In 1654, Ukraine signed a military protection treaty with Russia. As a result, Russia gradually overtook Ukraine and made it part of the Russian Empire. In spite of that, Ukraine maintained its linguistic and cultural differences from Russia for the next 250 years. When the Russian Empire fell apart after the Bolshevik revolution, Ukraine immediately declared independence and started a process of nation-building. Unfortunately, it didn’t last very long because the Bolshevik regime gained strength and forced Ukraine to integrate into the USSR.
Mind you, Ukraine was never part of Russia. Just like the US was never part of England and Mexico was never part of Spain. The actual differences are even more profound because the US shares its language with England and Mexico shares its with Spain. Ukraine, on the other hand, always had its own language and a very distinctive culture. (I’m a Ukrainian married to a Russian, and believe me, we feel our cultural differences daily).
In the USSR, Ukraine was one of the 15 republics with its own constitution, national flag, anthem, and a legally defined (although obviously unenforceable) right to leave the USSR.
Throughout the late 1980s and very early 1990s, there was a massive desire for independence in Ukraine. I was there at the time and experienced it daily, so please let’s not debate this point. Finally, Ukraine conducted a referendum where people overwhelmingly voted for sovereignty and left the USSR. As a result, the USSR collapsed. This was a happy moment for Ukrainians but a deeply traumatic development for most Russians who still perceive it as a tragedy 30 years later.
To show its readiness to join the civilized world and leave behind the legacy of the Cold War, Ukraine gave up its gigantic stock of nuclear weapons to demonstrate its commitment to stopping nuclear proliferation. At the urging of the United States, Ukraine peacefully handed over its nuclear weapons to Russia, its biggest geopolitical enemy. This was an unprecedented gesture of goodwill and peacefulness. In return, the US and the UK promised to guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty and protect the country if Russia invaded. This was called “Budapest Accords.” Please look them up for more details in case you are still wondering why Ukraine is America’s business. US has been trying to stop nuclear proliferation for decades. Reneging on its official and recent promises to Ukraine will destroy all of its credibility for any future negotiations with countries that want their own nukes.
For the next 25 years, Ukraine was a sovereign nation but much of its political and cultural space was controlled by Russia. This means no true democracy was possible because Russia is culturally resistant to democracy for a variety of reasons (and I’m not saying that it’s good or bad, just that it’s a fact) and Ukraine has culturally been very receptive to democratic institutions for centuries.
In 2013, the people of Ukraine were finally ready to try a real democracy and not a corrupt fake kind that existed in the post-Soviet space since 1991.
Russia understandably freaked out and invaded. Ukraine at that time had no standing army to speak of but Ukrainians made an inhuman effort of willpower and patriotism and repelled the invasion. Still, about 1% of Ukraine’s territory was occupied by Russia and has been occupied ever since. Now Russia is threatening to renew the invasion.
It’s been years, though. Since then, Ukraine managed to create and train some pretty serious armed forces. It has also experienced some quite extraordinary successes (and quite a few setbacks) in building a real market economy and fighting corruption. It’s a slow process because what isn’t? Do you know anybody who came out of 70 years of a totalitarian regime and went on to prosper fast after that? Me neither.
So what does Ukraine want from the US?
The #1 thing to know is that nobody in Ukraine ever wanted, suggested or dreamt of suggesting that the US send troops to Ukraine to fight against Russians. The idea is ludicrous. Ukraine has an army that has been fighting for years. Ukraine is defending itself. Everybody needs to relax and stop fantasizing about “Ukraine as the next Afghanistan.” This is idiotic and I’m ashamed of hearing formerly serious people go on about it.
What Ukraine needs is, first of all, moral support. Ukrainians believe in the values of the Western civilization in the best meaning of the world. Even if the West itself has decided to abandon them, these values still feel attractive to many people in Eastern Europe. The incapacity of the West to stand proudly for its great civilizational achievements results in this sad relativism where even saying “democracy is better than authoritarianism” becomes impossible.
And another thing that Ukraine needs (or, rather, needed because, sadly, that boat has now sailed) is US’s opposition to Nordstream 2.
That’s it. Moral support as in “we are so happy you guys want democracy, capitalism and individual freedoms, yay for you!” and no Nordstream 2. It’s not that much to ask.
In the next post, I will explain Russia’s position in all of this.
I welcome questions.