By Michael Saltz
For Capital Region Independent Media
The other night, a friend of mine sent a message he’d received from a Ukrainian friend who has family living in Ukraine. Why, she asked, was the West not living up to its promises, citing the Budapest Memorandum. Before answering her, he asked my opinion. What follows is an edited version of my response.
I am sure that no one in Ukraine wants to hear hairsplitting over the definition of words, but that is one of the things required in thinking about the Budapest Memorandum, an agreement signed in 1994 when Boris Yeltsin was Russia’s president. Regardless of what it said regarding the USSR’s nuclear weapons based in Ukraine after the collapse of the Communist state, it never guaranteed that the U.S. and NATO would treat a Russian attack on Ukraine as an attack on NATO and therefore come to the armed defense of Ukraine. Instead, the Memorandum contained assurances of NATO and American support if Ukraine was attacked. There is a significant difference between “guarantee” and “assurance.”
This is unlike NATO’s Article 5, which states that an attack on one member state is considered an attack on all and guarantees a military response by all members.
In the Budapest Memorandum, the nature of support in an attack is not defined. And there is certainly no guarantee of military support. So it’s not that armed support is prohibited, just that it is not guaranteed.
Agreements between states exist until they don’t. For example, during the Trump administration, the U.S. unilaterally abandoned several accords, including formal treaties. Off the top of my head, several come to mind: The Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Iran nuclear agreement, the Open Skies agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Paris climate agreement, among others.
In 2014, when attacking Crimea, Russia abandoned the Memorandum. Putin said that the West had breached the agreement even though it, like much that Putin says, was nonsense.
Nonetheless, the NATO countries have poured billions of dollars of aid, including military assistance, into the country. They have tried to help root out corruption, a significant factor in Ukraine and one that holds back its democracy as it evolves. And, before the current Russian attack, arms have poured into Ukraine to help it fight an insurgency against Russian occupation or a puppet government.
New sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its NATO partners will do significant harm to the Russian economy and the willingness of the people of Russia to support Putin’s war. It is expected that further sanctions will be imposed by the West. The Western allies are fulfilling their assurances to support resistance to Russian aggression. That support has a negative economic impact on the West, so it is not as though the West is not willing to bear some pain to help Ukrainians, although that pain is not lethal.
Will that be enough to stop the Russians? Will Ukraine turn into another Afghanistan for Russia as it was for the U.S.? Only time will tell.
One must also remember that the Ukrainians have not been of one consistent voice since 1991, when it split from the USSR. It first sought to align itself with NATO and the West and then backed out of that agreement and aligned itself more closely with Russia. And then came the “Revolution of Dignity,” resulting in a return to its Western tilt.
Of course, Ukraine was a factor in the Trump administration. Paul Manafort and others in the Trump camp were heavily involved in Ukraine and aligned with the pro-Russian oligarchs. And Trump himself was far more interested in aligning his interests with Russia than with Ukraine or the Western democracies. Ukraine was at the heart of Trump’s first impeachment, as I’m sure you remember. And Trump made a concerted effort to throw NATO into disarray, stopping short of withdrawing from the pact.
We should not forget that there is a long and complicated history of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine. Consider just the 20th century. In the early 1930s, the USSR deliberately created a famine in Ukraine that killed millions of people. So it’s no surprise that many Ukrainians supported Hitler’s attack on Russia. But, on the other hand, there is nothing that is forgivable in the participation by the Ukrainian militia members during the war in the wide-scale murdering of Jewish men, women and children by roving SS killing squads. Both sides had much to atone for.
So why did Putin attack Ukraine now?
It is my personal belief that the timing of Putin’s attack on Ukraine was determined before Biden won the election. Putin thought Trump would win re-election and would be in firm control of the U.S. government and military by now. At best, NATO would be without strong U.S. leadership and in disarray because no Western country trusted Trump. So Putin thought he would have a free hand in Ukraine.
Today, Trump and followers like Tucker Carlson support Putin’s territorial ambitions. As it is, Biden won the election, and Putin decided to go ahead with his plans anyway because there was no guarantee that waiting longer would be helpful to him. And Putin’s obsession about restoring Russia to the same territorial control and status it held as the USSR has not abated. Nor has his hostility toward the West. Destabilizing Western democracies was at the heart of Soviet foreign policy, and it is no different under Putin. The ideology may be different, but the goals are similar.
Finally, we must consider the possibility of nuclear war. The direct engagement of American and/or NATO forces with the Russian army is not as simple as saying that we should come to the military aid of Ukraine. Once the shooting starts, war’s evolution is unpredictable. When there are four nuclear powers involved — the U.S., Britain, France and Russia — there is no telling what one or the other might do if they think themselves losing the war.
At what point does Nixon’s Mutually Assured Destruction — MAD — become madness? No one really knows. And that is one reason why the word “assurance” was in the Budapest Memorandum and not “guarantee.”
Of course, no one knows what Putin will do next. If successful in Ukraine (however he defines success), will he start in on the Baltic countries, which, you may recall, have significant ethnic Russian populations, a significant bone of contention when they left the USSR? All I know is that Lithuanian friends who were part of the government after Lithuania gained independence are afraid of exactly that.
So I hope that answers your question. I don’t imagine that it will be of any comfort to your friend. She and her country are in a terrible time no matter how things evolve. But the simple fact is that the Western countries are, in fact, doing what they said they would do. It’s not what Ukrainians would hope for, but they will have to fight for what they want without direct Western military help. And as we all know, war is not calm, rational and reasoned. It is madness itself.
Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now retired senior producer for what is now called “PBS Newshour.” He resides in Hillsdale, in Columbia County.