The late US president George H W Bush. Photo: Wikipedia

On August 1, 1991, US president George Herbert Walker Bush arrived in Kiev with a message not everyone wanted to hear.

Abjuring the temptation toward triumphalism that has since marked the American response to the end of the Cold War, Bush took to the rostrum of the Ukrainian Rada (parliament) and warned that the US would not “not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.”

This was typical of Bush’s, and of his secretary of state James Baker’s, dealings with the Soviets (that is, of course, until the exigencies of the following year’s presidential campaign dictated otherwise). But in Kiev that August, Bush laid out the limits of American involvement in Soviet (and implicitly, post-Soviet) affairs:

“We cannot tell you how to reform your society. We will not try to pick winners and losers in political competitions between Republics or between Republics and the center. That is your business; that’s not the business of the United States of America.”

Yet at the time Bush’s address received a hostile reception. Indeed, at the time the American media and political class found themselves reeling from a triumphalist Cold War hangover that they have yet to climb out of.

Bush’s speech was memorably dubbed the “Chicken Kiev” speech by the neoconservative columnist William Safire. Safire, a Manhattan PR executive turned Nixon-Agnew hatchet man, would then go on to spend the rest of his career cheering needless American wars and from his perch at The New York Times.

Safire’s criticism of Bush was a harbinger of the thinking that marked the “unipolar” moment of the 1990s. Writing on August 29, 1991, Safire took a victory lap while panning Bush’s address.

“Communism is dead,” declared Safire. “The Soviet empire is breaking up. This is a glorious moment for human freedom. We should savor that moment, thanking God, NATO, the heroic dissidents in Russia and the internal empire, and the two-generation sacrifice of the American people to protect themselves and the world from despotic domination.”

Yet events have shown that Bush was right and Safire was wrong. 

In light of Ukraine’s tragic trajectory over the past two decades, Bush’s promised hands-off approach looks prescient.

Indeed, given the current crisis, one might be forgiven for wondering how it transpired that subsequent US presidents abandoned Bush’s wise caution in favor of a dogmatic denial of geopolitical realities; specifically, Russia’s national-security interests vis-à-vis the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as well as Moscow’s interests in the well-being of Russian-minority populations within post-Soviet republics. 

The specter of a “suicidal nationalism” has for decades haunted Ukrainian politics and in recent years has become its most dominant force, thanks in no small part to the rhetorical financial and military assistance provided by the late Mr Bush’s successors.

At two key moments in the past 20 years, during 2004’s Orange Revolution and, a decade later, during the 2014 Maidan uprising, Kiev was encouraged to indulge in the nationalist temptations that Bush had warned against.

In post-Maidan Ukraine, the votes of the Russophone minority were dismissed; discriminatory language laws were instituted; and an “anti-terror operation” aimed at the Donbas commenced.

In its refusal to implement the Minsk Protocol of 2015, the government in Kiev was succumbing to the kind of “suicidal nationalism” of which Bush Sr had warned. As American economist Branko Milanovic recently commented, “Nationalism in Eastern Europe is the worst possible disease. It was subdued under communism. It was used as a tool to undo communist regimes. It might now blow up the entire world into pieces.”

The consequences of not heeding Bush’s warning are now being played out in tragic fashion. Both the Orange Revolution and the Maidan coup, along with constant, public promises by the US that Ukraine would one day join NATO, helped persuade Moscow to do the unthinkable. 

Instead of heeding Bush’s policy of caution and restraint, the US became a full-fledged participant in the politics of Ukraine – with disastrous results. 

James Carden

James W Carden is a former adviser to the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the US Department of State. His articles and essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Nation, The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, The Spectator, UnHerd, The National Interest, Quartz, the Los Angeles Times and American Affairs.