Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, independent Ukraine inherited a large amount of Soviet military equipment, including the world’s third-largest nuclear stockpile at the time. To prevent the emergence of another nuclear power in such a volatile region, the United States, Russian Federation, and United Kingdom united in their efforts to denuclearize three post-Soviet republics: Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. In return for relinquishing its nuclear arsenal, the U.S., the U.K., and Russia committed to respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Security assurances were outlined in the Budapest Memorandum 1994 and although this was not a legally-binding document, the signatories accepted a moral and political responsibility for sustaining peace in Ukraine.
The 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and conflict in the Eastern region of Donbas not only breached commitments made by Russia as a signatory of the Budapest Memorandum twenty years earlier, but also tested the ability of the U.S. and U.K to guarantee peace in Ukraine and hold the aggressor accountable for its malevolent actions. Since 2009, Ukraine has been a leading recipient of U.S. foreign and military assistance since, aimed at strengthening Ukraine’s national resilience. Deepened bilateral military cooperation, as well as increased arms trade with Ukraine after the outbreak of conflict, cemented the U.S as the largest benefactor to Ukraine’s defense sector. However, sustained progress in Ukraine greatly depends on a commitment to the reform agenda implemented by the current Ukrainian government.
The ‘Reset’ Policy
In 2009, despite the outbreak of war between Russia and Georgia the year prior, President Barack Obama’s Administration initiated a ‘Reset’ policy with Russia. As rightly argued by Alina Polyakova and Benjamin Haddad in American Interest, Obama’s stance towards Russian behavior was “cautious at best and deeply misguided at worst”. He deemed Ukraine to be “a core Russian interest but not an American one… Russia would always maintain escalatory dominance there.” Such a cautious U.S. policy toward Russia and its neighborhood meant that Russian aggression was undeterred in the region. While the U.S. has consistently supported Ukraine’s democratization efforts and aspirations to join Euro-Atlantic institutions, defending Ukraine’s sovereignty from Russia falls outside core U.S. national security priorities.
The Russian annexation of Crimea and conflict in the Donbas exposed the failures of the Budapest Memorandum, as well as the Obama’s ‘Reset’ policy. This conflict has become a test for America’s credibility as a strategic partner for its Transatlantic allies most vulnerable to Russian influence. Since 2014, the U.S. has increased its foreign and military assistance to Ukraine, providing resources for reforming the Ukrainian defense sector and supporting Ukraine’s efforts in achieving interoperability with NATO standards. The Obama Administration launched the European Reassurance (Deterrence) Initiative to assure European partners of America’s commitment to their security. Through this initiative, the U.S. has increased its presence in NATO’s Eastern Flank with more troops and additional F-16 and C-130J aircrafts in Lithuania and Poland. The U.S. has also enhanced engagement with the Ukrainian civil and military leadership through bilateral and NATO channels.
Bipartisan support for Ukraine
U.S.-Ukraine bilateral cooperation is built on the Ukraine Freedom Support Act 2014 which provides assistance in enhancing defense capabilities while also strengthening Ukraine’s resilience against hybrid threats from separatists in Eastern Ukraine and Russia. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Defense allocated $250 million in military aid and the State Department pledged another $140 million in foreign aid – a $390 million assistance package for Ukraine. Since then, assistance has exceeded $1.5 billion. At the onset of the conflict, the U.S. also provided Ukraine with non-lethal equipment, including radars, radios, night and thermal vision devices, medical equipment, and vehicles.
In 2018, the Trump Administration approved the sale of 210 anti-tank Javelin missiles and 37 launching units worth $47 million to Ukraine. This decision marked a major shift from previous U.S. policy as it enabled the transfer of lethal weapons which would have a major deterrence effect on Russian aggression against Ukraine. There are no restrictions on where these weapons can be deployed, however their use is limited to defense purposes only. It’s worth noting the transfer of lethal weapons for defensive purposes does not hold as much of an operational value compared to its political significance. Nevertheless, Ukraine’s acquisition of lethal weapons from the U.S. has made it more costly for Russian and separatist forces in the Eastern regions of Ukraine to further escalate the conflict.
Distribution of foreign and military aid to Ukraine was initially not well publicized given potential implications for America’s relations with both Russia and Ukraine. This changed when President Trump withheld the transfer of aidbetween July and September 2019, a move that was only reversed following bipartisan pressure from Congress. Ukraine’s involvement in U.S. domestic politics has not only compromised the financial stability of ongoing programs in Ukraine, it has also laid the foundation for bilateral political mistrust. With U.S. assistance making up 90 percent of Ukraine’s foreign military aid, an unexpected withdrawal of committed funds significantly threatens the progress of state reforms and Ukraine’s military capabilities at the frontline.
The eventual transfer of committed foreign and military aid, as well as quantitatively and qualitatively increased arms trade, have demonstrated that U.S. support for Ukraine is bipartisan. Nevertheless, re-ignited political rhetoric around Ukraine during the U.S. presidential election campaign has the potential to trigger another round of diplomatic awkwardness between the U.S. and Ukraine. Those in the U.S. political establishment who believe in the importance of supporting Ukraine must work to shield Ukraine from America’s domestic politics and maintain trust on both sides of the partnership.
Empowering Ukraine to deter Russia
Russia’s illegal behavior in Ukraine shed light on the ineffectiveness of the ‘Reset’ policy. President Obama’s cautious foreign policy toward Russia resulted in America’s failure to keep all signatories of the Budapest Memorandum respectful of security assurances given to a denuclearized Ukraine. Against this backdrop, the conflict in Ukraine was a defining moment for U.S.-Ukrainian political and military cooperation. The U.S. remains Ukraine’s main strategic partner, supporting its territorial integrity, democratization reforms, and foreign policy aspirations to join Euro-Atlantic institutions. Increased bilateral military cooperation, as well as foreign aid and humanitarian assistance, have significantly contributed to Ukraine’s prolonged resistance in times of crisis. While the U.S. could not prevent the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Donbas, continued economic and political support is the absolute minimum in delivering the assurances outlined in the Budapest Memorandum. An empowered Ukraine - economically, politically, and militarily – will be better equipped to deter further Russian aggression and restore its sovereignty.
Rusudan Zabakhidze is a fellow with MEI's Frontier Europe Initiative and a research development consultant for Council for European Studies at Columbia University (CES). The views expressed here are her own.
Photo by GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images
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