By Mykhailo Samus
US President Donald Trump is poised to make one of the gravest errors a statesman can make – disregarding history.
Back in 1991, then-president George H. W. Bush visited Ukraine, where he committed arguably the most serious geopolitical blunder of the late Cold War era. In a speech to the Ukrainian parliament, Bush had an opportunity to lay out a vision for a new kind of Marshall Plan for Ukraine and other Soviet republics seeking to break free of Kremlin control. Instead, he urged Ukraine to abandon its independence aspirations and remain in a revamped Soviet Union.
Bush’s remarks in Kiev – delivered only a few weeks before a failed coup attempt would go on to spark the disintegration of the Soviet Union – were derided by one American political commentator as “the Chicken Kiev speech.” It helped doom the chances for the stable development of democracy and a genuine market-based economic system in Ukraine and elsewhere in Eurasia.
These days, many in Ukraine worry about the possibility of a Chicken Kiev Redux at the hands of Trump. Officials and experts in Kiev say that Russia would benefit enormously if the United States under Trump abandons its leadership role in the democratic world. In particular, such a development would help a resurgent Russia realize its plans to restore its influence in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, and reconstruct a new-style Soviet Union.
Analysts on Ukraine actively discuss the possibility of a deal between Russia and the United States to establish new spheres of influence, under which Trump would give Russian leader Vladimir Putin a free hand in places like Syria and Ukraine, in exchange for Moscow’s withdrawal of support for Iran. “If Trump and Putin agree on freezing NATO’s expansion, it can result in Ukraine returning to Russia’s sphere of influence; Sweden and Finland will also be negatively impacted,” Erik Brattberg, a senior fellow at the McCain Institute for International Leadership told the Voice of America.
If the experts are right, the selling out of Kiev this time around would not hurt just the interests of citizens in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states, it would amount to a self-inflicted wound on liberal values.
The circumstances surrounding the Chicken Kiev speech are worth remembering. Bush traveled to Kiev in early August 1991. Before arriving in Ukraine, the American president met with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and offered the Communist leader assurances that he would support efforts to keep the Soviet Union from breaking up.
During his speech in the Ukrainian parliament, Bush called on Ukraine to endorse Gorbachev’s new union treaty, and warned “Ukrainian nationalists”” against “the suicidal course of isolation.”
“Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism,” Bush said. “They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.”
The first president of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, explained that Bush was worried a Soviet breakup could leave Ukraine in control of 176 Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles based on the Ukrainian territory. According to Kravchuk, Gorbachev succeeded in scaring Bush, telling him that if the Soviet Union collapsed, the Soviet strategic nuclear weapons system would collapse with it, and the nuclear warheads in Ukraine targeted at the United States would fall out of his control.
At the moment of the Soviet Union’s collapse, most Ukrainians genuinely felt that they were part of a new Europe, and were eager to embrace liberal reforms. Ukrainians thought that the time had finally come for them to rid themselves of 300 years of Moscow’s embrace, and build their own European state.
But for this dream to come true, they needed the West’s support. Ukrainians hoped that the West would help them get rid of the Communist legacy, and assist them in creating a law-governed state.
Unfortunately, the West, clouded by stereotypes, fallacies and fears, could not see Ukraine existing outside the Soviet Union, or outside of Russia’s sphere of influence. As a result, it withheld a helping hand at a crucial moment.
This stance, candidly expressed by Bush the Elder in 1991, continued to dominate Western thinking for the next 25 years. In the eyes of the West, Russia continued to be the center whose stable development would ensure the successful transformation of countries in the post-Soviet space.
Time has shown that the West’s approach toward Russia and the post-Soviet space failed miserably. The West mistakenly believed in a trickle-down theory of geopolitics in Eurasia. If Russia could be encouraged to transform into a law-governed state, the Western thinking went, then other post-Soviet countries would follow suit, influenced by the traditional center of the “Eurasian civilization.”
Instead of a pluralistic Russia, the United States and European Union are now faced with a state led by a former KGB officer who is aggressively standing against core liberal values. Instead of witnessing the development of new democracies in the former Soviet space, we see all sorts of corrupt, oligarchic regimes that treat their respective countries as if they were their personal ATMs.
In 1991, Bush the Elder grievously underestimated Ukraine’s significance for Europe and Russia. And Trump might be making the same mistake now.
Russia will never change, and will pose a danger to liberal values, if it continues to dominate Ukraine and other post-Soviet states. There needs to be a trickle-up geopolitical approach toward Eurasia: the focus should be on building up the smaller states around Russia into strong liberal democracies. That is the only way in which Russia might start changing its illiberal stance.
What the noted American political analyst Zbigniew Brzezinski said two decades ago unfortunately remains true today: “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire. […] However, if Moscow regains control over Ukraine, with its 52 million people and major resources, as well as access to the Black Sea, Russia automatically again regains the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state, spanning Europe and Asia.”
The new US president may think that yielding Syria and Ukraine to Russia in exchange for Moscow withdrawing its support for Iran is a simple and painless way for Washington to resolve some foreign policy challenges. But such a deal would probably succeed only in further encouraging Russian aggression.