Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

A Brief, Painful History of Ukraine

And how it ended up at the center of the scandal that could lead to Trump's impeachment.
October 11, 2019
A Brief, Painful History of Ukraine
(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)


Ukraine seemingly burst into our distracted national consciousness overnight with the revelations about Donald Trump’s phone call with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Hunter Biden’s involvement with the Ukrainian energy conglomerate, Burisma. Other than the brief time in 2014 when Ukraine garnered headlines for its civil war with Russian-leaning separatists in the Donbas and Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, the Eastern European nation has rarely captured the attention of the proverbial “man on the street.”

It’s unfortunate because Ukraine has the singular distinction of being the only nation from among the founding republics of the former Soviet Union that has held meaningful elections—albeit flawed at times—and has seen a transfer of power from one president to another. However, it has not always been the most perfectly peaceful and bloodless transition from one administration to the next.

Ukraine has been ruled by five different presidents, all but one of whom either obeyed constitutional restrictions about running for a third term and stepped aside or were voted out of office. But in the 18 years I’ve been living in Ukraine, I’ve also seen and lived through two revolutions, tumultuous elections and other political upheavals, disastrous inflation and manipulation of currency exchange rates, previously kleptocratic governments and—last but not least—the 2014 invasion by Russia.

If there were an award for managing to survive endless attempts by its own leaders (plus those in the Kremlin) to turn this country into a failed state, Ukraine would certainly be in the running for a gold medal. Understanding that history, and the role the United States has played (or declined to play) is key to understanding how we’ve arrived at where we are today.

The idea that “character can be forged by fire” applies to nations as well as people. The country has managed to stay in one piece despite these constant assaults and has emerged as a stronger and more unified entity. The economy has improved steadily (usually in spite of politicians rather than because of them) and the quality of life is far better in many ways than it was at the turn of the century.

These realities have turned Ukraine into what is sometimes a haven for those fleeing its adjacent dictatorships. Former Russian political figures out of favor, Belarusian human rights campaigners, journalists afraid of reprisals from Vladimir Putin’s secret police, and countless others have gravitated to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

They, however, are a small number compared to the 1.5 million who have fled the Russian invasions of the eastern Donbas region and the occupation of the Crimea. About 13,000 people have been killed in the Donbas conflict in the past five years, including the nearly 300 who perished in July 2014 when a 9M38M1 missile from a Russian Buk-M1/SA-11 air defense battery shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. Russia trying to destroy the Ukrainian state is an old story, and it is not one that began with the 2014 invasions and occupation by Putin’s military.

From the very day that the nation became an independent nation it was dead center in the gunsights of the Kremlin’s intelligence services, which sought to make sure Ukraine would be always be weak, prostrate and unstable. Thereby it would be perennially unsuitable for membership in either the EU or the NATO alliance.

Moscow’s aim, as one now-retired Ukrainian intelligence official said at the time, “was to make Ukraine some place next door where they could do all of their dirty business, but not be tainted by it. Russia wants this country to be some conveniently pliant version of Colombia in the middle of Europe and for it to always be under their control.”

Foremost among those working toward this goal was the secret police apparatus that replaced the Soviet-era KGB intelligence service—also known as Vladimir Putin’s alma mater. Classified Russian intelligence service documents obtained in the early 1990s spoke openly about Moscow’s strategy of “strangling Ukraine with gas.” This in reference to Ukraine’s near-total dependence on Russia for natural gas supplies. The Russian intention was and remains to use its gas pipelines to maximum possible leverage—to include a total veto—on any Ukrainian intentions to move out of Russia’s orbit and into NATO’s.

The 2014 Euromaidan revolution changed this. It deposed a pro-Russian, anti-EU integration president and brought a Western-leaning government to power in Ukraine, which deviated from that script that Moscow had written for the country long ago.

This prompted Russia to become the first nation in Europe since the 1930s to actually seize another’s territory. Ukraine’s plight then generated a new sense of urgency on the part of Washington’s defense policy makers. Unfortunately, that urgency was not shared by the Obama administration—neither before nor after the Russian invasion.

Before Russia’s acts of war against Ukraine, Washington had not been exporting any weaponry to the nation. But even prior to the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. had been providing training programs and other military assistance for years. Unfortunately for the Ukrainian armed forces, these efforts were effectively scuttled by the local U.S. Embassy in Kiev Office of Defense Cooperation (ODC) during Obama’s second term.

This closed down what had been a promising effort to increase the ability of Kiev’s military to interface with NATO member armed forces. Had these programs continued, the Ukrainian military might have been more prepared for the Russian invasion.

Dr. Phillip Karber, a former Pentagon official and later the director of a Washington think-tank dedicated to analysing Russian and Chinese military strategy, became deeply involved in Ukrainian efforts to raise awareness of the importance of pushing back Russia’s aggression against its former vassal state. He joined with the late Sen. John McCain and others who advocated actual U.S. weaponry being sent to the beleaguered state after Russia’s incursions in 2014.

The Obama White House was having none of it. Congressional legislation authorizing funds to be spent on arming Ukraine were either slow-rolled or just ignored. Susan Rice, the national security adviser at the time, was accused by more than one McCain confidant of spiking any request for military assistance to Kiev and “generally micromanaging the Pentagon.”

Looking back on the decision by the ODC to cut off training programs for the Ukrainian military BEFORE the Russian invasion – and then refusing to export weaponry to Ukraine post-invasion —had Karber commenting in disdain “if I did not know better I would think there were paid Russian agents in charge of U.S. policy with regard to Ukraine.”

This sad chain of events is how Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, became involved in Ukraine in the first place. Obama, Rice, and Secretary of State John Kerry were all “too busy” on what they deemed far more important matters. (This gives you some idea of just how low on the priority list the act of Russia invading its neighbours was to the Obama White House.)

The Ukraine account was given to Biden, and his involvement in the country, which included his son being given a seat on the board of one of the largest energy companies, Burisma, is by now a well-known story.

Ukraine’s government shares some measure of the blame for their situation. From the 1990s and up to 2014, successive administrations refused to hire lobbyists to professionally advocate for their interests in Washington. For some time, the country has needed to articulate a sense of its relevance and importance to the Atlantic alliance, but it has done little to create that narrative. Which is one reason why the ODC heads and other personnel sent to Ukraine to oversee military-to-military ties have not always been those who came off the U.S. armed forces’ A-list.

And so American political operatives on both sides—first former U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort and later Biden—have seen the country more as a place where there is an opportunity to make money. This as opposed to looking at how it can be one of the nations in concert with the U.S. that is standing up to an increasingly belligerent Russia.

Poland is one of America’s strongest allies in the region and has benefitted from the good relations between Trump and its president, Andrzej Duda—relations that Obama, sadly, never really attempted to cultivate. It is also now the lynchpin in the NATO alliance and the frontline nation that borders Russia. The country is in engaged in a huge buying spree of new weaponry, much of it from the U.S., to bolster its defenses.

However, any Polish defense expert I have spoken to in years of spending countless weeks and months in that country will tell you that “you cannot have a strong, secure Poland—and by extension a strong and secure NATO —if our neighbor in Ukraine is kept weak and divided and is always being undermined by Russia.”

Karber puts the issue in an even clearer context when he reminds policy makers that “every trained-up and properly equipped Ukrainian soldier is one less American serviceman we have to send to Europe to stand a post. It means one less U.S. soldier needed to keep the Russians from pushing out further and taking more territory.”

A worrying sign occurred on the eve of October 1, when it was reported that Zelenskyy was considering a proposal for the “Steinmeier Formula,” named after Germany’s former foreign minister and now ceremonial president. If approved from the Ukrainian side, the agreement would require Kiev and Moscow to withdraw all forces from the Donbas, the withdrawal would be monitored and validated by the OSCE Mission to Ukraine and then elections would be held in these two eastern regions.

However, Zelenskyy stated the next day that the “’Steinmeier formula’ should be incorporated in a new law on special status [the law on special provisions of local self-government in certain districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions], which is not ready yet.”

The concern is that this German-developed plan may be imposed on Kiev as the EU “making the Ukraine problem go away without upsetting Putin,” in the words of one NATO intelligence official, but implementing a less than elegant solution. It could end up that these territories are ceded to Russian control—by default if not by design. Unfortunately, in the present circumstances no one in Washington would be willing to push back against this German position.

It’s unfortunate that Donald Trump’s behavior has put Ukraine in the middle of a scandal that could lead to his impeachment and consume our attention for the next several months. It’s also a somewhat unsurprising culmination of years of neglect by multiple White House administrations. In a better world, we’d be investigating the degree to which past administrations have abrogated—or given lip service to at best—the responsibility of making the nation a closer and more trusted ally of Washington.

If the conversation ever shifts to that topic—if policy toward Ukraine ever becomes more seriously focused on how it can work with the U.S. to keep Russian actions from become more expansionist and combustible than they already are—then I will know the conversation is on the right track.

Reuben Johnson

Reuben F. Johnson is a defense technology analyst and correspondent for Breaking Defense and was based in Kyiv for two decades prior to the Russian invasion. He is currently based in Warsaw.