Thirty years ago, when Ukraine became an independent country after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it inherited a third of the USSR's nuclear arsenal. They had at the time 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and 33 heavy bombers, carrying approximately 1,700 warheads altogether, which made Ukraine the third largest nuclear power in the world.
In 1994, however, during the heydays of post-Cold War optimism, Ukraine agreed to destroy the weapons and join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The fall of the Berlin Wall had ushered in an era of globalisation and unprecedented wealth creation, and Ukraine was far more interested in joining that bandwagon than holding onto this huge cache of weapons of mutually-assured destruction.
In recent weeks, when 100,000 Russian troops and heavy weaponry assembled at the Ukraine border and the US predicted an imminent invasion – while at the same time taking military defence of Ukraine off the table, many Ukrainians must be rueing the day the country decided to give up on those weapons. After all, from isolationist North Korea to politically volatile Pakistan, the one thing that has proven as an airtight defence against full-blown invasion over the last few decades is the presence of nuclear weapons in a country.
How Ukraine arrived at this point is a lesson for many nations in the modern era, especially for one located close to a global or regional power. Ukraine's relationship to both its mighty neighbour Russia, as well as Europe, and by extension the United States, can best be summarised as a litany of broken promises.
Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, thereby effectively trampling on the Budapest Memorandum, which provided security assurances to Ukraine in return for relinquishing its nuclear arsenal. But that is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the list of broken promises.
During German unification in 1990, the then US Secretary of State James Baker had verbally pledged to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that if Germany was allowed to be unified within NATO, the alliance would not move "one inch east". (Although Baker later denied making this pledge, declassified documents indicate he may very well have made the promise.)
Forget an inch, NATO fairly quickly moved a few thousand miles East. Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic – countries that once belonged to the USSR's sphere of influence – joined NATO in 1999, followed by seven other countries from the neighbourhood, five years later. Albania and Croatia joined in 2009. In many ways, Ukraine is the last front for Russia before Western powers come knocking at their doors.
In 2008, US President George Bush rather inexplicably decided to nominate Ukraine and Georgia for NATO membership when both countries clearly were not close to meeting the criteria for membership. A tense and awkward situation ensued and NATO, after a British-brokered compromise, declared both states would eventually join without specifying when. This, political scientist Samuel Charap describes, "was the worst of both worlds". Ukraine failed to get the security guarantees that come with NATO and at the same time fell into the crosshairs of Russia.
The 2014 invasion of Crimea was in some ways a response to Bush's 2008 missteps, because, as Putin put it: "I simply cannot imagine we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO soldiers." But the invasion was also triggered by more immediate concerns – the West-supported overthrowing of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych a month earlier. Yanukovych, of course, had won a controversial presidential election a decade earlier, in an election fraught by allegations of massive rigging as well as US and Russian influence, before the Ukrainian Supreme Court annulled the results and called for fresh elections. It would seem the big powers are not satisfied tinkering with Ukraine's fate only from the outside.
To the naked eye, Russia is the clear aggressor in the Ukraine crisis. It invaded Crimea in 2014 and is now once again hovering on the Ukraine border.
But such simplistic reading overlooks the complexity of the whole situation.
Russia has so far denied it has any plans to invade Ukraine, however, it has not provided any explanation for the troop deployment. It has accused the US of drawing it into war, and has also accused the Ukrainian government of failing to implement an international deal to restore peace to the east, where at least 14,000 people have been killed.
In December last year, Russia presented the US with a draft demanding Ukraine be permanently barred from joining NATO, but also that NATO ceases all military activity in Eastern Europe, and pull troops out of Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. At a press conference, Putin claimed, "You promised us in the 1990s that [NATO] would not move an inch to the East. You cheated us shamelessly."
It would appear Russia finally feels confident enough to demand the West come good on their pledge made in 1990. Like a wounded Shylock, it has come to collect its pound of flesh. In a world where US influence is waning – reinforced by the hasty withdrawal and capitulation to the Taliban in Afghanistan, where Germany foreign policy is still in flux after the end of the Angela Merkel era, Russia clearly sees an opportunity to reinstate its influence over its historical sphere of influence. They have even capped their demands with a one-month timeline to ensure negotiations don't fall to the wayside by going off on different tangents or hanging on to a stalemate.
But that is also a very narrow, Western reading of Russian intentions. Russia had always seen Ukraine as a historical part of its territory, and is often described as "Little Russia" in contemporary Russian political rhetoric. This has partly to do with their shared history. Both nations were part of ancient kingdom of Kyivan Rus, which ruled between the ninth century and thirteenth century, until the Mongolians destroyed the empire.
By the end of the 18th century, Ukraine – often referred to as Europe's breadbasket because of its rich dark soil and vast wheat fields – was effectively part of the Russian empire, although the Ukrainian-speaking Western part of the country belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire. The country enjoyed a brief and patchy independence between 1917 and 1921 after the Russian Revolution, only to be subsumed into the Soviet Union by 1922.
The early years in the USSR were fraught by resistance of Ukrainian peasants to collective farms under communism, which led to Ukrainians being meted out some of the worst forms of brutality by Stalin, and according to some estimates, around 10 million Ukrainians perished – from famine and mass execution – under Stalin's rule. Stalin later repopulated much of Ukraine with Russians from other regions, which created the modern day diversity and mixed loyalty among Ukrainians.
Furthermore, Russia has every right to fear NATO expansion, as much as Europe is right in fearing Russian expansion. After all, US invasion of Iraq, and its more worrying adventurism in Libya, does not inspire confidence. If the US saw a communist government in a small neighbouring country like Nicaragua as so much of a threat that they funded a civil war and armed the Sandinistas, then Russia clearly has the right to see NATO presence on its West borders as an equal threat. After all, for Russia, Ukraine is a crucial transit route to the rest of Europe, and the country is also incidentally Russia's biggest market for natural gas export.
As it stands, Russia has all but received a guarantee that there will be no military response to an invasion of Ukraine. The US has however threatened crippling sanctions, including targeting Russia's top banks and financial institutions. Russia is already in discussions with China to figure out a financial mechanism to counter the effects if and when sanctions are imposed, such as increasing the volume to trade in Yuan and Rouble, so their dependence on a US-controlled global financial system is low. Putin's visit to Beijing for the Olympics could very well take on a different colour if things in Ukraine continue in the trajectory it is now on.
As for the US, it is saddled with a promise to Ukraine it can neither keep, nor back out from completely. Its domestic politics dictate that Biden appears to not be giving in to the demands of an "autocrat". Internally, many US policymakers accept the fact that Ukraine may very well never become a part of NATO, and US officials in 2021 reportedly told the Ukrainian government that NATO membership was unlikely to happen even in a decade. That said, it would be political suicide for any US government to simply give in to Russia.
A possible solution to the impasse, ironically, is if Ukraine seize back its right to self-determination, which it in some ways gave up in 1994 in the hopes of outsourcing their defence. Its people and its leaders need to realise that history and geography has placed the country at a juncture where outside forces would always find it beneficial to tinker with their fate.
As Stephen M Walt, Robert and Renee Belfer write in the Foreign Policy: "The best hope for a peaceful resolution of this unhappy mess is for the Ukrainian people and their leaders to realise that having Russia and the West fight over which side ultimately gains Kyiv's allegiance is going to be a disaster for their country. Ukraine should take the initiative and announce it intends to operate as a neutral country that will not join any military alliance. It should formally pledge not to become a member of NATO or join the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization."