crimea should be part of Ukraine, even though the region was legal transferred to Kiev in 1954. Officials in Kiev were also concerned about the slow pace at which Moscow was working to help demarcate their shared borders, raising fears that Russia wasn’t prepared to let them go. What’s more, the language in the Budapest memorandum was so specific that it never really assured Kiev that Washington would protect its sovereignty; Washington only promised not to attack.
This was a big mistake.
Washington focused so much on pressing Ukraine to give up its nukes to appease Moscow that it didn’t consider the long-term impact of leaving Ukraine out to dry.
Washington focused so much on pressing Ukraine to give up its nukes to appease Moscow that it didn’t consider the long-term impact of leaving Ukraine out to dry. Now, Russia is run by a former spy who despises the U.S. and Ukraine is hosting his troops.
The Memorandum was supposed to make the world safer from nuclear weapons. Instead, Putin appears to have deployed nuclear-capable ballistic missiles to the Kaliningrad region, threatening the Baltics and Poland, and is in the process of modernizing Russia’s nuclear weapons program to make up for an aging military that can’t compete with NATO.
In hindsight, asking Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons under the faux platitude that doing so would secure its statehood and foster better ties with the West ignored that Moscow was still stuck, at least mentally, in the U.S.S.R.
Of course, none of the signees of the Budapest Memorandum of Security Assurances could have foreseen that President Putin would encroach on Ukraine’s borders. But the U.S. knew early on that Russia wasn’t sincere about letting Ukraine go.