If the U.S. were to allow Russia to gobble up the rest of Ukraine, it would tell non-nuclear states they must have nuclear arsenals because they cannot rely on the nuclear weapons powers for security. Biden's threats have been unpersuasive and so far Putin has not been persuaded. Pictured: Ukrainian soldiers on the front-line with Russia-backed separatists near Novognativka village, Donetsk region, on February 21, 2022. (Photo by Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an emotional speech on the 21st of this month, made it clear that he believes Ukraine is a part of Russia.
U.S. President Joe Biden must now demand that Moscow withdraw its forces from all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea and Donbas. The Kremlin has, among other things, violated the assurances it gave Kyiv in the Budapest Memorandum. Biden, however, has so far shown little inclination to hold Russia to its promises.
In December 1994, the United States, Great Britain, Russia and Ukraine signed the Memorandum on Security Assurances in Connection with Ukraine's Accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, more commonly known as the Budapest Memorandum.
In that document, the three parties made six commitments to Ukraine. In the most important of the pledges, they stated that they "reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the CSCE Final Act, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine."
"Some have argued that, since the United States did not invade Ukraine, it abided by its Budapest Memorandum commitments," wrote Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution in 2019. "True, in a narrow sense. However, when negotiating the security assurances, U.S. officials told their Ukrainian counterparts that, were Russia to violate them, the United States would take a strong interest and respond."
To be clear, as Pifer notes, Washington did not extend a NATO-like guarantee, but the U.S. should nonetheless act vigorously, he argued, "because it said it would act if Russia violated the Budapest Memorandum."
"That was part of the price it paid in return for a drastic reduction in the nuclear threat to America," Pifer wrote. "The United States should keep its word."
Yes, the U.S. should. To induce Ukraine to give up the nuclear weapons inherited on the dissolution of the Soviet Union—Ukraine ended up with some 6,000 warheads, the world's third-largest arsenal at the time—the U.S., Great Britain, and Russia agreed to provide assurances. If Washington were to allow Russia to gobble up the rest of Ukraine, it would tell non-nuclear states they must have nuclear arsenals because they cannot rely on the nuclear weapons powers for security.
So far, the situation is not looking good for Ukraine. In 2014, Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and effectively sawed off the Donbas region. Neither the U.S. nor Britain imposed crippling costs on Russia for naked aggression.
"Boy, after this, nobody is going to give up nuclear weapons," Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania told Gatestone. As Waldron suggests, American policy toward Ukraine provides a horrible example.
This time, the situation is even worse for the former Soviet republic. Russia on February 21 recognized two breakaway regions—the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics—in Donbas and now looks set to take the rest of the country in one giant gulp.
Biden immediately sanctioned the two regions but did not impose costs on the bad actor, Russia. He has promised further measures, but only after an invasion. Moreover, his sanctions are unlikely to be so severe as to force Putin to leave Ukraine. In fact, on the 15th of this month, Biden made it clear that sanctions would be less than regime-threatening. "We do not seek to destabilize Russia," he said.
Biden's threats have been unpersuasive and so far Putin has not been persuaded.
"The Biden administration has only belatedly—and half-heartedly—undertaken measures to stop Russian aggression against Ukraine," says Waldron. "Long ago, the President should have given heavy weapons to Kyiv. And he has not substantially reinforced Europe."
Since the Cold War, American policy toward Russia has been premised on the notion that a weak Russia was more of a threat to the U.S. than a strong one. As a result of that assessment, Putin has not had to face an America willing to use power to enforce norms.
Whatever the merits of Washington's tolerant and indulgent approach may have been—I think it was horribly misguided—Putin used this latitude to break apart neighbors and redraw the map of Europe and the Caucasus region with force. It is now time for the United States, to remember the promises made—those in writing and those made informally.
Putin, after all, will not stop at Ukraine.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China, a Gatestone Institute distinguished senior fellow, and a member of its Advisory Board.