Although supporters of the Russian invasion, occupation, and annexation of Ukraine blame “U.S. imperialism” for the Ukraine War, the U.S. role has been relatively minor. The major actors have been Ukrainians, striving for independence, and Russians, striving to end it.
For centuries, a great many Ukrainians, chafing under Czarist and, later, Soviet rule, longed for national independence. This rejection of Russian domination―based in part on Stalin’s extermination of four million Ukrainians through starvation―was confirmed in 1991 when the leaders of the disintegrating Soviet Union authorized a plebiscite. In the voting, more than 90 percent of Ukrainian participants opted for independence rather than membership in the new Russian Federation. Accordingly, Ukraine was recognized by Russia and the rest of the world as an independent, sovereign nation.
This agreement on Ukraine’s sovereignty was firmed up by the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, under which the Russian, U.S., and British governments pledged to respect its independence and borders. For its part, Ukraine agreed to, and did, turn over its very substantial nuclear arsenal to Russia.
But elements of the Russian government regretted this arrangement, believing, as President Vladimir Putin lamented in 2005, that the break-up of the Soviet Union had been “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Kremlin officials looked nervously on “color revolutions” in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, rebuilt their nation’s armed forces, and intervened militarily in Georgia and Syria. Meanwhile, they kept a watchful eye on Ukraine where, for a time, the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, kept their hopes alive for a return to Russian hegemony.
As things turned out, developments did not go well for them in Ukraine, where Yanukovych’s extensive corruption, authoritarian behavior, and reversal of his promise to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the European Union led to three months of massive anti-government demonstrations and deadly shootings of protesters by police. Finally, in February 2014, abandoning a last-minute agreement he had signed with the political opposition for a broader cabinet, Yanukovych fled to Russia.
Although the Russian government and its sympathizers claim that this popular upheaval was a “coup,” the reality is quite different. The “Revolution of Dignity,” as most Ukrainians called it, had widespread popular support. After Yanukovych abandoned his post, the Ukrainian parliament removed him from office by a vote of 328 to 0. Elections for a new president were quickly organized and held democratically.
Claims that the U.S. government organized this alleged “coup” are equally flimsy. The most frequently cited “evidence” is a private conversation between Victoria Nuland, U.S. assistant secretary of state, and the U.S. ambassador, in which they discussed various Ukrainian politicians. But the conversation occurred long after the rebellion began and contained no suggestion of ousting Yanukovych. The Russian government and its supporters also point to a 2013 public address in Washington, DC in which Nuland stated that, starting in 1991, the U.S. government invested over $5 billion to support a variety of the new nation’s programs. The money, spent over a 20-year period, funded things like anti-AIDS ventures, reproductive healthcare, and business start-ups. But there is no evidence that it went for protest demonstrations or a “coup.”
With the downfall of Yanukovych, the Russian government mobilized its military forces to seize and annex Crimea, and also stirred up and armed separatist uprisings in the Donbas. After Ukrainian defense forces made considerable headway against the Donbas rebellion, the Kremlin sent in heavily armed and disguised Russian troops that turned the tide of battle.
The U.S. government response to this Russian military assault upon Ukraine was remarkably mild. Pessimistic about Ukraine’s future, President Obama refused to provide lethal aid to the weak Ukrainian armed forces. Although the Trump administration did begin providing such aid in 2017, the weapons weren’t approved for use at the front for another three years. In addition, Trump not only developed a remarkably close relationship with Putin but cut off diplomatic contacts with Ukraine other than through his close associate, Rudy Giuliani. Eventually, he cut off U.S. aid, as well and urged Zelensky to strike a deal with Putin.
Nor did the U.S. government attempt to bring Ukraine into NATO. Doing so, of course, would have been in conformity with international law, which does not ban military alliances. Russia, in fact, heads up such an alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. What is banned by international law such as the UN Charter is “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” This explains why a hefty majority of nations in the UN General Assembly voted to condemn Russia’s seizure of Crimea.
Instead of taking a hard line toward Russian expansionism, the U.S. government went along with its NATO partners, Germany and France, that brokered compromise accords―the Minsk agreements of 2014-15 among Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Designed to resolve the conflict in the Donbas, Minsk I and Minsk II required a ceasefire, withdrawal of foreign military forces, the disbanding of illegal armed groups, a return of the Ukrainian side of the international border with Russia to Ukraine’s control, and limited autonomy for the Luhansk and Donetsk regions―all to be supervised by the OSCE.
The underlying problem, though, was that the Russian government was determined to control all of Ukraine rather than merely the Donbas, while the Ukrainian government feared that Russian control of Ukrainian provinces would subvert Ukraine’s national independence. As a result, both the Russian and the Ukrainian government repeatedly violated the Minsk agreements, with Russia brazenly declaring that it was not a party to the conflict in Ukraine and, therefore, was not bound by their terms. Most of this sad history eluded Trump, who apparently viewed Ukraine primarily as a tool to embarrass his 2020 election rival, Joseph Biden.
Although the Biden administration responded much more firmly to the February 2022 full-scale Russian military invasion of Ukraine, what is also striking are the limits on U.S. assistance. As the Ukrainians fought desperately for their nation’s survival against the Russian onslaught, the U.S. government ruled out a response by U.S. military forces, rejected implementing a “no-fly zone,” repeatedly warned the Ukrainian government to confine its military response to Ukrainian territory, and responded to pleas by the Ukrainian government for more powerful weapons reluctantly and belatedly.
Even today, when the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians support continued resistance to the Russian invaders, leading U.S. politicians have called for abandoning Ukraine to its fate, while major figures in the U.S. foreign policy establishment argue for compromise with Russia because “Ukraine’s goals are coming into conflict with other Western interests.”
If this U.S. record constitutes “imperialism,” then the word has lost much of its meaning.