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The Shoals of Ukraine

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The Shoals of Ukraine

Where American Illusions and Great-Power Politics Collide

Foreign Affairs,

5 min read
4 take-aways
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Only history can explain Ukraine’s significance in US politics today. 

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The story of the Trump administration’s purported attempts to make aid to Ukraine a quid pro quo for help investigating the president’s political rivals placed that country front and center in US headlines for weeks. But historical memory is short. Full appreciation of Ukraine’s geopolitical significance for both US and Russian policy makers requires a review of the fateful years immediately following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In Foreign Affairs, Serhii Plokhy and M.E. Sarotte explain how Ukraine has become a focal point of both US-Russian frictions and US domestic politics.


Both the US and Russia wanted Ukraine to remain closely connected to Russia following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia attempted to transform the former Soviet empire into a loose federation of semi-independent republics. As the second most populous Slavic republic, Ukraine’s inclusion in the federation was of particular importance to Russia. The United States under George H. W. Bush similarly hoped Ukraine would stay connected to post-Soviet Russia, fearing that a completely independent Ukraine, with thousands of nuclear weapons located within its borders, could descend into civil war.

Ukraine itself wanted none of it: The large majority of its population was in favor of full independence. After a failed attempt to bully Ukraine into staying in the federation, Boris Yeltsin eventually relented and gave up plans for a post-Soviet federation altogether.

Ukraine relinquished its Soviet-era nuclear weapons in exchange for non-binding security assurances under the Budapest...

About the Authors

Serhii Plokhy is professor of Ukrainian History and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University. M.E. Sarotte is Distinguished Professor of Historical Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the author of The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall.

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