Ukraine has always been a divided nation. North-west and central Ukraine, once part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, has always been west-facing towards Europe; The Southeast, a long part of the Russian Empire, has always been oriented east towards Russia. Historically, western Ukraine has voted for presidential candidates with European-leaning policies, and eastern Ukraine has voted for presidents with Russian-leaning policies. The country is in a tug of war and prone to being torn in two.
The break came dramatically after the US-sponsored and backed 2014 coup. This coup was intended to replace a pro-Russian president with a US-elected president and draw Ukraine closer to the European and NATO security sphere.
The conditions for the coup were created when Ukraine was given the choice of entering into an economic alliance with the European Union or with Russia. As geography and history would predict, Ukrainians were almost evenly divided. When the US and EU rejected Putin’s solution that either could help Ukraine and forced Ukraine to choose, the fateful tug of war began.
The EU offer was de facto NATO membership in business attire. Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies at Princeton, Stephen Cohen, said that the European Union proposal also included “provisions on ‘security policy’ … which would appear to subordinate Ukraine to NATO”. The regulations compelled Ukraine to “adhere to Europe’s ‘military and security’ policies.” Article 4 of the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine states that the agreement will “promote gradual convergence on foreign and security issues with the aim of Ukraine’s ever-deeper integration into the European security space”. Article 7 of the agreement spoke of the convergence of security and defense, and Article 10 added that “the parties should explore the potential of military and technological cooperation.”
In the ensuing coup d’état, the US elected and installed a President who looked West, Europe and America. With Ukraine now drawn into the American sphere, Putin pulled Russia out of its post-Cold War accord and pushed back against the US-led unipolar world. Russia annexed Crimea and civil war between Donbass in the east and Kyiv and western Ukraine had begun.
But Ukraine had become a flashpoint long before that.
Theoretically, Ukraine has always been known to be a potential hotspot. For this reason, an internal US draft from 1991 recommended deferring “the possibility of Ukraine joining the NATO liaison program” for “a later date”. In 1993, the UK warned Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, that “enlarging NATO to include Ukraine would cross the reddest of Russia’s red lines.” Richard Holbrooke, who has aggressively pushed for NATO expansion, said NATO is “an alliance [Ukraine] can probably never occur.”
In a previously forgotten episode, then-US Ambassador to Russia William Burns reported to Condoleezza Rice: “Ukraine’s entry into NATO is the brightest of all the red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin)… I haven’t found anyone yet who sees Ukraine in NATO as something other than a direct challenge to Russian interests… Today’s Russia will respond.”
The theory was put into practice at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest. President Bush, attempting to expedite NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, called on the summit to “welcome Georgia and Ukraine to the membership action plan.” His attempt was blocked by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. As a compromise, Georgia and Ukraine were promised eventual membership: “NATO welcomes the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia for NATO membership. We agree today that these countries will become members of NATO.”
The Russian leadership made it clear that they viewed this promise as an existential threat. Putin warned that NATO membership of Georgia and Ukraine posed “a direct threat” to Russian security. John Mearsheimer quotes a Russian journalist who reported that Putin was “enraged” and warned that “if Ukraine joins NATO, it will do so without Crimea and the eastern regions. It will simply fall apart.”
Even before that, Ukraine’s domestic politics had begun to herald the coming crisis. In the 2004 elections, Viktor Yanukovych, supported by the Russian-oriented East, faced Viktor Yushchenko, whose support came from the Western region, which leaned toward the US and Europe. Yushchenko’s program included a desire for EU and NATO membership.
Putin made it clear that he supports Yanukovych. He went to Kyiv to support his campaign. He publicly wished him luck. He praised the economic record of the Yanukovych government. According to Philip Short in Putin“Kremlin political strategist Gleb Pavlovsky moved to Kyiv to advise his election headquarters.”
Receive weekly emails in your inbox
The first round ended with a split of 39.87 percent to 39.32 percent in favor of Yushchenko. The election went into the second round. With rampant cheating in the second round, Yanukovych’s apparent victory was overturned by Ukraine’s Supreme Court.
Less reported than the involvement of the Putin regime was US interference on Yushchenko’s behalf. Philip Short reports that that election year George HW Bush, Henry Kissinger and John McCain all traveled to Ukraine to demonstrate the US preferred outcome. Bush, Short says, “sent Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Richard Lugar to Kyiv as his personal envoy.” He reports that Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had been Carter’s national security adviser, went so far as to “emphasise the importance emphasize to detach Ukraine from the embrace of Russia”.
The 2004 election had turned into a tug of war between the US and Russia. It was then that Ukraine became, perhaps for the first time, a focal point in what would develop into a new Cold War. The West’s preferred candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, won the new election. Putin said: “You are stealing Ukraine away from me.”