Before Russia's Invasion of Ukraine, a Decade of Destabilization

How top US officials played key roles in destabilizing Ukraine, damaging US–Russia relations

Before Russia's Invasion of Ukraine, a Decade of Destabilization
A member of a pro-Russian militia walks inside a house that was damaged by shelling, in the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk, Ukraine, on Feb. 28, 2022. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)
Jeff Carlson
Hans Mahncke
News Analysis

As war rages in Ukraine following the invasion by Russia, the realities on the ground are difficult to assess—it's estimated that thousands have been killed, including hundreds of civilians, and 2 million have been forced to flee their homes.

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin is rightly deserving of blame, top U.S. officials over the past decade have played important roles in critical events that undermined U.S. relations with Russia and resulted in the destabilization of Ukraine.

The deterioration in our relations with Russia, in many ways, started with President George W. Bush in 2008, when he dangled before Ukraine the promise of NATO membership during the Bucharest declaration, boldly claiming, “We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.”

The promise of NATO membership for Ukraine is something that has never been taken lightly by Russia, which has remained resolutely opposed to any NATO expansion along its borders.

In 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher had promised the Kremlin not to expand NATO eastward in return for German unification. However, in the decades that followed that promise, NATO incorporated 14 additional Eastern European countries.
In his 2020 memoir, Joe Biden’s current CIA director, Bill Burns, explicitly warned about the dangers posed by Ukraine gaining NATO membership, citing his own words in 2008 to then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice: “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin).​"
"In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin's sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests," he wrote.

Ukraine’s Longstanding Political Troubles

In addition to its geographic importance as a centuries-old buffer territory between the East and West, Ukraine is a resource-rich country with an abundance of agriculture exports and large supplies of minerals, iron ore, and coal.
Yet Ukraine’s political upheavals and influence from powerful oligarchs have meant that it's also one of the poorest countries in Europe. Ukraine’s per-capita nominal gross domestic product stands at around $3,500 compared to the European average of $31,000. Rampant governmental corruption has only served to make a difficult situation worse.

Ukraine has been through two significant revolutions since it gained independence in 1991. The first revolution occurred in 2004, when the apparent winner of the presidential election, Viktor Yanukovych, a candidate favored by Russia, was unseated. Yanukovych made a political comeback in 2010 when he again won the presidential election.

However, Yanukovych was deposed yet again in February 2014, when a U.S.-supported coup installed a new government in Ukraine. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the candidate pushed by the United States, was installed as prime minister, but would resign two years later amid corruption accusations.

While the 2014 Maidan Revolution has been portrayed as a triumph of democracy over oppression, such a characterization ignores the fact that the resulting coup culminated in the removal of a democratically elected leader of Ukraine.

Ukraine, which became a focal point of a new cold war with Russia, led many U.S. officials to willfully ignore a dangerous rise in fascist sentiments and neo-Nazi movements within the country.

Andriy Parubiy, co-founder of the fascist Social-National Party of Ukraine (SNPU), served as the chairman of the Ukrainian parliament from April 2016 until August 2019. The ideology of Parubiy’s SNPU, which he co-founded in 1991 with Oleh Tyahnybok, now the current leader of the ultranationalist Svoboda party, was radical nationalism and neo-Nazism.

Parubiy was the “commander” of the Maidan Revolution, which led the various Maidan paramilitary units, and his forces played a material role in the U.S.-backed coup that led to the overthrow of Yanukovych.

The growth of a fascist movement in a country that was serving as the battleground for a new cold war between the U.S. and Russia should have raised many alarms. But rather than distancing themselves from these elements, Western leaders appeared to embrace them.

Indeed, then-U.S. Sen. John McCain met with ultranationalist leader Tyahnybok in the lead-up to the 2014 coup, and Vice President Joe Biden met with Tyahnybok shortly thereafter in April 2014. In June 2017, Parubiy was inexplicably invited to Washington, where he met with a number of American politicians, including McCain and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Vice President Biden Becomes Ukraine Point Man

It was during events surrounding the February 2014 coup that Biden, then-vice president to Barack Obama, made his first appearance as a Ukraine power broker. Biden had been appointed as the Obama administration’s point man on Ukraine in early 2014.
An intercepted phone conversation between Victoria Nuland, who at the time was assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs in the Obama State Department, and then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt revealed that the State Department was actively pursuing the ouster of Yanukovych and the installation of opposition leader Yatsenyuk as prime minister. It isn't known exactly when their discussion took place, only that it transpired prior to Feb. 7, 2014, when the conversation was leaked.
During that leaked discussion, Nuland noted that Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser to Vice President Biden, had informed her that “you need Biden” for the successful installation of Yatsenyuk, and Nuland concluded by telling Pyatt that “Biden’s willing.” Sullivan now serves as the national security adviser to President Biden.
Just two weeks later, on Feb. 22, 2014, Yanukovych was removed as president of Ukraine; within days, Yatsenyuk, Nuland’s preferred candidate, was installed as prime minister of Ukraine.

The U.S. government had effectively assisted in the removal of a democratically elected leader that was friendly to Russia with the installation of a leader who was selected by the United States.

The Kremlin, watching these events unfold, didn't wait long to react, annexing Crimea a few days later.

Prosecutor Investigating Ukrainian Oligarch Is Fired

One of the members of Yanukovych’s government who lost his position in government as a result of the coup was Mykola Zlochevsky, the owner of Burisma Energy.
He had first served as minister of ecology and natural resources and later as deputy secretary for economic and social security. While he held power in government, Zlochevsky’s companies reportedly received an unusually large number of permits to extract oil and gas.
In April 2014, UK prosecutors seized $23.5 million in assets owned by Zlochevsky that were held at a London bank, alleging that Zlochevsky had engaged in criminal conduct in Ukraine.
Following the sudden loss of Zlochevsky’s government position, Burisma appointed Biden's son, Hunter, to its board of directors. In addition to Hunter, Burisma also appointed Devon Archer, a Hunter Biden associate who was jailed in February 2022 in New York for his role in a scheme to defraud a Native American tribe of $60 million.
Both Hunter Biden and Archer were hired in April 2014 around the time Zlochevsky’s funds were seized in London. Although Hunter’s appointment wasn't announced until May 12, 2014, Burisma posted a picture of Archer and Joe Biden on its website on April 17, 2014. The picture had been taken a day earlier at the White House.
During Hunter’s first year at Burisma, the company allegedly paid a $7 million bribe to Ukraine’s chief prosecutors’ office to help shut the UK investigation into Zlochevsky, according to a State Department email. The Ukrainian prosecutor’s office subsequently sent a letter to its UK counterparts stating there was no longer an active case against Zlochevsky. UK prosecutors were then forced to release Zlochevsky’s previously seized funds.
Notably, at the time the alleged bribe was paid in late 2014, Hunter Biden was listed by Burisma as the head of the company’s legal unit. The chief prosecutor, Vitaly Yarema, had previously served as the first vice prime minister of Ukraine following the 2014 U.S.-led coup. Yarema suddenly resigned in February 2015, barely two months later. Yarema’s replacement, Viktor Shokin, was brought out of retirement to become prosecutor general of Ukraine.
Initially, Shokin’s appointment was welcomed by U.S. officials, although he suddenly fell out of U.S. favor in late 2015—around the same time the head of Burisma’s board, Vadym Pozharskyi, emailed Hunter Biden on Nov. 2, 2015. In the email, Pozharskyi pressed Hunter Biden to produce “deliverables,” stating that the “ultimate purpose” was to “close down any cases or pursuits” against Burisma owner Zlochevsky in Ukraine.
Less than three weeks later, Joe Biden began demanding the removal of Shokin, who by this time had restarted the investigation into Zlochevsky and had also successfully sought an order from Ukrainian courts to seize Zlochevsky’s assets. Less than seven weeks after the seizure of Zlochevsky’s assets, on March 29, 2016, Shokin was fired.
Biden later famously bragged that he had leveraged $1 billion in U.S. government loan guarantees to force Shokin’s removal. To this day, Shokin has never been charged with any wrongdoing.
Joe Biden was privately warned by Amos Hochstein, a U.S. special envoy, about Hunter’s association with a corrupt oligarch. Biden is said to have ignored the warnings.

Clinton Campaign’s RussiaGate Hoax Further Impaired Relations

It was against this political backdrop, with Ukraine destabilized and Russia angered by a U.S.-backed coup, that Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign made the fateful decision to accuse Russia of interfering in the 2016 presidential election for the purposes of helping then-candidate Donald Trump. Clinton and her campaign’s politically driven accusations further impaired already-strained U.S.–Russia relations, and the effects of her actions are being felt to this day.

The use of Russia for the attack on Trump was two-pronged. First, the Clinton campaign hired British ex-spy Christopher Steele to write a fabricated dossier that portrayed Trump as a compromised puppet of the Kremlin. In order to provide backing for the dossier's claims, operatives created a false data trail that purported to show communications between Trump and the Kremlin. In doing so, the Clinton campaign’s operatives fabricated false evidence of collusion between a candidate for president and the Kremlin.

These actions would continue after Trump became president, as evidenced by a Clinton campaign lawyer’s visit to the CIA to hand over more data from these same operatives in February 2017, as revealed in a court filing by special counsel John Durham.

But it wasn’t only the political campaign of Clinton that was making these accusations. The Intelligence Community, acting in a dangerous geopolitical game, assisted the Clinton campaign by backing her claims that Russia was interfering in our elections in order to help Trump.

The Clinton campaign’s creation of the false Trump–Russia collusion narrative, which culminated in the inclusion of Steele’s fictitious dossier in an official intelligence community assessment, effectively tied Trump’s hands with respect to dealings with Russia—raising serious national security implications.

The resulting myopic focus on Russia also shifted our nation’s attention away from a far more dangerous adversary, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

False Claims of Russia Laptop Plot

Four years later, during the 2020 presidential election, the Biden campaign introduced its own claims that Russia was meddling in the election, again in order to assist Trump.

When Hunter Biden’s abandoned hard drive emerged in the months preceding the election, it contained a litany of damaging emails and other incriminating information on the Biden family, including the Nov. 2, 2015, email from the head of Burisma’s board demanding that Hunter Biden shut down the investigations into Burisma’s owner. The laptop also contained other damaging information, including the younger Biden’s entanglements with the CCP.

Although the corporate media and major social media platforms immediately restricted—or in some cases, outright banned—sharing of articles regarding the laptop story, Trump publicly raised the issue during the second presidential debate on Oct. 22, 2020. In response, Biden chose to blame Russia for the emergence of his son's hard drive.
Biden’s assertion traced back to similar claims from the highest levels of our intelligence community, including former CIA Director John Brennan, who claimed in a joint statement that Hunter Biden’s laptop “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.”

As it turned out later, the Hunter emails were authentic and not a Russian plot.

Adding to an already tense geopolitical situation, Biden held out NATO membership to Ukraine as recently as December, as did his secretary of state, Antony Blinken. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin went even further, saying the door was open to Ukraine for NATO membership during an October 2021 trip to Ukraine.

These promises, which were sure to provoke Russia, lay in stark contrast to the warnings from Biden’s own CIA director, who had previously stated that NATO membership for Ukraine was the "brightest of all red lines" for Russia.

The overarching national security goal of the United States should have centered around preventing Russia and China from forming further alliances. The vilification of Russia, driven in part by the self-serving actions of top U.S. officials such as Clinton and Biden, seriously undermined that goal.

With the outbreak of war in Ukraine and consequent total isolation of Russia from the West, that goal is no longer attainable.

The likely outcome is that Russia and China will grow even closer.