For the last three decades, the United States has bent over backward to acknowledge Russia’s security concerns and allay its anxieties. The United States has done so at the expense of relations with more willing partners in Eastern Europe—Ukraine in particular. Instead of supporting the early stirrings of Ukrainian independence in 1991, for example, Washington sought to preserve the failing Soviet Union out of misplaced fear that it might collapse into civil war. And instead of imposing heavy costs on Russia for its authoritarianism at home and antidemocratic activities abroad, including in Ukraine, Washington has mostly looked the other way in a fruitless effort to deal cooperatively with Moscow.
The justification for this Russia-centric approach to Eastern Europe has fluctuated between hopes for a good relationship with the Kremlin and fears that the bilateral relationship could devolve into another cold war—or worse, a hot one. But the result has been U.S. national security priorities based on unrealistic aspirations instead of actual outcomes, particularly during moments of crisis. Even as evidence mounted that Russia’s belligerent behavior would not allow for a stable or predictable relationship, U.S. policy stayed the course, to the detriment of both U.S. national security interests and the security of Russia’s neighbors.
One would think that Russia’s war in Ukraine would have demanded a shift in U.S. strategic thinking. Instead, whether out of habit, reflex, or even prejudice (thinking of Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” or of Ukrainians as “little Russians”), the primary decision makers in charge of U.S. foreign policy still privilege Russia over Ukraine.
The war has now reached an inflection point. The United States must decide whether it will help Ukraine approach the negotiating table with as much leverage as it can or watch Russia reorganize and resupply its troops, adapt its tactics, and commit to a long-term war of attrition. If Ukrainian democracy is going to prevail, U.S. foreign policymakers must finally prioritize dealing with Ukraine as it is rather than Russia as they would like it to be.
“THE UNGROUP” AND ITS LEGACY
Prioritizing Ukraine will require breaking the long-standing tradition of Russocentrism in trilateral U.S.-Ukrainian-Russian relations. In its contemporary form, that tradition dates back to 1989, when senior members of U.S. President George H. W. Bush’s administration set up a secret group of interagency staff members to plan for the possible dissolution of the Soviet Union. On July 18 of that year, Robert Gates, who was then deputy U.S. national security adviser, sent a memo to Bush titled “Thinking About the Unthinkable: Instability and Political Turbulence in the USSR.” As Gates recalled in his 2007 memoir, From the Shadows, he argued that the United States “should very quietly begin some contingency planning as to possible U.S. responses, actions and policies in the event of leadership or internal policy changes or widespread ethnic violence and repression—and consider the implications for us of such developments.”
Working in secrecy, these officials considered possible scenarios for Soviet collapse and potential U.S. responses. Written evidence of the group’s deliberations—or even its existence—is sparse. (I have mainly relied here on memoirs by people who served as high-level officials in the George H. W. Bush administration, some of which contain details of the ungroup without explicitly naming it, and on interviews with five former officials who were either participants in the group or had direct knowledge of its work.) But the conclusions the ungroup reached are clearly imprinted not just on U.S. foreign policy in the last years of the Soviet Union but also on U.S. priorities in the newly independent Soviet republics. The three greatest threats the United States would face in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the ungroup predicted, would be the proliferation of new nuclear weapons states; “loose nukes,” or the loss, theft, or sale of weapons-grade fissile material, especially to nonstate actors or countries with clandestine nuclear weapons programs; and conflicting loyalties in the Soviet military that might lead to civil war in the newly independent republics or in Russia itself.
When the unthinkable became inevitable and the Soviet Union began to crumble, mitigating these threats became the overarching goal of U.S. policy toward the former Soviet bloc. The United States pursued denuclearization in the former Soviet republics and partnership with an ideally strong, centralized Russian government in Moscow. If both goals could be accomplished, so the thinking went, then widespread ethnonationalist conflicts could be averted and command and control of the former Soviet arsenal could be maintained in a stable, whole Russia, thereby reducing the risks of a nuclear catastrophe.
The ungroup didn’t oppose the independence of the Soviet republics, but its fear of worst-case scenarios contributed to missteps and missed opportunities. For instance, it is hard not to hear echoes of the ungroup’s warnings in Bush’s infamous “Chicken Kyiv” speech in the Ukrainian capital on August 1, 1991. Mere weeks before Ukraine’s parliament adopted an act declaring the country’s independence, Bush declined to support the country’s right to self-determination, warning instead of “suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.” In line with the ungroup’s thinking, he privileged a carefully managed Soviet decline over the wishes of Ukrainians, who would go on to overwhelming vote for independence in a referendum at the end of the year.
Bush’s words provoked a visceral response from Ukrainians. For the Ukrainians who still remember the speech, or at least know of it, Bush’s explicit preference for the Soviet Union’s survival and his willingness to openly reject Ukrainian aspirations for statehood and independence were symbolic failures and practical indicators of where Ukraine fell in the hierarchy of U.S. relationships. One might argue that it was reasonable for the Bush administration to prioritize its relationship with the Soviet Union, which was, by any measure, a greater power than any of its potential successor states. It had enormous energy resources, a colossal military-industrial complex, and the ability to create massive headaches for Washington. But managing Soviet and later Russian threats did not have to come at the expense of engagement with the republics. Washington could have pursued both objectives at the same time, adapting to the Soviet Union’s decline while also hedging against future Russian irredentism by supporting self-determination in the emerging post-Soviet states.
Instead, Bush’s speech in Kyiv was an ignominious start to the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship that could have easily been avoided. Bush could have stuck to platitudes about the promotion of peace, democracy, and self-determination and omitted the patronizing warning about civil conflict. After all, the United States had little influence over Ukraine’s decision to seek independence or the Soviet Union’s longevity. In the end, neither outcome conformed to U.S. policy preferences.
The Bush administration wasn’t fully united behind this overly cautious approach toward the collapsing Soviet Union; there were dissenters, both inside and outside the ungroup. For instance, as Michael McFaul and James Goldgeier note in Power and Purpose, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney advocated policies that would prevent the reemergence of a Soviet or post-Soviet threat in Eurasia. He thought the United States should seize the opportunity to undermine a great power rival and extend democracy and Western security institutions farther east.
Cheney’s arguments stopped short of predicting a Russian resurgence—something that was difficult to conceive of against the backdrop of immense economic, social, and political problems in Russia—but they foreshadowed key developments in U.S. foreign policy during the post-Soviet years. One episode from Gates’s memoir stands out: On September 5, 1991, a month after Bush’s Chicken Kyiv blunder, Cheney clashed with Secretary of State James Baker over the effects of the Soviet Union’s impending collapse. According to Gates, Cheney argued that the breakup was “in our interest,” adding that “if it is voluntary, some sort of association of the republics will happen. If democracy fails, we’re better off if the remaining pieces of the USSR are small.” Baker’s response was indicative of the more dominant strain of thinking within the ungroup: “Peaceful breakup is in our interest, not another Yugoslavia.”
According to the former officials I interviewed, those more in line with Cheney’s thinking, including Wolfowitz and Edelman, came to view post-Soviet European security as a zero-sum game with an enfeebled but still dangerous geopolitical rival in Moscow. They also saw a newly independent, vulnerable Ukraine in need of assistance and recognized that, if strengthened, it could serve as a bulwark against Russian revanchism. But these were minority views. Most influential players in the national security establishment agreed with Baker that U.S.-Russian relations had to form the bedrock of any post–Cold War security structure. They believed that if they could get Russia right, the country would become a bastion of stability in the region and even contribute to positive outcomes in Ukraine and elsewhere.
BLINDED BY THE MIGHT
This fixation on dealing with Moscow has proved remarkably durable. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all built their regional policies around their hopes and fears for Russia—hopes for a cooperative relationship and fears of another cold war. Now, President Joe Biden’s administration has come full circle with a risk assessment of Russia’s war in Ukraine that could have been drawn up by the ungroup, one that is more focused on the internal Russian consequences of the conflict than on the consequences for Ukraine itself. The Soviet Union is long gone, but concerns about instability, Russia’s nuclear arsenal, regional conflict, and bilateral confrontation remain. To avoid provoking Moscow, the United States has implicitly acknowledged Russia’s influence in an imagined post-Soviet geopolitical space in Ukraine. It has also often filtered its decisions about Ukraine policy through the prism of Russia, balancing its objectives in Ukraine against its need for Russia’s cooperation on arms control, North Korean and Iranian nuclear proliferation, climate change, the Arctic, and space programs, among other things.
By comparison, the United States has been largely ambivalent toward Ukraine. It has engaged with the country when the two countries’ interests and values aligned. For instance, during the Clinton era, the United States made a clear push for democratization and denuclearization. But once denuclearization was attained and democratization had stagnated under Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, the impetus for bilateral engagement declined. During Clinton’s second term and during the Bush and Obama administrations, the United States shifted away from Kyiv and toward collaboration with Moscow.
Misguided hope for a strategic partnership with a reformed Russia—or at the very least, a stable and predictable relationship with Moscow—seemed to outweigh much more achievable U.S. interests and investments in Ukraine in these years. The United States bought into the myth of Russian exceptionalism and deluded itself with distorted visions of the bilateral relationship, largely ignoring the signs of authoritarian consolidation within Russia and failing to heed the warnings from partners in the Baltics and Eastern Europe. Even worse, because of its desire to accommodate Russia, the United States dismissed democratic progress in Ukraine—for instance, in the aftermath of pro-democratic movements in 2004–5 and 2013–14—and undermined prospects for a more fruitful long-term relationship with Kyiv. U.S. policymakers justified this approach on the grounds that drawing Russia in as a responsible member of the international community would enable democratization in the region. Later, when Russia’s lurch toward authoritarianism became undeniable, they justified it on the basis of stability, succumbing to fears of a return to Cold War–era tensions.
The United States was not necessarily wrong to pursue a mutually beneficial relationship with Russia. Where it erred was in continuing to pursue this objective long after there was no realistic chance of success, which should have been obvious by 2004, when Russia interfered in Ukraine’s elections on behalf of its preferred candidate, or at the very latest by 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia. Instead of looking for more cooperative partners, however, U.S. policymakers continued their futile courtship of Kremlin leadership. As a result, they passed up opportunities to invest in the U.S. relationship with Ukraine, which was always a more promising engine of democratization in the region.
For most of the last 30 years, Kyiv has been a more willing U.S. partner than Moscow. But Washington chose not to see this. Had it been more receptive to Ukrainian overtures and sensitive to Ukrainian concerns, the United States might have offered something more than vague “security assurances” in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which accompanied Ukraine’s fateful decision to give up the nuclear weapons it inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead, the agreement—signed by Russia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States—required only consultations and a commitment to seek UN Security Council action in the event of violations (an obvious flaw, considering Russia’s veto power in that institution).
Other early attempts at bilateral cooperation came only at Ukraine’s insistence. In 1996, for instance, Kuchma requested the establishment of a special binational commission, named for him and U.S. Vice President Al Gore, to increase cooperation on trade, economic development, and security issues, among other things, as part of a closer strategic partnership. Although the Gore-Kuchma Commission was modeled after a similar U.S.-Russian commission, the dialogue it spawned never produced a real strategic partnership. Engagement with Russia was a major U.S. priority; engagement with Kyiv was an afterthought. After all, outcomes in Ukraine were still viewed as dependent upon outcomes in Russia.
The 2004–5 Orange Revolution offered another opportunity for cooperation. After thousands of Ukrainian demonstrators took to the streets to protest a fraudulent presidential runoff election, paving the way for a free and fair vote two months later, the United States could have provided greater financial and technical assistance to Ukrainian reform efforts and nurtured Ukrainian ambitions for European and transatlantic integration. A stronger partnership might have prevented the political infighting and failed reforms that eventually fueled popular disappointment with the pro-European government of President Viktor Yushchenko.
Instead, the United States opted for a policy no man’s land. At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration pushed for the alliance to welcome Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO. But the United States and other NATO members declined to spell out what Ukraine would need to do to accede, and they refused to draw up a membership action plan. The resulting declaration produced the worst possible balance of provocation and assurance, giving Russia a new grievance to exploit but making Ukraine no more secure.
These failures had painful consequences for Ukraine. If Yushchenko’s reforms had generally succeeded, Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian candidate who was defeated after the Orange Revolution, might not have won the 2010 presidential election. Without a Yanukovych presidency, the Ukrainian government and armed forces might not have atrophied, and a rapacious kleptocracy might not have taken hold. The 2013–14 Revolution of Dignity, also known as the Euromaidan Revolution, might not have become necessary and Ukraine might not have become vulnerable to Russian aggression and Western ambivalence. The costs of Russia’s 2014 incursion into eastern Ukraine would have been significantly higher if the Ukrainian government and military had been intact and developing. Moreover, Russia would have had to contend with a stronger Western reaction and international opprobrium had the United States and the other signatories of the Budapest Memorandum demonstrated a stronger long-term commitment to Ukrainian democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.
Even if none of this had happened, the West could have responded more forcefully to Russia’s 2014 invasion. A tougher reaction might have deterred further Russian aggression or at least better prepared Ukraine for a larger conflict. The United States and its allies helped modernize Ukraine’s military, but because they did not want to provoke Moscow, they declined to impose stiff-enough sanctions on Russia or provide heavy equipment or extensive training to Ukrainian troops. Russian President Vladimir Putin escalated anyway. Now, the West is scrambling to make up for lost time.
The United States doesn’t deserve all the blame for these missed opportunities. Rampant corruption, political infighting, and abysmal leadership hamstrung Ukraine’s efforts at reform and development for years before the Orange Revolution. And it wasn’t until the 2013–14 revolution that Ukraine truly pivoted toward reform, transparency, democracy, and European integration. But even in the moments when Ukraine was a willing and able partner, the United States was reluctant to cooperate or upgrade U.S.-Ukrainian relations. Apprehension about the political response from Moscow always precluded a closer relationship with Kyiv.
[Read more: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/united-states/stop-tiptoeing-around-russia]