Why the US Should Rethink Its Russia-centric Ukraine Policy
Ahead of this month’s visit to Washington, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy gave a sense of his agenda for the trip: He complained to the European press that the West is not doing nearly enough for Ukraine, considering that his country, as he put it, is “the wall that provides security for … European civilization”; then, in the U.S., he proposed an ambitious $277 billion economic recovery program fueled by foreign aid and investment. His opponents, meanwhile, thought it likely that U.S. President Joe Biden would read Zelenskiy the riot act and insist that he deal with corruption, stop his crackdown on opposition media and implement Ukraine’s obligations under the Second Minsk Accords.
Neither scenario fully materialized during the two-hour summit at the White House. Though Zelenskiy left Washington with assurances of an additional $60 million in security assistance and nearly as much in humanitarian and pandemic aid, his remarks to the Ukrainian media afterward suggest he was profoundly disappointed. Zelenskiy told reporters he was unsure whether the two leaders had any chemistry and that the talks were “not always sunshine”—possibly stressful for the inexperienced president, who acknowledged forgetting to discuss with Biden a possible visit to Kyiv (which Biden had earlier indicated interest in).
The absence of progress on Ukraine’s key goals in its ties with Washington—a concrete deadline for a NATO Membership Action Plan, major U.S. military assistance, stopping Nord Stream 2 and getting the U.S. to join the peace process for eastern Ukraine—suggests that the core problem with America’s approach to Ukraine will persist indefinitely: namely, that the focus of U.S. policy toward Ukraine is not Ukraine per se but Russia, which Washington fears is trying “to re-Sovietize the region” once under Moscow’s control. Yes, Biden and Zelensky signed off on a joint statement announcing plans to “reinvigorate” a U.S.-Ukrainian Strategic Partnership Commission; however, key U.S. strategic documents either do not mention Ukraine at all or mention it only in the context of threats posed by Russia. And clarity on U.S. Ukraine policy is directly linked to clarity on U.S. Russia strategy, which some analysts have argued is not entirely coherent.
US Interests and Ukrainian Paradoxes
There is good reason for this apportionment of U.S. foreign-policy bandwidth. Ukraine’s impact on key American interests remains either insignificant or tied to Russia: Ukraine itself poses no threat of nuclear proliferation or war (whereas the most extreme outcome of a conflict with Russia would be nuclear war); Ukraine’s GDP is so small that it poses no risk to global economic stability (though some Western officials believe that the 2017 NotPetya cyberattack, costing the global economy $10 billion by some estimates, was carried out by Russian state actors originally targeting Ukraine); Ukraine has not been a source or facilitator of terror attacks against U.S. targets and has taken part in U.S.-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, which were partially meant to reduce the threat of terrorism to the U.S. homeland, but its role was hardly decisive;1 Ukraine has virtually no impact on U.S. energy security; and, if anything, I believe Ukraine’s current fragmented society makes the U.S. goal of maintaining a balance of power in Europe and Asia trickier—a view that many ranking members of America’s foreign-policy “blob” might disagree with.
Because U.S. policy in Ukraine is driven by this overriding fear of the re-emergence of America’s Cold War rival, many complexities of current Ukrainian society are either ignored or dismissed as irrelevant, which I believe strongly increases the likelihood of political and geostrategic blowback against the West. Prior to 2014, for example, many Western analysts assumed that Ukraine would adopt a liberal and inclusive form of nationalism; they disregarded or downplayed the fractiousness of Ukrainian street movements, and the widespread anti-democratic views among those who take part in them. After the vehement rejection of the 2013-2014 Euromaidan revolution in Donbas and Crimea, Western support for Ukrainian democracy has seemed to bolster nation-building efforts aligned with historical Galicia—the eight westernmost regions of Ukraine out of the country’s 27. It is telling that the percentage of Ukrainians who support entry into the EU was significantly higher in western Ukraine (75%), according to a 2018 study by the Kyiv-based Rating pollster, than in the country as a whole (52%), not to speak of the east (28%).
Western efforts to encourage democracy and rule of law in Ukraine have run into painful paradoxes under Zelenskiy as well. Earlier this year, for example, in the name of national security, Ukraine’s president imposed the most draconian, in my view, restrictions on opposition media seen in Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union. With the stroke of his pen Zelenskiy shut down three national opposition news channels, including one employing well over a thousand people. In August 2021 the same fate befell the country’s most popular opposition news site, Strana.ua, whose reporters had exposed many of the country’s most notorious scandals.2 The site ended up being banned for what Ukrainian officials described as “pro-Russian propaganda.” As Ukrainian legal scholars point out, however, the president cannot simply shut down a media outlet; this requires a court order. Also this year, Zelenskiy retroactively annulled the appointment of the head of the Constitutional Court and ignored the Supreme Court’s decision to reinstate him, paving the way, say his critics, for a one-man dictatorship.
Another example of Western ineffectualness in the eyes of Ukrainians is the persistence of corruption, despite both carrots and sticks. Former Finance Minister Ihor Umanskyi last year called the spread of corruption “unprecedented,” pointing specifically to the president’s road-building initiative. Even the institutions established to fight corruption are now widely seen as profiting from it. According to the nonpartisan Committee of Ukrainian Voters, half a dozen parliament members from Zelenskiy’s party have faced accusations of corruption, though none has yet been prosecuted. Just another example, say critics, of the oligarchical system protecting its own.
Finally, there is the paradox that efforts to ensure Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence—reaffirmed by the Biden White House both before and during the meeting with Zelenskiy—have led Western governments and international organizations to get so deeply involved in Ukraine’s governance that their participation has proved counterproductive. (Overly strict Western conditions, according to some, have even contributed to a severe weakening of the judicial system.) After Zelenskiy’s then deputy chief of staff, Oleh Tatarov, publicly equated the West’s overbearing tutelage with “external administration,” he found himself under investigation for bribery and suspended from office. However, nearly two-thirds of Ukrainians surveyed in early 2021 agreed that Ukraine was “under external administration,” with numbers in the country’s south and east—regions with a stronger affinity for all things Russian—even higher.
What Should be Done
Proponents of the present course say that without close Western oversight there would be “backsliding” in Ukraine and the possibility of Kyiv moving closer to Russia. But I argue that it is Western disregard for the rights of Russophone Ukrainians that, in the end, can lead to more widespread rejection of the West.
Properly understood, America’s interests in Ukraine are the same as with any country. In my view these should be limited to encouraging self-sustaining peace and prosperity. Beyond that, as John Quincy Adams warned in 1821, “she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.”
Current U.S. policy, in my view, fosters an unhealthy dependency in Ukraine on the West. Often cited in this regard are the GDP-linked “warrants” issued in 2015 to creditors as part of Ukraine’s sovereign debt restructuring: According to one financial analyst, these bondholders must be paid as soon as GDP growth exceeds 3 percent and nominal GDP exceeds $125.4 billion; once real GDP growth exceeds 4 percent, Ukraine will have to pay 40% on wealth created above the $125.4 billion GDP threshold, through 2040. This essentially disincentivizes economic growth in Ukraine, says economist Evgeny Kogan. Some foreign analysts agree. Even negotiations over the transit of Russian gas through Ukraine rely heavily on Western intervention.
This dependence, which extends far beyond Ukraine’s economy, is paired with unrealistic expectations in the West about its own (the West’s) ability to micro-manage Ukraine’s internal affairs. To further advance American interests, as I see them, policymakers would do well to take to heart the complex history and pluricultural nature of Ukrainian society—and to understand how those complexities play out in political contention on the ground.
Second, if human rights are to be part of what America brings to the table, then they should apply to all Ukrainians, even those who prefer to speak Russian. This group has numbered between one quarter and one third of the population since 2014, according to recent data attributed to the Institute of Sociology, not counting the 20-plus percent of Ukrainians who are equally comfortable with Russian and Ukrainian (or the largely Russian-speaking populations of Crimea and separatist-held parts of eastern Ukraine). Nothing has done more to undermine Washington’s standing among Russophone Ukrainians, in my view, than the indifference of American political leaders to their cultural, religious and political rights. According to the 2018 Rating study, positive feelings toward the U.S. were reported by 57% of respondents in western Ukraine but only 27% in the south and a mere 22% in the east; similarly, positive feelings toward the E.U. were reported at the extremes by 65% in the west and 27% in the east.
Finally, U.S. policymakers should publicly share what costs they are willing and planning for us to shoulder, and for how long, in order to maintain Ukraine as a buffer against Russia, and to sustain it in the face of Russia’s dominance in the region—whether in terms of soft power, economy or military strength. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, no friend to Moscow, recently lamented that over 40% of Ukrainians agree with Vladimir Putin that Ukrainians and Russians are one people, and sociologists say that even more young people concur with this view (44%) than people over 60 (42%). If, as I believe, the West’s policies will most likely result in a backlash, then I submit that they cannot be in the national interest of the United States.
Instead, to paraphrase the late George F. Kennan, Jr., I suggest that we leave Ukrainians alone to be themselves. The advocates of Western intervention in Ukrainian affairs will probably object that this leaves the playing field entirely to Russia. I suggest that it is high time to trust in the good sense of Ukrainians, including those who see their Russian cultural heritage as fully compatible with a Ukrainian civic identity. Treating the latter as potential traitors, a “fifth column,” as many Ukrainian officials are, sadly, still wont to do, can only undermine their sense of attachment to Ukraine, to the point that no amount of Western support will suffice to restore it.
It is therefore in our best interest, if not in our nature, to let other nations sort out their domestic affairs as they see fit, rather than try to fit them with the bit and bridle of America’s geopolitical ambitions. That course, as history has invariably shown, ends in disappointment.
- In discussions of counterterrorism, too, Ukraine’s conflict with Russia has stoked concerns. First, there has been debate among researchers on the war’s role in strengthening transnational extremist networks among ultranationalists and on Ukraine’s role as a haven for Russian-speaking ex-fighters from other conflicts. Second, Ukraine and Russia have traded accusations of, at worst, abetting and, at best, ignoring activity that could be classified as terrorism: Incidents seemingly aimed at Russia for its actions in Crimea and Donbas have included blowing up electricity pylons and cutting off water supplies (which has been viewed as an act of terrorism in other contexts); Russia, meanwhile, is facing official Ukrainian allegations in the International Court of Justice that it has provided material support to terrorist actors on Ukraine’s territory, as well as the legal cases surrounding the downing of flight MH17 over separatist-held regions in eastern Ukraine.
- These include: “Vagnergate,” in which Ukrainian security forces reportedly tried to convince Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenka that Russia was organizing a coup against him or, according to the latest explanation from CNN, “to ensnare alleged Russian war criminals,” with the knowledge of U.S. intelligence; the Rotterdam+ scandal, in which coal from eastern Ukraine was priced as if it had been transported from Holland, allegedly defrauding consumers of more than $1.5 billion over three years; the misappropriation of COVID relief funding; and, most recently, the apparent diversion of a Ukrainian government plane intended for Ukrainians fleeing from Afghanistan for the use of wealthy Afghans.
Nicolai N. Petro
White House photo shared in the public domain. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.