Does America Have Ukraine's Back?

Why Kiev should be worried. 

In March 1992, as war loomed on the horizon, the various factions met in Lisbon to try and craft a deal that would hold Bosnia together and avert the predictable tragedy. Reluctantly, the country's Muslims, Croats and Serbs grappled with the creation of a decentralized country in which each ethnic group would have predominance in different cantons, bound together in a loose federation. At the last minute, the agreement was torpedoed. Many asserted that the president of Bosnia, Alija Izetbegovic, whose own authority (and that of the Muslim community over all of Bosnia) would have been diminished by the accord, had rejected it, having supposedly received assurances from the Americans (who did not like the overt partition of Bosnia on ethnic lines) that Washington would support the Bosnian government in the event of war. Three years later, after a brutal and devastating conflict in which the Bosnian government was dealt a series of devastating blows, a U.S.-sponsored peace agreement at Dayton ratified the division of Bosnia into distinct ethnic entities.

Fifteen years later, a young, energetic, pro-Western president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, was eagerly promoting his country's movement towards the Euro-Atlantic world. He contributed military forces to the U.S.-led coalitions in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and promoted the development of a "Community of Democratic Choice" that would act as a counterweight to a Russian-dominated Eurasia. With Moscow backing two separatist regimes—in South Ossetia and Abkhazia—Saakashvili pushed for military reform and for developing Georgia's capacity to regain control of its lost territory. Fawned over by many American politicians, who loudly proclaimed their support for Saakashvili and his vision for Georgia, expansive and grandiose language flowed from the lips of U.S. statesmen, including use of the "a" word (alliance) to describe Georgian-American relations. However, in August 2008, when Georgia ended up in a direct clash with Russian forces, that rhetoric was exposed, as Moscow proceeded to crush Saakashvili's military and formally detach territories from the control of the government in Tbilisi—and suffer no long-lasting consequences.

Recently, vice president Joe Biden visited an embattled Kyiv, promising support to a besieged Ukrainian interim government, utilizing all the familiar talking points about Ukraine not standing alone and of the United States being at Ukraine's side during this time of crisis. His visit followed what was supposed to be a more secret trip by CIA Director John Brennan, who arrived in the country prior to the ill-fated first launch of the government's "anti-terrorist operation" to regain control of cities and towns in eastern Ukraine that have fallen under the sway of anti-government, pro-Russian militias.

I am not privy to the private conversations, but I hope that U.S. emissaries have been clear and unambiguous in their statements to Ukrainian officials as to what they can and cannot expect from the United States. My concern is that while many members of the Ukrainian government may have an excellent grasp of the English language, they may not be able to translate accurately American political speech. "You will not walk this road alone" is not code for a security guarantee, the provision of effective military assistance or even a guarantee that Russia's ties to Western economies will be severed, and in fact may not mean much more than we "will feel your pain." An effective translation matrix would be to add to any open-ended, broad, or vague public commitment of support the proviso "as long as it doesn't cost much" or to indicate that "support" may mean a rousing speech in the United Nations but not the imminent arrival of the 101st Airborne in Kyiv. The translation matrix should also contain reference to the peculiar American system of separation of powers—that members of Congress can make promises to their heart's content that are absolutely not binding to the United States one whit—a mistake Georgians learned to their regret.

So far, what has been promised, to Ukraine and neighboring allies, in concrete terms, does not seem to correspond to the expectations that have been raised in speeches and public statements. Loan guarantees for Ukraine are a fraction of what the country needs, especially in terms of being able to buy energy. As my colleague Tom Nichols has noted, writing in the aftermath of the vice president's visit, "Vice President Biden’s recent assurance of $50 million was almost insulting; to a country our size, $50 million is the change we found in the couch cushions. We’ve sent 600 paratroopers to some of our NATO partners, a tiny flinch of a response that gives “tripwires” a bad name."

Ukraine is attempting to relaunch its "antiterrorist operation" and has taken heart from statements that major sanctions to penalize Russia for its apparent interference in Ukrainian affairs are "teed up" and ready to go. Kyiv's hope is that more concerted Ukrainian action may give Russia pause and help to de-escalate the situation. The assumption is that the United States will have Ukraine's back in the next several days. But if things don't go according to plan, will acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and acting president Oleksandr Turchynov feel that they too have lived the Izetbegovic and Saakashvili experiences?

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor atThe National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.