Understanding Ukraine

Ukraine captured world attention when Russia invaded in February. Here, an FSJ Q&A with a former ambassador to Ukraine sheds light on this vexing international crisis.


What led to Putin’s invasion?

Vladimir Putin insists that Ukraine is not really sovereign nor even a nation but is actually just a wayward part of Russia that he is determined to reabsorb. Ukraine’s resolute march toward Europe terrifies Putin. When, in 2014, the Russia-leaning then–Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was driven from office, leaving Ukraine free to sign an association agreement with the European Union, Putin invaded Ukraine, first in Crimea, then in Donbas. With Russian troops poised to massacre surrounded Ukrainian army units, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed agreements in 2015 that the Russians thought would give the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts the ability to block Ukraine’s integration into Europe. The Ukrainians frustrated this plan, and on Feb. 24, 2022, Putin invaded. One way or another, he is determined to dominate Ukraine. Ukrainians are determined—and willing to fight and die to ensure—that it won’t happen. We’ll see who cares more about Ukraine: Russians or Ukrainians. I know which I’ll bet on.

What’s the historical perspective on Ukraine’s national identity?

Contrary to Putin’s distorted view of history, Ukraine’s origins predate Russia’s. Slavic people established Kyivan Rus in the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries. In the center of Kyiv, the golden-domed St. Sophia Cathedral dates back to 1057. At that time, Moscow was a forest. Ukrainians are proud of their history, language, culture, literature, and heroes. At the hands of Russians, they have suffered brutal oppression, discrimination, manmade famine, genocide, political purge, nuclear disaster, and now armed invasion with its atrocities and war crimes. They have been independent for 30 years and are fighting and dying to remain free. The first line of independent Ukraine’s national anthem includes this: “Ukraine is not dead yet.” They all know the words and sing them with fervor.

The United States should designate Ukraine as a major ally, even as Ukraine continues to apply and work toward NATO membership.

Why is U.S. support so important?

The U.S. interest is clear: Ukraine must win this war. First, Ukraine is fighting for its freedom and independence, indeed its very existence. It is fighting an autocratic, oppressive, expansionist Russia, a nation with centuries of history of imperialist wars against its neighbors. Should Russia win, European nations—NATO allies—would be directly threatened.

Second, respect for rules of international relations—sovereignty, sanctity of borders, peaceful resolution of disputes—largely kept the peace among major powers in Europe for 69 years after World War II. Russia grossly violated those principles, treaties, norms, and commitments when it invaded Ukraine in 2014. To reestablish that international order, Russia must withdraw from internationally recognized Ukrainian territory. All nations, big or small, are sovereign. No nation is more sovereign due to its size. Nations should not have to live in fear of invasion from their neighbors. Enforcing that principle, as an international coalition did when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, will make the world more secure.

We Americans support our diplomats and our armed forces—the soldiers, sailors, marines, and pilots—who defend our nation and protect our security overseas. They are on the front lines. In the same way, Americans should support Ukraine; it is on the front line for democracy and the West.

Is there a diplomatic solution to the war?

When the time is right, there might be—although if the Russians stage sham referenda in an attempt to annex Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, no negotiations will be possible. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that he’d be willing to sit down with President Putin when Russian forces have pulled back at least to their positions on Feb. 23. Any decision to negotiate will have to be made by Ukrainians and President Zelenskyy, not by Americans or Europeans. Some Europeans and Americans are pushing Ukraine to agree to a cease-fire to end the fighting. Some go further and urge the Ukrainians to concede some territory to Russia to facilitate a peace treaty. I think this is wrong.

A cease-fire now would reward the Russians for their illegal invasion. It would condemn millions of Ukrainians to live under Russian occupation. It would prohibit Ukraine from mounting a counteroffensive to push the Russians out of their country, as they did early in the war in the north. The Russians started their 2014 invasion of Ukraine in Crimea, then in Donbas. They continued this year. If a cease-fire would allow them to stay in the part of Ukraine they now occupy, they would not stop there. Putin has made clear his intent to dominate all of Ukraine.

What should the United States do now?

Chad Blevins

In preparation for the time President Zelenskyy decides to negotiate, the United States should provide Ukraine with military, financial, and political support to increase the Ukrainian leverage in the talks.

Militarily, we should accelerate dramatically the flow of heavy weapons to Ukraine, including high-altitude anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapons, long-range rocket artillery, and massive quantities of ammunition. We should provide fuel for tanks and aircraft, body armor and first aid kits for soldiers, training, and intelligence. This will enable Ukraine to regain the momentum and push the Russians back toward their own country.

Equally important will be financial support. The Russians are killing civilians. They are destroying apartments, roads, bridges, hospitals, factories, farms, and ports. The Ukrainian economy is being cut in half. Tax revenues are way down. We should provide budgetary support so the Ukrainian government can pay its soldiers and government workers. Beyond this immediate support, we must contribute to a massive reconstruction effort. A major part of this short- and longer-term financing should come from the $300 billion in Russian central bank reserves that are held in the banks of the Group of Seven countries.

Politically, there is a lot the United States can do. First, we should commit to Ukrainian security in the face of the long-term Russian threat of invasion. Ukrainians have learned that written assurances don’t work. In 1994 they gave up the world’s thirdlargest nuclear weapons arsenal for promises from Russia (and the United States and Great Britain) that their security, sovereignty, and territorial integrity would be respected. In 2014 and further in 2022, the Russians totally violated that commitment. Ukrainian security could be assured by NATO membership—indeed, NATO leaders promised in 2008 that Ukraine would someday be a member—but that probably won’t happen soon.

President Biden said that the U.S. goal was for “a democratic, independent, sovereign, and prosperous Ukraine with the means to deter and defend itself from further aggression” (emphasis added). He could accomplish that by committing to provide Ukraine with state-of-the-art weapons, now and in the future, that would deter Russia from further invasion. This is how the United States assures Israeli security—not through a mutual defense treaty, but in the form of a bilateral memorandum of understanding (MOU) that commits steady funding for advanced weapons over time. The current version of that MOU commits the United States to provide Israel $38 billion for weapons over 10 years.

Another lesson from the U.S.-Israel relationship is the value of Israel’s status as a major U.S. ally. The United States should designate Ukraine as a major ally, even as Ukraine continues to apply and work toward NATO membership. For now, being a major non-NATO ally would confer political status that would send a message to Moscow.

Second, the United States should continue to lead the international coalition it has assembled to support Ukrainian sovereignty and oppose Russian aggression. This coalition—consisting of North American, European, and Far Eastern democracies that account for half of the world’s economic output—has united to impose sanctions on Russia, provide financial and military assistance to Ukraine, and hold Russia accountable for its crimes.

Ukrainians will not cede their territory to Russia and will work to regain it, no matter how long that takes.

On negotiations, the United States needs to reaffirm our view that Ukraine should enter negotiations only when Ukrainians decide the time is right. The timing, venue, and substance of any negotiations are up to Ukraine, not anyone else. That said, the United States should be willing to negotiate with Russia—separate from, but possibly in parallel with, Ukrainian-Russian talks—on reciprocal steps that would improve the security of both the United States and Russia. This could include discussions on the placement of nuclear weapons, for example, or with NATO on transparency of military exercises in Europe and European Russia.

Finally, the United States should reinforce Ukrainians politically as they consider negotiations by stating the U.S. intention to keep economic sanctions and export controls on Russia in place, at least until Moscow withdraws completely from Ukraine’s internationally recognized territory, including Crimea and Donbas.

What could a peace look like?

The Ukrainians have made clear that a sustainable, enduring peace is not possible until Russia withdraws from sovereign, internationally recognized Ukrainian territory. If Putin tries to occupy parts of Ukraine before an agreement, his occupation forces will suffer grievously. Russian forces and proxies are already getting a taste of partisan warfare in currently occupied Kherson.

Peace could come in stages. Once Russian forces are pushed back to dispositions of Feb. 23, negotiations can begin. President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people will decide what to agree on with the Russians. If those negotiations do not yield a final peace treaty—and the Ukrainians would be justified in not putting much faith in any document signed with the Russians, as discussed above—there are precedents for how free Ukraine could develop: West Germany and South Korea. Yes, the analogies are inexact; U.S. forces guaranteed West German and South Korean security while they developed strong economies and democracies. But free Ukraine, with some form of security guarantee from the United States and the West, could develop economically and democratically, even while it worked over time to regain its territories. Ukrainians will not cede their territory to Russia and will work to regain it, no matter how long that takes.

What about NATO expansion?

Let me say four things about NATO expansion. First, if NATO had not admitted Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary in the 1990s and Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania after that, Russia would be invading them today instead of Ukraine.

Second, if NATO had accepted Ukraine and Georgia’s applications for membership action plans in 2008, Russia would not have invaded Georgia four months later, or Ukraine six years later and today.

Third, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has finally made clear to the world, especially formerly neutral Finland and Sweden, the nature of Russian tendencies over the centuries—autocratic, oppressive, aggressive, expansionist, sometimes cruel, and often criminal. Nations that live next to such a country need collective security.

Fourth, after the current war ends—or, as the Ukrainians say, after the victory—Ukraine will need some way to deter another Russian invasion, some way to frustrate Putin’s obsession with Ukraine. The best way would be NATO membership. In the meantime, the commitment to give Ukraine the means to defend itself, to deter another invasion, perhaps along the lines I outline above, will be necessary.

What is the value added of having U.S. diplomats on the ground in Ukraine?

As all readers of The Foreign Service Journal know well, there is no substitute for face-to-face dialogue and representation, especially during a war. While everyone understands that the security and safety of U.S. diplomats are important, everyone was pleased with the decision to return the U.S. embassy to Kyiv.

Ambassador Bridget A. Brink and her (still small but growing) team of Americans, supported by the superb and crucial Ukrainian embassy staff, can now coordinate directly with the Ukrainian government on all aspects of U.S. support for Ukraine’s fight against the Russians. Ukrainian government officials can now discuss directly with U.S. officials how that support can be more effective. The interagency policy process in Washington can now be better informed about Ukrainian policies, actions, attitudes, and recommendations. Ambassador Brink, as the most senior official in the U.S. government whose full-time responsibility is U.S. policy toward Ukraine, can now make her recommendations based on daily, firsthand information.

William B. Taylor is vice president for Russia and Europe at the United States Institute of Peace. He served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine (2006-2009) and as chargé d’affaires at Embassy Kyiv in 2019. He also served in Kabul, Baghdad, Jerusalem, USNATO, and in the U.S. Army in Vietnam and Germany.