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Ukraine Is Not Russia’s Client State

Orest Steciw (President, League of Ukrainian Canadians)

“The Obama Doctrine” published recently by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic Magazine will likely launch many dissertations and research papers, given its significant analysis of America’s foreign policy under the leadership of President Barack Obama. Obama’s comments throughout the article give us a better insight into the decision-making process of the White House and Washington’s establishment regarding the use of foreign policy tools. While the article primarily concentrates on Obama’s handling of the crisis in the Middle East and the rise of ISIS, it provides sufficient amount of information about America’s policy towards Eastern Europe, more specifically the current crisis provoked by Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Barack Obama and Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko

U.S. President Barack Obama and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko shake hands during the luncheon at the United Nations General Assembly in New York September 28, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The League of Ukrainian Canadians strongly emphasizes the inaccuracy of President Obama’s reference to Ukraine as a “client state”. According to Obama, “Putin acted in Ukraine in response to a client state that was about to slip out of his grasp.” Should President Obama consider the history of Eastern Europe more thoroughly, he probably would not have made such a comment. Ukraine’s complex history of co-existence with Russia and resistance to Russia’s dominance in the region dates back to the Mongol invasion of Kievan Rus. Obama’s comment seems especially inappropriate after what Ukraine has gone through in the last two years, following the Revolution of Dignity, which took away the lives of the Heavenly Hundred and thousands of others who defend European values today in eastern Ukraine.

In the words of the four-star American General (Ret.) Wesley Clark, “Today Ukraine is the frontier of Western civilization.” In order to understand the current Russo-Ukrainian conflict, one has to realize that today’s Ukraine is indeed defending the values promoted by the West. Following the ousting of former President Yanukovych and the election of a new pro-European government, Ukraine has been significantly transformed in every sphere. Today’s Ukraine has a functioning army, a newly created police force, and is currently engaged in the reforming of the judicial system and curbing corruption. All of these transformations would not be possible without the political will of Ukrainian politicians and support from Ukraine’s allies. For President Obama to directly imply that Ukraine is a core Russian geopolitical interest, but not an American one, is a simplification of a complex relationship between the two states. Ukraine is not a NATO member state, but the latest polls in Ukraine suggest that the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians want to see their country join the European Union and NATO. Ukraine itself might not be a top priority of US foreign policy, but the stability of Europe should indeed be among the top security and foreign affairs priorities of the United States.

President Obama went further and said, “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.” The United States was among the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. The United States promised to guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for the third largest nuclear arsenal. Section 2 of the Budapest Memorandum explicitly states, “The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine…”

We would be too naïve to count on the United States declaring war against Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine; however, nothing prevents the US from supplying adequate arms to Ukrainian troops. Ukrainian government officials, including the President and Prime Minister, have appealed to the United States and other Western states multiple times asking them for military defensive weapons. The United States not only refused to provide those weapons, but also went further and prevented other NATO countries from helping Ukraine militarily. “The idea that talking tough or engaging in some military action…is somehow going to influence the decision-making of Russia…is contrary to all the evidence we have seen over the last 50 years,” suggests President Obama. Unfortunately, he does not provide strong evidence to back up his claim. On the contrary, during his recent visit to Ottawa and Washington, Andriy Parubiy, the First Vice-Speaker of Ukraine’s parliament, stressed the importance of comprehending the fact that, “Putin understands only the language of force in international relations.”

We do not ask the United States to go to war with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, but we do appeal to President Obama to be accurate in his assessment of Ukraine’s history, and hope sincerely that the United States will continue to defend aspiring young democracies like Ukraine. Ukraine and other Eastern European states like Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia remember their tragic histories very well. These countries have paid a very high price in blood in the XX century to achieve freedom and finally enjoy statehood.

Today Vladimir Putin’s Russia wants to reverse the clock and recreate the “evil empire.” Ukraine and other Eastern European states need the support of their Western allies as never before – including the support of the President of the United States. The West’s real strength in supporting Ukraine is standing up for what is right, as well as defending fundamental principles when they are violated.

Mar 24, 2016 – Media Release

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