Country Brief: Ukraine



Ukraine’s military is currently at war with pro-Russian separatists who claim they are fighting for greater autonomy from Ukraine’s central government. Russia’s ongoing support for these rebels has convinced Ukraine to establish closer military and economic ties with the United States and the European Union. The Obama Administration is pursuing a tough and smart approach to allow Ukraine to defend itself without risking a broader war with Russia by:  

  • Sanctioning Russian companies and officials;
  • Supporting Ukraine with economic and military aid; and
  • Bolstering NATO defenses.


Ukraine has been a sovereign country since the early 1990s. But many Russians see Ukraine as an essential part of Russia going back centuries. Both countries share their origin in the city of Kiev, and millions of Ukrainians speak Russian. However, in 1994, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in return for commitments by Russia and the United States to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.”1 This pact is known as the Budapest Memorandum.

In early 2014, the Ukrainian parliament ousted pro-Russian President Victor Yanukovych after he reneged on a trade deal with the European Union.2 Russian-speaking Yanukovych supporters in the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea began protesting, and Russian military units soon took de facto control of transportation hubs, government buildings, and communications facilities throughout Crimea. U.S. officials claimed that Russia’s actions violated the Budapest Memorandum.3 In a referendum the U.S. called illegal, Crimeans voted to leave Ukraine and join Russia.4

Ethnic Russians living in east and south Ukraine called for their own autonomy, sparking a bloody civil war between the new Ukrainian government and pro-Russian rebels. Russia has provided direct military support to these pro-Russian rebels, including heavy weapons, artillery strikes, and surveillance, all of which give them a huge advantage.5 In the summer of 2014, pro-Russian separatists shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, killing 283 civilians.6 To date, the war has killed over 9,000 people.

In early 2015, the Ukrainian government and Russia struck an agreement called Minsk II, which called for a ceasefire between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists. It also committed both sides to withdrawing heavy weapons from front lines. Ukraine agreed to explore granting more autonomy to separatist territories if they accepted Ukrainian sovereignty. But both sides have repeatedly violated the ceasefire, and violence has continued across Eastern Ukraine.7 In December 2015, the European Union extended economic sanctions against Russia, claiming Moscow had failed to implement Minsk II.8

Our Current Tough and Smart Approach

The United States and its European allies have taken several steps to defend Ukrainian sovereignty and deter Russian provocations:

  • Bolstering sanctions against Russia: The United States and its EU partners have enacted and will maintain harsh sanctions against Russia until its own forces and the separatists it supports honor Minsk II.9 Since 2014, the U.S. and EU leaders have imposed targeted sanctions against dozens of Russian companies, financial institutions, and government officials.10 The Russian economy shrank by 3.8% in 2015.11
  • Strengthen Ukraine: The United States has given $265 million in training and equipment to Ukraine, and Congress has authorized $300 million in additional assistance (including lethal aid).12 U.S. personnel have trained three battalions of Ukrainian national guardsmen and recently began training six new battalions of frontline combat troops.13
  • Strengthening NATO allies: The United States is rotating ground forces through the Baltic States and Poland, with the Pentagon is considering a permanent presence there. The Air Force has deployed its best fighter aircraft (F-22s and F-15s) to Germany and Romania, and the U.S. Army is currently moving hundreds of tanks and other armored vehicles into Eastern Europe.14 A string of multinational exercises is getting NATO and its partners ready for Russia’s new “hybrid warfare.”15

What Else Can We Do?

We can be even tougher by improving European defenses, while avoiding certain policies (such as including Ukraine in NATO) that might start a war with Russia:

  • Improve European defenses:First, the United States must pressure its NATO allies to live up to their commitments. Currently, only four other NATO states spend the required 2% of GDP on defense: the United Kingdom, Greece, Poland, and Estonia.16 Second, the United States should arm its Eastern European allies with anti-ballistic missile defenses, counter-artillery radar, drones, and anti-drone technology that counter Russia’s advantages in surveillance, ground-based missiles, and mobile artillery.
  • Improve U.S. ability to respond quickly: Congress should meet the Pentagon’s FY2017 request for $3.4 billion for the European Reassurance Initiative, which pays for U.S. troop deployments to European states and pre-positioning of U.S. equipment.17In addition, the Pentagon should redefine the role of the U.S. Army to focus its energy and resources on deterring Russia.
  • Stabilize Ukraine: The United States has guaranteed a $1 billion sovereign bond issued by Ukraine in May 2015.18 This is a relatively small amount for a country with a GDP of $131 billion, and the United States could help Ukraine build long-term economic, political, and military strength with further loan guarantees. The Ukrainian government is also having difficulty recruiting high quality candidates. The United States should increase training of current military personnel and encourage greater military-to-military exchanges.
  • Foreign Relations123


  1. “Budapest Memorandums on Security Assurances, 1994,” Council on Foreign Relations, December 5, 1994. Accessed May 2, 2016. Available at:

  2. Ralph Ellis & Nick Paton Walsh, “Ukraine issues arrest warrant for ousted President Viktor Yanukovych,” CNN, February 24, 2014. Accessed May 2, 2016. Available at:

  3. Press Release, Bureau of Public Affairs, Department of State, “U.S./U.K./Ukraine Press Statement on the Budapest Memorandum Meeting,” March 5, 2014. Accessed May 2, 2016. Available at:

  4. Adam Withnall, “Crimeans overwhelmingly vote to leave Ukraine and join Russia in contentious referendum,” The Independent, March 16, 2014. Accessed May 2, 2016. Available at:

  5. Maksymilian Czuperski, John Herbst, Eliot Higgins, Alina Polyakova and Damon Wilson, “Hiding in Plain Sight: Putin’s War in Ukraine,” Report, The Atlantic Council, October 15, 2015. Accessed February 10, 2016. Available at:

  6. Josh Rogin, “U.S. Intelligence: Separatists, Not Russins, Killed MH17,” The Daily Beast, July 22, 2014. Accessed February 16, 2016. Available at:

  7. Reuters, “5 Ukrainian Soldiers Killed as Cease-Fire Offenses Rise,” The New York Times, November 14, 2015. Accessed February 11, 2016. Available at:

  8. European Council, “Russia: EU Prolongs Economic Sanctions by Six Months,” Council of the European Union, Press Release, December 21, 2015. Accessed March 5, 2016. Available at:

  9. European Council, “Russia: EU Prolongs Economic Sanctions by Six Months,” Council of the European Union, Press Release, December 21, 2015. Accessed March 5, 2016. Available at:

  10. United States Department of Treasury, “Treasury Sanctions Individuals and Entities for Sanctions Evasion and Other Activities Related to Russia and Ukraine,” December 22, 2015. Accessed December 23, 2015. Available at:; Michael Birnbaum, “E.U. extends sanctions against Russia amid a growing split over their future,” The Washington Post, December 21, 2015. Accessed December 23, 2015. Available at:

  11. Robin Emmot, “Sanctions Impact on Russia to be Longer Term, U.S. Says,” Reuters, January 12, 2016. Accessed February 11, 2016. Available at:

  12. Lisa Ferdinando, “U.S. Begins Second Phase of Ukrainian Training, Equipping Mission,” DoD News, November 23, 2015. Accessed November 30, 2015. Available at:

  13. United States Army, European Command, “Fearless Guardian.” Accessed November 30, 2015. Available at: See also NDAA of 2016, Title XII, Subtitle E, Section 1250.

  14. Lisa Ferdinando, “Army begins positioning equipment in Eastern Europe,” DoD News, December 1, 2015. Accessed December 2, 2015. Available at:

  15. Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., “Hey Putin, NATO can Adapt: Trident Juncture 2015,” Breaking Defense, October 15, 2015. Accessed November 30, 2015. Available at:; Combined Resolve. Available at:

  16. Naftali Bendavid, “Just Five of 28 NATO Members Meet Defense Spending Goal, Report Says,” The Wall Street Journal, June 22, 2015. Accessed March 16, 2016. Available at:

  17. United States, “EUCOM Provides Update on the European Reassurance Initiative,” United States European Command, April 20, 2015. Accessed March 6, 2016. Available at:

  18. United States, “U.S. Signs Loan Guarantee Agreement for Ukraine,” USAID, Press Office, May 18, 2015. Accessed March 10, 2016. Available at: