Do our treaty commitments mean anything? Are they worth the paper upon which they are written? In 1994, President Clinton, British Prime Minister Major, Russian President Yeltsin, and Ukranian President Kuchma signed The Budapest Memorandum pledging themselves and their nations to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”
The Treaty was signed as part of a successful effort to persuade Ukraine to relinquish its nuclear stockpile, armaments stationed there when the Soviet Union broke up. In return for the joint guarantee, Ukraine promised to give up its nuclear weapons.
Its there in black and white: An American commitment we must honor.
With the photographs that clearly identify the “civilian pro-Russian demonstrators” occupying Ukrainian buildings as Russian soldiers and security agents, the fact of a Russian invasion is not hypothetical. It is real.
When I asked President Clinton why he was so anxious to bring Hungary and the Czech Republic into NATO, he spoke of the importance of maintaining freedom in those countries, but also said that we needed “a land bridge” to Ukraine. “Ukraine,” he said, “is key. We have to make sure they can stay independent.”
(At the time, there was real fear of a communist comeback in Russia and Clinton was heavily influenced by former President Nixon’s advice to be sure he wouldn’t be the president to “lose” Russia as Truman had “lost” China).
If the U.S. led it, NATO would surely be willing to follow and deploy at least a token force from every European nation.
There is no way Russia would attack Ukraine if it meant war with the United States. Just as the tripwire defense we maintained in Germany throughout the Cold War did not cost us a single US life and not one shot was fired in anger, so a robust show of support for Ukraine would not lead to war. It would avert one.
If we do not stop Russia in Ukraine, Putin will attack Azerbaijan, Moldova, and the Baltic States. If we do not stop him there, Poland and Eastern Europe could well be next.
We all know the story of how Allied refusal to intervene catalyzed Hitler’s push for European domination. We all realize now that a show of force when Hitler marched into the Rhineland or into Austria would have averted World War II.
Our successful deployment in Germany throughout the Cold War gives us ample evidence that you can face down the Russians without loss of life. Putin will take what we give him as long as its free, but not at the price of war. His own people would not tolerate Russia getting into a war. My work in Russian politics (for Yeltsin in the 90s) left me with a strong impression that the fear of war with the U.S. is uppermost in Russian minds and the memories of World War II have not receded.
And, we gave our word to Ukraine. What is that worth?
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