There are growing worries that the next aid package to Ukraine will not be approved before Congress breaks for the Christmas recess. President Joe Biden and other senior administration officials have repeatedly warned that such a failure would seriously hamper Ukraine’s ability to sustain its fight against Russian aggression. President Volodymyr Zelensky is on his way to Washington to meet with President Biden and Congressional leaders on Dec. 12 in a desperate attempt to secure the vital support that his country needs.
Increasing numbers of Americans, including nearly half of Republicans, now say that the U.S. is providing too much aid to Ukraine, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. Since the war began in February 2022, American support for Ukraine has largely been viewed not as the obligation that it is, but rather in terms of our national interest. To many Americans, supporting Ukraine’s war effort is merely an extension of the global contest between democracy and autocracy. And to some extent, President Biden himself has consistently framed the war in those terms.
In 1994, the U.S., the U.K., Russia, and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum, which led to Ukraine giving up its stockpile of nuclear weapons. In exchange for sending those weapons to Russia as part of the nuclear nonproliferation effort following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the three countries provided certain security assurances to Ukraine. Among the assurances was a commitment by the three signatories to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”
It has been widely reported that the Ukrainians, given their turbulent history with Russia, were extremely reluctant to sign such an agreement. Ukraine had the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world at the time, and its leaders considered that to be a vital means of protection against their belligerent neighbor. They knew very well that they would be leaving themselves highly vulnerable to future Russian attacks if they were to give it up.
In a March 2022 Wall Street Journal article, George Bogden extensively detailed the intense pressure that both the Bush Sr. and Clinton administrations exerted on Ukraine’s leaders during the negotiations. According to Bogden, immediately after the agreement was signed in December 1994, Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine’s first president, had a pit in his stomach. President Kravchuk reportedly said that “If tomorrow Russia goes into Crimea, no one will raise an eyebrow.”
Former President Bill Clinton has admitted that he regrets having contributed to bring about the situation that Ukraine finds itself in today. He agrees that if Ukraine still had its nuclear weapons, Russia would think twice about launching any attack on the country.
To his credit, President Biden has done an excellent job of maintaining the firm stand he took against Russia at the beginning of the war. He has worked tirelessly to keep the Western alliance unified in its support of Ukraine. But his Ukraine policy has had two major flaws.
First, he has been too slow to deliver the types and quantities of weapons that Ukraine needed to make quick progress on the battlefield. By initially limiting supplies to short-range weapons, he allowed Russian forces time and space to fortify their positions and mine large tracts of Ukrainian lands. That has seriously undermined the much-heralded Ukrainian counter-offensive. By providing ammunition in drips, he has needlessly prolonged the war, leading to too many Ukrainian deaths that could have been avoided.
Second, his failure to address the nation to clearly explain to Americans why the U.S. has an obligation to defend Ukraine is extremely disappointing. In online comments about articles related to the war, one finds large numbers of Americans who say they don’t understand why we are spending billions of dollars on Ukraine. To most, the Russia-Ukraine war is none of our business. Even Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, has called the war a “territorial dispute” and not a vital U.S. interest.
It is perhaps not overly surprising for ordinary Americans to be unaware of our obligations as spelled out in the Budapest Memorandum. But one would hope that someone like Gov. DeSantis, who is running for the highest office in the land, would know. Quite likely, he understands the issue, but is choosing to play to a political base that is isolationist. Either way, his careless remark about Ukraine and the war should disqualify him from becoming the leader of the free world.
Also, quite baffling has been the conspicuous absence of talk in the press and political circles about the Budapest Memorandum and its attendant obligations. Perhaps there are reasons—good or bad—for that, but that silence has contributed to the weakening of support for Ukraine. Surprisingly, the Ukrainians themselves have not invoked the Memorandum explicitly in their pleas for military support, as one would have expected.
In an interview during his recent visit to Washington, U.K. Foreign Secretary David Cameron pointed to the fact that the combined GDP of the Western alliance is thirty times that of Russia. He insisted that the alliance should make that economic might count in Ukraine. Secretary Cameron has it exactly right.
The periodic fights in Congress over the debt ceiling often raise the risk of the U.S. defaulting on its debt obligations. Whenever one of those negotiations goes down to the wire, people in the political and financial communities raise alarm bells to warn of the negative consequences, particularly the likelihood that it would lead to a downgrade of America’s credit rating. The current debate over aid to Ukraine should be viewed in the same light. The president should use his bully pulpit to issue dire warnings about what defaulting on the Ukraine obligation would mean for America and its allies. As Secretary Cameron alluded to, money is not necessarily the issue here. The problem is a lack of political will and of education.
Judging by how much time and effort has been spent to get North Korea to de-nuclearize and Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, both with little success, it should be clear to everyone that Ukraine did the entire world a huge favor by giving up its massive stockpile of nuclear weapons so relatively easily. If their reward were to be a meek surrender of all or parts of their country to Russia, America’s character rating would deservingly suffer a downgrade. That would be a lot more damaging than a credit rating downgrade.