This probably feels like an overabundance of writing from me, but we had an ice storm recently, school was closed, and I really did not leave the house. This left me with a lot of time, and much of it has been focused on the events in Ukraine. This is an area rich in history even if, unfortunately, much of it has been conflict. Writing about history is trivial compared to what is going on in Ukraine, but I think it can help us process if we understand some of what is behind this conflict.
The history of this article began in 1991 with the break-up of the Soviet Union and the establishment of an independent Ukraine. As a result, Ukraine found itself with the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. The issue was that Ukraine had the actual nukes in the country but the ability to control them was in Russia. At the time, President H.W. Bush worried about several new nations with nuclear ability, especially in an insecure region of the globe. Bush began working with several nations on a deal that would see these new nations give up their nuclear weapons in exchange for protection.
In 1993 Bill Clinton became President and continued the work that Bush had started. In December of 1994 Clinton, along with the U.K., Russia, China, France, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, met in Budapest, Hungary, and signed the Budapest Memorandum. The Memorandum basically said that Ukraine would agree to give up its nukes and in return the other nations would protect the borders and sovereignty of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. The other nations were also to refrain from threatening or using economic pressure against those nations. Finally, the member nations gave assurances of help if the new nations were attacked.
Here is the problem with the Budapest Memorandum: it’s the language. The U.S. gave the Ukraine assurances, not guarantees. A guarantee, like the U.S. has with NATO, is a commitment of unlimited support. An assurance is basically saying we will help if we can. There were two issues as to why we gave assurances. First, Clinton did not think he could get the Democratic Congress to ratify a treaty with guarantees. Secondly, at the time, Boris Yeltsin led Russia and, for all his flaws, was trying to work with the West. We took his word that he would leave Ukraine alone. He did keep his word.
Enter Vladimir Putin. In 2014, Russian forces moved into Crimea, violating the Budapest Memorandum. At the time Putin made similar claims as he has now – that Crimea wanted to break away and he was only assisting them. He also claimed he did not go against the Memorandum because he did not attack Ukraine – he only helped Crimea. By this time, Obama had become President, and his response was to condemn Russia’s actions, freeze assets of important people, eliminate Russian visas, and not attend the Group of Eight summit. None of these worked and Russia is still in control of the Crimea.
Not only is Putin following the playbook to the letter of Hitler, as I described in an earlier article, but he also followed the playbook of his hero Stalin. Stalin was completely paranoid about the West and believed the West was trying to overthrow the Soviet Union. He used this fear as justification for his tyrannical actions at home. He felt the only way to keep Russia safe was to rule his nation with an iron fist. If people had freedom, they could overturn his communist paradise. Putin has claimed similar protections are now needed for Russia, especially if Ukraine joins NATO. He can protect himself by taking over Ukraine.
Stalin was willing to sacrifice much needed American help after WWII to keep his newly acquired territory for protection. It should not be a surprise that Putin is similarly willing to sacrifice sanctions to keep parts of Ukraine. Like Hitler, Putin has been emboldened after his capture of Crimea and it shows with the invasion of Ukraine. Once again, Ukraine needs help from a bully that the U.S. promised to help with. As of now, President Biden has followed Obama closely and has passed similar sanctions. Biden is hoping that somehow things will differ this time around.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.