Joe Biden stands in a long line of presidents who have unexpectedly found Ukraine on their agendas. But he won't find much help in the past. For more than a century, American presidents have looked cynically at Ukrainian nationalism as a sympathetic movement but one whose interests usually bow to Russian diplomacy, domestic political considerations, or both.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Russian Empire, which at that time included Ukraine, was experiencing a series of 300 deadly government-facilitated pogroms against its large Jewish population. The most infamous pogrom in this period was in Kishinev, Moldova, inspiring Chaim Nachman Bialik's harrowing poem "City of Slaughter." But Kishinev was only one city where Tsar Nicholas II's government was whipping up antisemitic sentiments with deadly results. They were also taking place in this period in Ukrainian cities such as Odessa, Marinopol, Lugansk, and Ekaterinoslav (now Dnipro).
Following a lobbying campaign by Jewish American groups, President Theodore Roosevelt objected to the state-sponsored violence, cabling a petition from the Jewish community to the Russian foreign minister. In response to the outside pressure, Nicholas declared that going forward, regional governors would be responsible for what happened in their territory, at least stopping explicit governmental approval for the violence, although the emperor still maintained that "Jews themselves ... are to blame."
While the Jewish community appreciated Roosevelt's actions, Roosevelt may have had other motivations. One of those was securing the Jewish vote in the 1904 elections. Another may have been a fear within his own government that more antisemitic violence in Russia would drive more Jewish emigration to America. Secretary of State John Hay showed his hand by warning U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Riddle that "the westward migration of Russian Jews, which has proceeded over twenty years, is being stimulated by these fears [i.e., the pogroms]."
Another cynical Ukrainian-related ploy took place in the administration of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson spoke in high-minded idealistic terms about "self-determination" of the ethnic peoples of Europe, a policy popular with the millions of Eastern European immigrants who had migrated to America. Wilson's self-determination policy did not, however, extend to Ukraine, because he agreed with the British and the French that maintaining Ukraine as part of a Russian empire would be a stumbling block for the Bolshevik revolution. Wilson's ally in this misguided effort, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, dismissed the idea of Ukrainian independence by saying that he had only once seen a Ukrainian, "and I am not sure that I want to see any more." This was an early example of the selective acknowledgment of national minorities' right to self-rule.
Wilson helped squelch an early opportunity for Ukrainian independence, with significant and tragic costs for the Ukrainian people. Soviet leader Josef Stalin initiated the Ukrainian famine, which killed over 3 million Ukrainians in the early 1930s. The famine coincided with the period in which newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt was contemplating U.S. recognition of the Soviet Union. The death of millions of Ukrainians under Soviet oppression complicated Roosevelt's decision. To solve his problem, Roosevelt accepted the false reporting of the New York Times's Walter Duranty, whose dispatches Roosevelt read and with whom Roosevelt even met in 1932 before becoming president. Duranty whitewashed the Ukrainian slaughter, enabling Roosevelt to proceed with his desired recognition in November 1933, even as Duranty accepted emoluments from Stalin that let him live in Moscow much better than the average Soviet citizen, let alone the starving Ukrainians.
When the Cold War began, the matter of Ukrainian independence gained more purchase in Washington. Once again, politics played a role, as independence for Ukraine was an argument that the United States could deploy against the USSR, but it also played well with the millions of Eastern European ethnic voters who lived in key swing states in the Northeast and upper Midwest. With this in mind, Dwight Eisenhower deployed a "liberation plank" regarding Ukraine and other Eastern European nations in his 1952 presidential campaign. While Eisenhower may have wanted to see a free Ukraine, he also needed those ethnic voters. Still, Ike deserves credit for pushing a Captive Nations Week resolution that Congress passed, and Eisenhower signed, in 1959.
The Soviets, however, hated the resolution, which referred not just to Ukraine but also included other nations subject to Soviet domination. The depth of the Soviets' unhappiness was something that Ike's vice president, Richard Nixon, learned firsthand. When Nixon met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in July 1959, Khrushchev was unsparing, yelling at Nixon, "This resolution stinks!" Nixon would take this lesson to heart when he became president and he, along with national security adviser Henry Kissinger, wanted to pursue a policy of detente with the Soviets. In 1969, Kissinger told Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin not to focus on "separate critical statements by the President on one Eastern European country or the other, since this is only tribute to some layers of the US population which play a role in American elections." Nixon did visit Ukraine as president, as part of a 1972 trip to the Soviet Union, but his remarks there did not mention Ukrainian liberation.
Jimmy Carter made a big show of being a human rights president, but he was wary of alienating the Soviets with a Captive Nations Week resolution, which took place annually every July since the Eisenhower administration. Carter initially canceled the 1977 resolution but, faced with domestic criticism, changed his mind and went forward with it. Carter's statement about the resolution, however, was, in the words of historian Lee Edwards, "perfunctory," and his initial instinct to cancel the resolution was sadly of a piece with the long-standing trend of cynical U.S. actions related to Ukraine.
One such action came from a president not usually seen as overly cynical, George H.W. Bush. In 1987, as Ronald Reagan's vice president, Bush had told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in a limo ride together that he could "ignore" what Bush said on the issue of Ukrainian independence to get himself elected. As president, faced with the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, Bush gave an infamous Aug. 1, 1991, speech in Kyiv in which he warned against "suicidal nationalism" and said that "freedom is not the same as independence." The reaction to the speech, labeled the "Chicken Kiev speech" by New York Times columnist William Safire, was not good. Bush reversed himself on the issue, alienating the Russians, getting little credit from the Ukrainians, and opening himself up to damaging "Chicken Kiev" attacks from Bill Clinton on the campaign trail in 1992.
Recent history on this front is more familiar but no less depressing. Barack Obama refused to ship Ukraine lethal weapons for its defense. Donald Trump was willing to send weapons, but he threatened to link aid to Ukraine to an investigation into Hunter Biden, an act that led to Trump's first impeachment.
Faced with this depressing history, Biden has few good examples to look to. But Biden has an advantage in that the two sources of his predecessors' Ukraine cynicism have less relevance today than in the past. The Eastern European ethnic vote is no longer that differentiated in presidential politics, and therefore not in itself a driver of political decision-making. And Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he's not interested in good relations with the U.S., making efforts to appease him less appealing to would-be peacemakers.
Unfortunately, though, Biden has let his own political considerations govern some of his actions in the Ukrainian crisis. To his credit, he took a strong stance in his State of the Union address, saying, "Yes, we, the United States of America, stand with the Ukrainian people." At the same time, the complications of energy politics have made Biden's overall approach weaker than it could be. His hesitation to implement energy sanctions on Russia reflects a concern about inflation and especially gas prices and how that might affect his political prospects, though he has now banned Russian oil imports. And Biden's reluctance to promote U.S. domestic energy production comes from a fear of alienating environmentalist elements in the Democratic coalition. In this, Biden follows his predecessors facing Ukrainian identity and sovereignty questions in letting domestic coalitional politics govern his moves. But doing the right thing will serve Biden, not to mention Americans and Ukrainians, better than the cynical maneuverings of the past.