Citation metadata

Author: Trevor Rubenzer
Date: 2017
Today's Foreign Policy Issues: Democrats and Republicans
Publisher: ABC-Clio
Series: Across the Aisle
Document Type: Country overview
Pages: 8
Content Level: (Level 5)

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 
Page [349]


At a Glance

Given Russian intervention in the Ukraine and the resulting annexation of Crimea (the Crimean Peninsula), it is difficult to examine U.S./Ukrainian relations without also considering America’s strained relations with Moscow. For example, America’s stated desire to move Ukraine closer to the European Union through economic liberalization and integration is clearly aimed at checking Russian ambitions in Eastern Europe. In the mid-2010s, the main partisan divide over U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine relates to the degree to which the United States ought to assist Ukraine, through military or other means, in its effort to ensure the territorial integrity of the country. Calibrating the correct level of assistance is not easy, given Ukrainian proximity to Russia and the large number of ethnic Russians who live in eastern Ukraine (the latter of which is due in part to arbitrary boundary changes during the Soviet era).

According to many Republicans . . .

  • The United States should be willing to provide military assistance to Ukraine in its attempt to maintain its territorial integrity;
  • Ukraine should be invited to join NATO;
  • The United States must be willing to intensify sanctions against Russia to deter its intervention in Ukraine; and
  • The Obama administration is appeasing Russia in other areas of Ukraine and Eastern Europe by failing to provide sufficient support to the government in Kiev.

According to many Democrats . . .

  • The United States should avoid sending arms to Ukraine;
  • Ukraine should be invited to join NATO or, at the very least, maintain a close relationship with the organization;
  • Page 350  |  Top of ArticleThe United States should continue to use sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and other measures to pressure Russia to end its interventionist actions in Ukraine; and
  • The Obama administration is correct in its unwillingness to get more involved in Ukraine, as such intervention could bring the United States into a direct confrontation with Russia on Russian terms.


The history of Ukraine dates back to the late 800s CE, with the establishment of Kievan Rus, an early eastern Slavic state. However, much of Ukrainian history involves brief periods of sovereignty followed by longer periods of foreign rule. In 1917, after the collapse of the Russian empire, Ukraine enjoyed one such period of independence. By 1921, however, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) was formed as Ukraine was absorbed into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In 1954 the Soviet government transferred Crimea, which had been part of Russia since 1783, to the Ukrainian SSR. The transfer occurred with little fanfare and did not have a significant impact on the USSR at the time given its structure of party-controlled governance rather than true federalism, as enumerated in the Soviet Constitution.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, more information about the transfer became available. Documents indicated that the main rationales for transferring Crimea into Ukraine were territorial proximity, common economic structure, and a celebration of the 300th anniversary of Ukrainian reunification with Russia ( Kramer 2014 ). Much of Crimea is ethnically Russian, and the peninsula occupies a geostrategically important location on the Black Sea. These facts made the peninsula’s political status much more salient in the post-Soviet era.

In 1991, Ukraine declared its independence as part of the formal breakup of the Soviet Union. Though the United States recognized Ukrainian independence without reservation, Republican president George H. W. Bush gave a widely publicized speech in which he advised against the dangers of “suicidal nationalism.” The U.S. government was worried that nationalism in the former Soviet Republic might become a source of conflict between the former SSRs and Russia (New York Times 1991). The “Chicken Kiev” speech, as it became known, was criticized by both Republicans (especially more conservative Republicans) and many Democrats in the United States, as aligning too closely with Russia’s desires and not adequately defending rights of national self-determination. In 1994, Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for economic and security assurances from Russia and the United States. During the 1990s and 2000s, the United States attempted to steer Ukrainian politics in a more pro-Western direction, with varying levels of success. In 2004, for example, the United States joined with the European Union to support opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko for election. Yushchenko ultimately emerged as president, but only after a protracted constitutional crisis. Page 351  |  Top of ArticleHowever, in 2010, Party of Regions candidate Viktor Yanukovych, a former prime minister who had originally been declared the victor in the 2004 elections, became president. Yanukovych, who was backed by Russia, brought Ukraine into a closer relationship with Moscow. Yanukovych pulled back from closer Western European ties, including the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, which would have brought closer economic and political integration between the two governments.

Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the agreement, coupled with discontent with the government, led to a series of protests that brought down the government and forced Yanukovych to flee to Russia. Russia considered the protests and removal of Yanukovych to be a coup backed by the West, including the United States. The new government in Ukraine signed the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.

Russia’s belief that Ukraine’s government had been unfairly captured by the United States and Europe led them to expand their military and political maneuverings in Eastern Ukraine, including Crimea. Russian troops helped ethnic Russians in Crimea gain an upper hand in the conflict in the hope that Crimea would secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Russia then annexed Crimea after a referendum indicated that a majority of people in Crimea wished to separate from Ukraine and integrate into the Russia Federation. However, the government in Kiev, as well as officials in the EU and the United States charged that the referendum was rife with voting fraud and other irregularities.

Since then, the Ukrainian government has repeatedly claimed that the Russian intervention in Crimea in 2014 constituted a clear violation of the 1994 agreement guaranteeing Ukrainian sovereignty. Ukraine has urged the United States to live up to its obligations as a guarantor of Ukrainian territorial integrity and provide increased military, economic, and political help to get their territory back. After the 2014 Russian military intervention and subsequent referendum, though, the Russian government of President Vladimir Putin has issued many statements emphasizing their belief that Crimea had been “fully integrated” into Russia. Meanwhile, other parts of Eastern Ukraine are also engaged in active rebellion against the central government and are currently fighting either for independence or integration with the Russian Federation. The Ukrainian government and the United States has also attributed this unrest to Russian interference in Ukrainian affairs.

In 2014, the U.S. Congress passed and Democratic president Barack Obama signed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, which imposed sanctions on Russia, as well as secessionists in Eastern Ukraine. The act also allowed, but does not require, the president to provide arms to Ukraine as part of the effort to maintain its territorial integrity. The debate over the proper scope of U.S. assistance in this regard remains a subject of partisan debate.

Republicans on U.S. Relations with Ukraine

Until very recently, the Republican Party seemed unified in its stance that the United States should provide armed assistance to the Ukraine in its conflict with separatists and Russian military and paramilitary forces in the East. An original Page 352  |  Top of Articledraft amendment to the Republican platform contained a call for the provision of lethal assistance (weapons) to the Ukrainian government ( Rogin 2016 ). Republicans had hoped to use their willingness to provide lethal assistance to Ukraine to paint Democrats as weak on defending U.S. interests abroad. However, the final platform reads that “we [Republicans] also support providing appropriate assistance to the armed forces of Ukraine and greater coordination with NATO defense planning” ( Republican National Committee 2016 ). The removal of the phrase “lethal assistance” from the platform in favor of “appropriate assistance” was seen as a disappointment to many more hawkish Republicans. The campaign of 2016 Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump stated publicly that it did not intervene to alter the platform language. Later, however, Trump stated that the campaign was involved in tweaking the platform language, but that he (Trump) was not personally involved ( Graves 2016 ). Trump has argued that, given the fact that a majority of Crimean residents are Russian, one should not be surprised that the region desires to be part of Russia. Overall, the Republican platform expresses the goal of maintaining the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The change in platform language does raise questions, however, about what Republicans feel is the best way to attain this goal.

For most Republicans, as well as most Democrats, general issues related to U.S.–Ukraine relations are not of the highest priority. However, the U.S. relationship with Russia is a more prominent issue, and those aspects of the situation in Ukraine that relate more directly to Russia are, by extension, more likely to elicit opinions from members of the general public. According to a 2015 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 59 percent of self-identified Republicans in the general public favor providing training to Ukrainian military troops ( Chicago Council on Global Affairs 2015 ). Sixty-five percent of Republicans favored increasing sanctions against the Russian Federation in response to the situation in Ukraine. Forty-seven percent of Republicans favored directly arming Ukraine against the threat. A Pew Research Center survey, also set in 2015, found a larger percentage of Republicans (60 percent) in favor of providing arms to Ukraine ( Simmons, Stokes, and Poushter 2015 ). According to the same Pew Research Center Survey, 71 percent of Republicans believe that Ukraine should be a member of NATO. This would require mutual assistance by NATO members in the case of aggression by a foreign power. Finally, a near-majority of Republicans (50 percent) blamed Russia directly for the violence in Eastern Ukraine (as opposed to Ukrainian separatists, the Ukrainian government, or the Western powers including the United States).

Republican members of Congress have also weighed in on the situation in Ukraine. In 2014, for example, all Republicans in the House and Senate supported the Ukraine Freedom Support Act. The act required the president to impose targeted sanctions against any Russian entity supporting secession in Ukraine and authorizes but did not require the president to impose sanctions against anyone investing in Russian crude oil ( 2014 ). Several Republicans, including then House Speaker John Boehner, indicated a desire to require the president Page 353  |  Top of Articleto provide “lethal assistance” to the government of Ukraine. However, the provision became voluntary in the final bill under a veto threat by President Obama, who was willing to sign the voluntary language into law. In 2015 a group of eight high-ranking House Republicans and three House Democrats sent a letter to President Obama which stated, in part:

The Congress has already, with overwhelming bipartisan support, provided you with the authorities, resources, and political support to provide assistance, including lethal, to the government and people of Ukraine. We urge you in the strongest possible terms to use those authorities and resources to meet the specific and direct requests the government of Ukraine has made of your administration. ( 2015 )

Other Republican political elites have been more directly critical of the president. Former vice president Dick Cheney, for example, said that President Obama has projected an “image of weakness” that encourages aggression on the part of states like Russia ( Curry 2014 ). Senator Ted Cruz argued that ineffectual policies enacted by the Obama administration toward Syria and Libya (specifically with regard to the consulate attack in Benghazi) sent a message to Putin that Russia could annex Crimea without repercussions. Trump argued that Russia acted in Eastern Ukraine because Putin “does not respect our president whatsoever” ( Birnbaum and DelReal 2015 ). Trump also argued that the key to preventing Russia aggression would be united European action against Russia. Once again, this is consistent with Trump’s position that U.S. military aid to Ukraine is not the correct policy. It is also consistent with Trump’s position on NATO, which reflects his belief that many NATO countries do not do their fair share as part of the alliance. Though Ukraine is not part of NATO, Trump views the situation in Ukraine as primarily a European issue that is best resolved by a more muscular foreign policy on the part of European states.

Democrats on U.S. Relations with Ukraine

The 2016 Democratic Party platform mentions Ukraine twice. In one mention, Democrats commit to “continue to support a close relationship with states that seek to strengthen their ties to NATO and Europe, such as Georgia and Ukraine” ( Democratic National Committee 2016 ). The second mention refers directly to Russian intervention in Ukraine as a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. While the Republican platform, and the debates around it, reflect an argument about the nature of lethal versus nonlethal assistance to Ukraine, the Democratic Party platform does not specifically mention assistance of any type. Such a debate does exist among Democrats; however, party elites have maintained enough unity to keep the debate out of platform committee discussions and to keep congressional directives with regard to lethal assistance strictly voluntary. Generally speaking, most Democrats favor the provision of economic and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine in Page 354  |  Top of Articlethe face of Russian aggression. Democrats also favor the continued diplomatic and economic isolation of Russia in response to the crisis.

Within the realm of public opinion, Democrats are much less likely to support the provision of military assistance to Ukraine than are Republicans. For example, in 2015, 39 percent of Democrats in a Pew Research Center survey supported NATO sending lethal assistance to Ukraine ( Simmons, Stokes, and Poushter 2015 ). By contrast, 60 percent of Republicans favored lethal assistance. Strong majorities of both parties (60 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Republicans) favored providing Ukraine with economic assistance. Ukrainian economic output has fallen significantly since 2014 for a variety of reasons. In addition, Ukraine has been forced to diversify its sources of natural gas, a major source of fuel, in response to the conflict with Russia (a major supplier to Ukraine and all of Europe). Economic assistance is thus considered by many strategists to be vital resistance in this regard.

Finally, while a majority of Democrats (59 percent) favor Russian admission into NATO, overwhelming support (71 percent) among Republicans also creates a partisan gap in this area of U.S.–Ukraine policy.

Like their Republican counterparts, Democrats in Congress voted unanimously for the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, which passed Congress and was signed by President Obama in late 2014. Democrats opposed to arming Ukraine with U.S. weapons were able to vote for the bill for two reasons. First, the language of the bill authorizing lethal assistance to Ukraine made it clear that Obama was not obligated to provide such assistance. Instead, it was made voluntary, at the discretion of the president. Second, President Obama indicated, both before and after passage of the legislation, that he did not intend to use the authorization provided in the bill in order to provide arms to Ukraine. The United States had already provided about $200 million in nonlethal security assistance to Ukraine, including defense civilian and military experts, and facility security assistance, and items such as night-vision goggles, surveillance drones, and armored Humvees ( White House 2015 ). Lethal defensive assistance, were it ever provided, would likely include antitank (armor) weapons, as well as mortars, grenade launchers, and other small-arms ( Medynskyi 2016 ).

Although the push to provide Ukraine with lethal defensive armaments is stronger among Republicans, there are Democrats who believe that Ukraine will need access to more advanced U.S. weaponry in order to resist both Russia and pro-Russian separatists (who have access to advanced Russian weapons). For example, Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) argued that “providing nonlethal equipment like night vision goggles is all well and good, but giving the Ukrainians the ability to see Russians coming but not the weapons to stop them is not the answer” ( Herb 2015 ). As mentioned earlier, three high-ranking House Democrats joined Republicans in March 2015 to urge the president to send lethal defensive assistance to Ukraine. However, as of mid-2016 none of the Democrats in question had indicated a willingness to vote to make the provision of lethal defensive assistance Page 355  |  Top of Articlemandatory. This is important because it would require Democrats working with Republicans to pass a mandatory measure over a likely presidential veto.

Both Obama and 2016 Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton have refused to rule out sending weapons to Ukraine at some point in the future, however. There are multiple factors at play here. First, presidents from both parties are generally loath to cede what they view as powers granted under Article II of the Constitution (which covers the executive branch) to Congress. A congressional act requiring the provision of weapons blurs the line between the Article I power of the purse (power over spending) and Article II Section 2 (Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces) powers. Second, it is very common for a president to “leave all options on the table” for the sake of strategic ambiguity (not wanting an opponent to know how the United States will react in a given situation). Third, it is possible that the president would use congressional authorization to send lethal assistance to Ukraine without making this assistance public. Finally, Russia has already indicated that it would view lethal assistance as a provocative act, subject to escalation of its own military activities in Ukraine. Aside from the fact that the Pentagon has indicated at least partial support for lethal assistance, the opinions of Obama’s closest advisers on the issue are hazy. It is possible that they believe that the benefits of arming Ukraine would be outweighed by further Russian intervention, forcing the U.S. to choose between escalation and acquiescence to Russian dominance of Ukraine.

For her part, former secretary of state Clinton has called for a tougher approach to Russia in response to its intervention in Ukraine. However, Clinton has not indicated whether she would provide defensive weapons to Ukraine as part of this tougher approach. Generally speaking, Clinton is viewed as more “hawkish” on foreign policy issues than most Democrats. This poses an interesting contrast with Donald Trump, who appears to be running slightly to the left of Clinton on the issue of Ukraine, and the response to Russia in general. In part, Clinton’s stance finds its genesis in the failed “reset” with Russia, in which Clinton hoped to forge close ties with its foe after years of cold relations during the first Putin presidency. Clinton is widely regarded as having failed in her assessment of the power structure in Russia during the reset, which has, in part, caused her to take a more aggressive stance toward Russia in general during her election run.

Further Reading

Birnbaum, Michael, and Jose A. DelReal. “Trump Tells Ukraine Conference Their Nation Was Invaded Because ‘There Is No Respect for the United States.’” Washington Post. Last modified September 11, 2015. .

Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “America Divided: Political Partisanship and US Foreign Policy.” Last modified 2015. .

Page 356  |  Top of Article . “H.R.5859—113th Congress (2013–2014): Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014.” Last modified December 18, 2014. .

Curry, Tom. “Republicans Heighten Criticism of Obama’s Ukraine Response.” NBC News. Last modified March 9, 2014. .

Democratic National Committee. “2016 Democratic Party Platform.” Last modified July 21, 2016. .

Graves, Allison. “Did Trump Campaign Soften Platform Language to Benefit Russia?” PolitiFact. Last modified August 4, 2016. .

Herb, Jeremy. “Obama Pressed on Many Fronts to Arm Ukraine.” Politico. Last modified March 11, 2015. .

Kramer, Mark. “Why Did Russia Give Away Crimea Sixty Years Ago?” Wilson Center: Cold War International History Project. Last modified March 19, 2014. .

Medynskyi, Ivan. “U.S. Military Assistance to Ukraine under Obama and Beyond.” Institute of World Policy, 2016. Accessed August 14, 2016. .

New York Times. “After the Summit—Excerpts from Bush’s Ukraine Speech—Working ‘for the Good of Both of Us.’” Last modified August 2, 1991. .

Republican National Committee. “Republican Platform 2016.” Last modified 2016.[1]-ben_1468872234.pdf .

Simmons, Katie, Bruce Stokes, and Jacob Poushter. “NATO Publics Blame Russia for Ukrainian Crisis, but Reluctant to Provide Military Aid.” Pew Research Center. Last modified June 10, 2015. http://file:///C:/Users/Administrator.USL050228/Downloads/Pew-Research-Center-Russia-Ukraine-Report-FINAL-June-10-2015.pdf . . “Bipartisan Group of Lawmakers Urges President Obama to Arm Ukraine.” Last modified March 5, 2015. .

White House. “Fact Sheet: U.S. Assistance to Ukraine.” . Last modified December 7, 2015. .

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX7362400043