It is bad enough when the United States incurs grave risks to defend even indisputably democratic allies, if those countries lack sufficient importance to America’s economic and security interests. Too many U.S. allies, such as the Baltic republics, fail that crucial risk-benefit calculation. However, it is even worse when the United States incurs excessive risks on behalf of undemocratic allies or clients that have little intrinsic importance. And yet, Washington is making precisely that blunder with respect to Ukraine.
The United States has no treaty obligation to defend Ukraine from an adversary. Indeed, the notion that Ukraine should be an important U.S. ally is a rather recent phenomenon. Until the end of 1991, Ukraine merely was part of the Soviet Union, and before that, the Russian empire, and no credible American ever argued that the territory was a significant U.S. interest. That attitude began to change during George W. Bush’s presidency, but Ukraine still remained outside Washington’s geostrategic orbit. Even though both Bush and Barack Obama pushed NATO allies to make Kiev a member of the Alliance, Germany, France, and other key powers balked at doing so. Although they (correctly) worried that such a move might antagonize Russia beyond endurance, German and French leaders also had another objection. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recalled that German Chancellor Angela Merkel regarded the government that had emerged from Ukraine’s ostensibly democratic “Orange Revolution” in 2004 as a corrupt “mess.”
Indeed, that pro-Western government did not endure, and elections in 2010 produced a victory for pro-Russia presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych. U.S. leaders were unhappy with that result, and in late 2013 and early 2014, Washington and several European allies supported anti-government demonstrators to oust Yanukovych before his term expired. That “Maidan Revolution” succeeded, but Russia retaliated by annexing Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and supporting an armed insurgency by pro-Russia separatists in the eastern Donbas region. Since then, Washington has treated Kiev as a de facto NATO member and a crucial U.S. ally. Donald Trump’s administration approved multiple weapons sales to Kiev and trained Ukrainian troops—a policy the Biden administration is intensifying. In early April, Biden assured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky of Washington’s “unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in the Donbas and Crimea.”
U.S. officials consistently have praised Ukraine’s political system and supposed respect for individual liberties. In congressional testimony, William Taylor, who served as interim U.S. ambassador to Kiev in 2019, described Ukraine’s domestic governance as “an inclusive, democratic nationalism.” Ukraine’s nongovernmental fans in the United States are even more effusive. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg asserts that the country has become “a vibrant democracy.”
The reality is murkier. Ukraine does have competitive elections, although the continuing insurgency in Donbas and the loss of Crimea severely weakened pro-Russia factions and correspondingly strengthened nationalist, anti-Russia factions to the point of dominance. Within that democratic framework, moreover, there are disturbing, authoritarian features. Earlier this year, Zelensky’s government closed three independent television stations, supposedly for being Kremlin tools. It was hardly coincidental, though, that the move significantly reduced the number of opposition media outlets, not to mention having a chilling effect on those that remained open.
Nor was such censorship the extent of the government’s recent troubling actions. In a March 27 decree, Zelenskiy removed Constitutional Court Chairman Oleksandr Tupytskiy and another judge, Oleksandr Kasminin, for continuing to “threaten Ukraine’s independence and national security.” Those jurists had ruled against the government in several cases. Their removal hardly was intended to foster an independent judiciary in Ukraine.
Such behavior continues the autocratic tendencies of Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. In July 2015, Ukraine’s State Commission for Television and Radio Broadcasting outlined new measures to ban books, magazines, and movies that were guilty of “promoting war, racial, and religious strife,” and “threatening the territorial integrity of Ukraine.” Prohibited conduct also included “humiliating and insulting a nation and its people [i.e., Ukraine]”
It soon appeared that anyone who disputed the government’s version of developments surrounding the Maidan Revolution or the conflict in eastern Ukraine was likely to be silenced. Ukrainian officials even banned the movies of French actor Gerard Depardieu, a critic of Kiev’s policies.
Authorities later issued an order preventing 34 journalists and seven bloggers from even entering the country. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that the newly publicized list was merely part of a larger blacklist containing the names of 388 individuals and more than a hundred organizations barred from entry on the grounds of “national security” and allegedly posing a threat to Ukraine’s “territorial integrity.” Human Rights Watch criticized the Kiev government in September 2017 for imposing yet more restrictions on journalists.
Because of the North Atlantic Treaty, the United States already is stuck with an obligation to defend Alliance members, such as Turkey and Hungary, that are (at best) “illiberal democracies.” Washington should not put itself in a position of militarily supporting a similar country to which it has no such treaty obligation. Yet U.S. policies are leading to exactly that situation. Biden administration statements signal that the United States is even willing to go to war to back Ukraine in its ongoing confrontation with Russia. Risking war with a nuclear-armed great power would be unwise even if Ukraine were a model of democratic values. Doing so on behalf of a quasi-authoritarian Ukraine would be the essence of folly.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.
April 20, 2021 at 5:20 pm
I searched for the word “Budapest” in this article, and found nothing. You say we have no “treaty obligation” to defend Ukraine, and that may be technically correct, but we signed the “Budapest Memorandum” in 1994, and gave them assurances that their territorial integrity would be honored in exchange for giving up their nuclear weapons. If we (continue to) lie supine while Russia overruns eastern Ukraine, annexes Crimea, and shoots airliners out of the sky, why, precisely, would any country in the future have any confidence in our commitment to our treaty obligations? I don’t want a nuclear war with Russia, call it an eccentricity of mine. But I do believe we have to live up to our treaties and proto-treaties if we are going to negotiate with other countries. Why do we think North Korea can be talked into giving up their nuclear weapons when they can see how we are living up to our obligations to Ukraine?
April 21, 2021 at 12:30 pm
1. Carpenter conveniently omits that agreement. 2) Calling Ukraine “quasi-authoritarian” is clearly spoken like someone who has not set foot in the country at least since the Maidan. He also leaves out Poland in his comparison – Poland – where we have posted a battalion of U.S. troops as tripwire against aggressive, angry, revanchist Russia. And yes, I’ve been to Ukraine multiple times to include most recently during Sept-Oct 2019 after Zelenskiy was elected. File this article under: “Lousy Research-Poor Journalism.”
April 22, 2021 at 8:50 pm
Absolutely on target! Transfer an Ohio Class sub to them with nukes and we will see what Putin does. Sorry Mr. Carpenter-you missed our treaty obligation which should have been honored by Obama! I am a libertarian but I believe we should honor our treaty obligation. We would not be here if Obama had done what he should have.
Richard V Vajs
April 30, 2021 at 9:43 am
A missing pieces of information from your opiniuon is that Russia and Ukraine are essentially brothers – they both speak Russian and both have Russian history as their history. It is not one country invading some other country – it is more like a civil war. A civil war that our idiots in our own State Dept. instigated. and if we intervene on behalf of the powers that be in Kiev – we might as well have backed the Nazis in WWII.
April 30, 2021 at 10:06 am
Hey Skippy. This whole mess is caused by warmongering tribal SLIME Victoria Nudleman (Nuland) and her filthy NeoCON hubster type Robert Kagan. Everybody remember Yats the YID they installed? Who started GENOCIDE and took all the money and ran to Canada? They keep babbling that Crimea was ‘annexed.’ Nope. They had a PARLIAMENT and rightly VOTED NOT to be part of the garbage installed in Ukraine. Russia is NOT the aggressor. US IS.
April 30, 2021 at 2:41 pm
@ Chase Kimball
(1) According to the U.S. “government” the Budapest Memorandum is not legally binding; it is nothing more than a political commitment. (2) Since the U.S. sponsored coup in Ukraine violated both the UN Charter and the Ukraine constitution (both of which are legally binding) the Ukrainian state known to the Budapest Memorandum ceased to exist after the coup so to the extent the Budapest Memorandum was binding on anyone in the first place it was defunct after the coup, so your argument is completely invalid.
April 21, 2021 at 2:55 am
Biden and US Army and NATO will never never win. Russia and insurgent forces scored resounding wins in Aug 2014 at Ilovaisk and again in Debaltseve in early 2015 – thus preserving the life of the DPR-LPR Republic.
April 21, 2021 at 12:35 pm
LDR and DNR are Russia’s problems now. Saddling Moscow with another frozen conflict that sucks away troops, money, and time directly advances U.S. interests, but thank you anyway Internet Research Agency troll.
April 30, 2021 at 10:08 am
Russia is NOT the aggressor. We and that repulsive Vicky NULAND (Nudleman) are. Crimea was independent and RIGHTLY voted in their PARLIAMENT not to be part of Kiev insanity.
April 22, 2021 at 9:42 am
Mr Carpenter apparently does not understand Ukraine. It is Kyiv, not Kiev. Anyone who has been there in the last 15 years knows that. As for the Maidan and the Donbass, he uses the Moscow talking points. Might help to get out of the chair and take a trip to that part of the world
April 30, 2021 at 12:56 am
Ted What the hell am I missing! Is it not evident to even the most casual observer. As soon as Russia decided to step in and stop the disastrous criminal Neo-Con Project for a New American Century final installment in Syria Russia became enemy number one. Victoria Nuland and her husband Fred Kagan went to work thru Hillary Clinton’s State Dept to lead the coup of the Ukraine. This is From Robert Parry “the coup in Ukraine dealt an embarrassing black eye to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had offended neocon sensibilities by quietly cooperating with Obama to reduce tensions over Iran and Syria, where the neocons favored military options.”
April 30, 2021 at 2:45 am
Biden is risking war with the Ukraine because he is being blackmailed into doing so. Please pray to Our Lady of Fatima for peace. In Christ, Ernest Evans
April 30, 2021 at 6:33 am
Any comment that claims Ukraine, as it then was (it is Ukranazistan today) have up its nuclear weapons in return for security guarantees is either misinformed or deliberately lying. The agreement was that if there were problems with Ukraine’s security the matter would be referred to the United Nations.
Also, to the person who claims it is “Kyiv”, not Kiev. I see that you spell the name of the country as Ukraine, not Ukraïna. You can’t have it both ways.
Meanwhile Ukranazis held a parade in Kiev on 28 April in honour of the Waffen SS Galizien Division, implicated in huge numbers of war crimes. I see that the “comments”, if one can dignify them with that name, are totally silent about that.
April 30, 2021 at 9:29 am
Nazi parade in Kiev was financed and organized by Kiev authorities. As everyone knows, Kiev authorities are subordinated to American authorities.
April 30, 2021 at 3:51 pm
Yes, let’s criticize Ukraine for not wanting to cede territory to Russia. Yes, let’s say Ukraine is not democratic enough while totally ignoring Russia, a much less democratic country. Yes, let’s just allow Putin to conquer territories simply because they used to be Soviet. Right.