Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

When Did Ukraine Become a Flashpoint?

The tug-of-war between West and East began long before Russia’s invasion this past spring.

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (R) shake
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright shakes hands with then-Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko in May, 2000 at the State Department in Washington, D.C. (Manny Ceneta/AFP via Getty Images)

Ukraine has always been a nation divided. Northwestern and Central Ukraine, which had once been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, have always faced west to Europe; the Southeast, long part of the Russian Empire, has always faced east to Russia. Historically, Western Ukraine has voted for presidential candidates with European-oriented policies, and Eastern Ukraine has voted for presidents with Russian-oriented policies. The country is caught in a tug-of-war, vulnerable to being ripped in two.

The rupture happened dramatically after the U.S.-sponsored and -supported coup of 2014. That coup was intended to replace a president who was favorable to Russia with a president chosen by the U.S., and to pull Ukraine closer into the European and NATO security sphere. 


The stage was set for the coup when Ukraine was faced with the choice of economic alliance with the European Union or with Russia. As geography and history would predict, Ukrainians were nearly evenly split. When the U.S. and the E.U. rejected Putin’s solution that both could help Ukraine and forced Ukraine to choose, the fateful tug-of-war began.

The E.U. offer was de facto NATO membership in economic clothing. Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies at Princeton Stephen Cohen said that the European Union proposal also "included ‘security policy’ provisions... that would apparently subordinate Ukraine to NATO." The provisions compelled Ukraine to "adhere to Europe’s ‘military and security’ policies." Article 4 of the E.U.’s Association Agreement with Ukraine said the agreement will “promote gradual convergence on foreign and security matters with the aim of Ukraine’s ever-deeper involvement in the European security area.” Article 7 of the agreement spoke of the convergence of security and defense, and Article 10 added that “the parties shall explore the potential of military and technological cooperation.”

In the coup that ensued, the U.S. selected and installed a president who looked west to Europe and America. With Ukraine now pulled into the American sphere, Putin pulled Russia out of its post-Cold War policy of compliance and pushed back against the U.S.-led unipolar world. Russia annexed Crimea, and the civil war between the Donbas in the East and Kiev and Western Ukraine had begun.

But Ukraine had become a flashpoint long before that. 

In theory, it was always known that Ukraine was a potential flashpoint. That is why an internal 1991 U.S. draft paper recommended leaving "the possibility of Ukraine joining the NATO liaison program" for "a later time." In 1993, the U.K. warned Clinton’s national security advisor, Anthony Lake, that "expanding NATO to include Ukraine would cross the very reddest of Russian red lines." Richard Holbrooke, who aggressively pushed NATO expansion, said that NATO was "an alliance [Ukraine] can probably never enter.”


In a previously forgotten episode, then-U.S. Ambassador to Russia William Burns reported back to Condoleezza Rice that “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin).... I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.... Today’s Russia will respond.”

Theory moved into the practical sphere in 2008 at the NATO summit in Bucharest. President Bush, attempting to accelerate Georgia’s and Ukraine’s NATO membership, asked the summit to “welcome Georgia and Ukraine into the Membership Action Plan.” His attempt was blocked by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. As a compromise, Georgia and Ukraine were guaranteed eventual membership: "NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agree today that these countries will become members of NATO." 

The Russian leadership made clear that they saw this promise as an existential threat. Putin warned that NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine was "a direct threat" to Russian security. John Mearsheimer quotes a Russian journalist who reported that Putin "flew into a rage" and warned that "if Ukraine joins NATO, it will do so without Crimea and the eastern regions. It will simply fall apart."

Even before then, Ukraine’s domestic politics had started signalling the coming crisis. The 2004 election pitted Viktor Yanukovych, supported by the Russian-leaning East, against Viktor Yushchenko, whose support came from the Western region that leaned toward the U.S. and Europe. Yushchenko's platform included seeking membership in the E.U. and NATO.

Putin made it clear that he endorsed Yanukovych. He went to Kiev to support his campaign. He publicly wished him luck. He praised Yanukovych’s government’s economic record. According to Philip Short in Putin, “the Kremlin’s political strategist, Gleb Pavlovsky, moved to Kyiv to advise his election headquarters.”

The first round ended in a 39.87 percent-to-39.32 percent split that favored Yushchenko. The election went to round two. With rampant fraud in the second round, Yanukovych’s apparent victory was overturned by the Ukrainian Supreme Court.

Less reported than the Putin regime’s involvement was the U.S.'s interference for Yushchenko. Philip Short reports that, in that election year, George H.W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, and John McCain had all gone to Ukraine to make the U.S.’s preferred outcome clear. Bush, Short says, “sent the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, to Kyiv as his personal emissary.” He reports that Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had been Carter’s national security advisor, went so far as to urge “the importance of prising Ukraine away from Russia’s embrace.”

The election of 2004 had transformed into a tug of war between the U.S. and Russia. It was then that Ukraine may first have become a flashpoint in what would evolve into a new cold war. The West’s preferred candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, won the new election. Putin said, “They are stealing Ukraine from under me.”