With the passing of Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the United States lost a great strategist and patriot, and Ukraine lost a true friend and ally. When Ukraine appeared on the world map in 1991, few analysts understood its geopolitical significance as well as Brzezinski. His often-quoted premise that “without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire” has become an edict for observers of international affairs. But Brzezinski appreciated the importance of Ukraine even before perestroika and the USSR’s timely collapse.
At the start of the Cold War, Zbigniew Brzezinski prophetically raised an issue overlooked by many analysts and scholars: the Soviet Union was not a homogenous entity, but instead an amalgam of non-Russian nationalities that sooner or later would seek greater autonomy. His groundbreaking 1950 thesis entitled Russo-Soviet Nationalism examined the forces of nationalism in the USSR. Brzezinski noted: “The test case for Russian nationalism is, however, the Ukraine, the most nationally conscious Union Republic in the USSR. It is also in the Ukraine that Russian nationalism manifests itself most openly, and the former policies of Russification seem to come to life again, indicating the full extent of the resurgence of Russian nationalism.” He argued that this super-imposed Russian primacy was not in immediate danger, but that there is latent potential that individual nationalities within the Soviet Union – conscious of their uniqueness – would attempt to assert their rights. In the late 1960s, he presciently noted that the central authorities in the USSR would not be able to avoid difficult relations with non-Russian nationalities and added, “I also see no reason why the Ukrainians, or the Uzbeks, or the Georgians, or others may not feel that they ought to have a greater sense of national autonomy to enjoy.”
When he became National Security Adviser to President Jimmy Carter, Brzezinski pursued his commitment to human rights; however, this commitment had a special twist when it came to the Soviet Union. His strategy of “peaceful engagement” anticipated that the West would compete with the Kremlin inside the Soviet Bloc. This would entail penetrating societies and exploiting cracks in order to eventually break up the Soviet Union from within. Brzezinski was tough on Russia, but when the Soviet system finally imploded, he argued that Russia deserved a place at the table – that the U.S. should take a proactive position to shape the post-Cold War world and help Russia along its path of reform. He also saw a special place for independent Ukraine.
In his eye-opening 1996 essay entitled Ukraine’s Critical Role in the Post-Soviet Space, published by the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI), Brzezinski stated, “Ukraine is here to stay and that is a fundamentally important accomplishment. Ukraine is here to stay and that has implications not only for the Ukrainian people. It has global implications…” These global implications were in part a product of Ukraine’s strategic choice. In December 1994, Ukraine signed what became known as the Budapest Memorandum. Ukraine voluntarily signed away its nuclear arsenal only three years after it declared independence. It was praised internationally as a responsible and predictable stakeholder and a country willing to cooperate with both the U.S. and Russia. Twenty years later, after Crimea was annexed by the Russian Federation, Brzezinski reminded the world that “Russia committed itself to respecting Ukraine's territorial integrity in a joint agreement with the US and the UK signed in 1994,” and maintained that the comparison of Vladimir Putin’s use of force to seize Crimea with Adolf Hitler’s use of force to seize the Sudetenland is very much accurate.
He was as critical of Putin’s Russia as he was of the Soviet Union, but underscored that the United States needs to cooperate with Russia to find a solution to the conflict in Ukraine. That would require, Brzezinski affirmed, “being tough-minded on Ukraine and Russia, [while] we ought to at the same time, be willing to negotiate seriously an outcome that they and we can live with. And this is why the Finnish model, I think, is very relevant here.” Brzezinski admitted himself that he had been criticized by Ukrainians for proposing the notion of Ukraine’s “Finlandization.” Nevertheless, he argued that Ukraine should enjoy normal and peaceful relations with Russia, like Finland – not a NATO member state – did. In consequence, as he commented in Politico Magazine, the United States should be prepared to use its influence to ensure that a truly independent and territorially undivided Ukraine pursues policies toward Russia similar to those so effectively practiced by Finland: “mutually respectful neighbors, wide-ranging economic relations with both Russia and the European Union, but no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself.” Brzezinski emphasized the importance of Ukraine’s development through integration with Europe, which he hoped would ultimately lead to Ukraine’s membership in the European Union. He felt Ukraine’s first priority should be the EU, which is why he wrote in The Washington Post that “it should be made clear that Ukraine does not seek, and the West does not contemplate, Ukrainian membership in NATO. It is reasonable for Russia to feel uncomfortable about that prospect.”
Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Finnish model continues to raise several concerns. It is based on the assumption that in return for neutrality – meaning not joining NATO – Russia will let Kyiv maintain its sovereignty and Ukraine will be able to develop into a stable, democratic, and prosperous state. However, the likelihood of such a scenario seems low, given that the existence of a free and democratic Ukraine is a threat to Putin’s corrupt and authoritarian Russia. Critics of the doctrine of Finlandization point out that the term itself has negative connotations and has been rejected by the Finnish people due to being passé. Moreover, a more insightful study of Finland’s Cold War experiences reveals the steep price of its alleged neutrality. In reality, Finnish politicians (including Urho Kekkonen, who was president from 1956 to 1982 and was the only Western leader awarded the Lenin Peace Prize) manipulated public opinion with the Soviet threat in order to remain in power. Even though the situation in Finland was better than it was in the Warsaw Pact states, the Soviets were still able to apply political pressure and influence the country’s internal affairs.
Today, the Finnish solution seems less likely to work because it was Ukraine’s European aspiration, not its willingness to join NATO, that sparked Moscow’s actions against Ukraine. And the European Union is by no means a military alliance. It is the embodiment of the principles of a common market, as well as high democratic and human rights standards. Putin finds all these values terrifying. Brzezinski emphasized that without Ukraine Putin will not be able to resurrect his version of the Soviet empire, and that is why, he argued, although Russia’s perspective and interests should not be disregarded, the Kremlin should be aware of the serious repercussions it will face if it continues along the path of undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty.
“Time may not be working in favor of a voluntary submission by Kyiv to Moscow, but impatient Russian pressures to that end as well as the West’s indifference could generate a potentially explosive situation on the very edge of the European Union,” Brzezinski wrote in his 2013 book Strategic Vision. With Russia’s ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine and disrespect for the Minsk Agreement, Brzezinski advocated that the United States should be willing to provide Ukraine with defensive weapons, especially weapons suitable for urban defense. A Russian military campaign in Ukraine would require taking over cities, which can be seen as fortifications in their own right. Alluding to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the former National Security Adviser noted that defensive weapons gain advantage in the urban context, which makes the assault extremely arduous for the attacker. He was adamant in sending a strong signal to Putin that any further military escalation should be met with unwavering support for Ukraine and argued, “We lost thousands and thousands of young Americans in Vietnam. Where did the Vietnamese get the weapons with which they killed our soldiers? Think about that. The Russians didn’t hesitate.”
When most Western observers failed to notice Ukraine in the Soviet ocean, Brzezinski anticipated that its distinct identity would be among the national tidal waves that would eventually undercut the Russian-dominated Soviet empire. Following Ukraine’s independence in 1991, he continued to address the geopolitical significance that Ukraine plays in what Russia considers the “Near-Abroad” and in Vladimir Putin’s plan to rebuild a Eurasian empire. Brzezinski argued that a democratic, European Ukraine would set an example that Russia would follow. And he was optimistic about Russia’s long-term evolution. Most importantly, he believed that Ukraine would be a test for the West and American leadership. It is yet to be seen if they pass or fail, but strategic guidance can be found in Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski’s work and the legacy he has left behind.