Over the past year, no event has defined US-Ukraine relations more than the phone call between US President Donald Trump and Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky that led to Trump’s impeachment.
Two articles of impeachment were brought against President Trump for his abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. They were filed because President Trump supposedly withheld military aid from Ukraine to coerce Zelensky to investigate political opponent Joe Biden and denied Congressional subpoenas afterward.
Despite Trump’s acquittal by the Senate this past Thursday, these articles have and will continue to have far-reaching implications for American foreign policy, in part because of the historical context surrounding US-Ukraine relations.
Ukraine became and was recognized by the United States as an independent state in 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Around that time, one of the first important foreign policy objectives the US pursued in Ukraine was the removal of its nuclear weapons. During the dissolution of the Soviet Union, nuclear warheads and delivery systems were scattered across four countries: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine. But, while the Russian Federation quickly negotiated removal policies with Belarus and Kazakhstan, Russian negotiations with Ukraine did not conclude even two years after they started. Instead, President Clinton, in his first presidential term, had to arrange for trilateral talks.
These talks eventually culminated in the Trilateral Statement and Annex, signed on January 14, 1994, which saw Ukraine transfer its nuclear warheads in exchange for security promises from the US and Russia. After denuclearization was completed, further promises for security were offered by both the US and UK to Ukraine, shaping its global perception. For the first time after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Ukraine was viewed as a non-threatening, relatively cooperative democratic nation by a world wary of communist ideology.
This opened up further opportunities for collaboration with the US and Europe. Even today, many stress the importance of Ukraine joining NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization).
And while Ukraine has witnessed a few setbacks, it has largely functioned as a democracy since. As a case in point, in 2004, the Ukranian presidential election between Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Yushchenko was claimed to be rigged in Yanukovych’s favor. Both the EU and the US refused to accept the election, and peaceful demonstrations labeled the Orange Revolution led to a re-vote and Yushchenko’s victory.
Ukraine has emerged as an important sphere of influence against Russia in the 21st century. The role US military aid plays cannot be understated either: in particular, the US government has provided more than 1.6 billion in security assistance to Ukraine after Russia annexed Ukranian territory Crimea. The Crimea annexation, largely viewed as illegal by the United Nations, demonstrates the political rift between the US and Russia that the Cold War left behind.
The United States transfers everything from medical resources to radar systems capable of tracking artillery to Ukraine. And while military funding may not be the most useful in our modern age, they are at least symbolic. By using military aid to Ukraine as leverage, President Trump implicitly dismissed the importance of protecting an emerging democracy.
More than anything, President Trump’s recent actions against Ukraine are significant because of how they serve to discredit US leadership among its Western allies and weaken the counter-Russian strategy — something that has been a central part of American foreign policy for the last three decades. For the first time in thirty years, the West may just find itself without an ideological leader.