gorodnichenko4_JUAN BARRETOAFP via Getty Images_ukrainearmytanks Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Images

No More “Chicken Kiev” for Ukraine

Despite the massive material and military support the West has provided to Ukraine, the impulse to appease the Kremlin lingers, because many Western leaders fear the consequences of Russia’s defeat more than the prospect of a defeated Ukraine. But appeasement is a recipe for precisely the escalation leaders say they want to avoid.

BERKELEY – On August 1, 1991, a little more than three weeks before Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union, US President George H.W. Bush arrived in Kyiv to discourage Ukrainians from doing it. In his notorious “Chicken Kiev” speech in the Ukrainian parliament, Bush lectured the stunned MPs that independence was a recipe for “suicidal nationalism,” “ethnic hatred,” and “local despotism.”

The speech was a colossal blunder. Ukraine’s people were being asked to ignore centuries of oppression by decision-makers in Moscow – and this at a time when the Holodomor, the Soviet-engineered “terror famine” that killed millions of Ukrainians in 1932-33, remained embedded in the living memory of many. That December, Ukraine delivered its answer to Bush: a whopping 84.2% of eligible voters turned out for the referendum on independence, and 92.3% of them said yes. But the West’s reluctance to respect Ukraine’s desire for sovereignty was a bad omen, revealing a mindset among US and European leaders that paved the way to Russia’s full-scale invasion in February.

The path to war began in 1994, when Ukraine, at the West’s behest, surrendered to Russia the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal. In exchange, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States promised to ensure Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. But how was this assurance supposed to be realized? Unlike Poland and other ex-communist countries, Ukraine was not given a chance to join the European Union in the 1990s, and in 2008 France and Germany blocked its admission to NATO.