In November 2013, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was weighing competing aid and affiliation packages from the EU and Russia. The total value of the Russian package was over 20 times more generous: $15 to 20 billion in loans, aid, and discounted fuel, all largely unconditional. The EU package contained fewer than $1 billion in loans, conditioned on extraordinary government reforms and, onerously, a promise to reject a partnership with Russia.
Yanukovych’s decision to choose the Russian deal and spurn the EU – which set off the Euromaidan protests, and led ultimately to his ouster – was entirely reasonable. The EU has been miserly in its policies toward poorer member countries, such as Greece, Spain and Portugal. It’s lack of generosity toward Ukraine was typical. And countries like Ukraine – lacking established state or private institutions, and with economies rife with corruption and inefficiency – would do better over the short- and medium-term with closer economic ties to Russia instead. (Ukrainian exports are not likely to thrive on EU markets compared to the Russian market; EU capital is less likely to be invested in Ukraine than is Russian capital.)
The legality of Yanukovych’s removal from office is also fairly questioned. At a minimum, Russia’s refusal to recognize the newly constituted Ukrainian government is reasonable, self-serving though it may be. And compared to 20th century US dealings in Latin America, Russian aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine has been restrained. Within its own hemisphere, the US has overthrown numerous governments – directly or through proxies – simply because the “wrong” leadership came to power. The US only came to tolerate the likes of Chavez after the USSR was vanquished. Recent US restraint is not well attributed to a newfound pluralism – rather, antagonistic governments in the Americas no longer threaten US security. Russia, by comparison, fairly perceives its own security to be worse now than it has been for more than 20 years.
These observations are not offered to justify Russian aggression in Ukraine, but rather to show how it fits into a larger pattern, common to both Russia and the US. During the Cold War, the US was careful not to push its sphere too far east – Austria and Finland didnt even join the EU until after the USSR broke up; and neither have joined NATO. Undeniably, the Cold War reduced Russia to a regional power – however Russia and the US differ on the extent of Russia’s sphere today. The US, by its actions, would seem to regard Russia’s sphere as extending no farther than its own borders – particularly after Russia remained (weirdly) quiet through the accession into NATO of the Baltics, which were once part of the USSR.
There is, however, a big difference between the Baltics and Ukraine, and the conflict today is in part attributable to a US failure to recognize as much. Not only is Ukraine seven times more populous, but its economy is far more integrated with Russia’s, and their histories are much more closely intertwined.
From the standpoint of liberalism, people have a right to choose their government, and so Russia can fairly question the legality of Yanukyovich’s removal from office, and the legitimacy of his successor. However borders must be respected, and thus Russia’s incursion into Ukraine cannot be tolerated by the West, particularly under the terms of the Budapest Memorandum (excerpted below). Unfortunately, the US lacks the moral standing to make this argument, because, by its own actions, it has legitimized subversion and outright invasion of nearby states to advance its own security.
After the USSR broke up, its nuclear weapons apparatus was strewn across several of the newly independent states that emerged. Ukraine, which declared independence in 1989, “inherited” perhaps one-third of the arsenal, including warheads and ICBMs, as well as development and assembly plants. In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine agreed to transfer all nuclear weapons and technology to Russia, and joined the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, in exchange for the certain security assurances. Here’s an excerpt from that agreement (emphasis supplied):
1. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine;
2. 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, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations;