International democracy promotion has gained traction in US foreign policy during the past decades. Based on the firm belief that democracies do not wage war against each other (known as the dyadic Democratic Peace Theory), democracy promotion has been identified by key political figures as a central strategy to achieving international peace and stability. President Ronald Reagan originally introduced democracy promotion into foreign policy by establishing a private, non-profit organization, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in 1983, which continues to channel federal funds to pro-American civil society organizations globally. (2) During the late 1990s and early 21st century, it became standard practice to use nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to promote democracy abroad. (3) Post 9/11, President George W. Bush elevated international democracy promotion through his freedom agenda to one of his highest foreign policy aims. (4)
But is democracy promotion a low-risk strategy for supporting a democratic political transition? Scholars have long questioned the assumptions underlying such a simplified and positive portrayal of political change and its effects, by highlighting the association of democratization and political violence. (5)
This paper applies this debate to the contemporary case of Ukraine: did US democracy-promotion activities in Ukraine trigger the country's Euromaidan protests in late 2013? In answering this question, the essay focuses on the role of US government and NGOs in promoting democracy in Ukraine during the past two decades, and assesses to what extent this democracy promotion contributed to or sparked the ongoing, unresolved crisis in (eastern) Ukraine.
I argue that US democracy promotion in Ukraine during the past two decades contributed to the occurrence and scale of forceful demonstrations in Kiev in 2013, but did not fundamentally cause or initiate them. US assistance strengthened and supported domestic actors (e.g., Ukrainian media outlets and NGOs), but the popular movement was far from externally controlled or directed. Rather, as during the Orange Revolution of 2004, external involvement helped generate the critical mass necessary to engage a large section of Ukrainian society.
Furthermore, I contend that the open-ended violent conflict in eastern Ukraine was by no means an intended outcome of democracy promotion, but nevertheless a potential, even probable risk. Democracy promotion can produce a highly volatile and complex political environment, which can easily break down into post-revolutionary chaos. (6) Unintended consequences and political conflicts are part and parcel of international democracy promotion, and, in the future, need to be factored into policy initiatives with a view to mitigating such risks.
Part one of this paper examines the nature of US involvement in Ukraine. I present an overview of the primary US actors, their activities and strategies, as well as the scale of their involvement. Part two analyzes the effects of external involvement on the political crisis in Ukraine, which evolved into a sustained military conflict in the eastern parts of the country I highlight how common assessments of the importance of external influences on the events in Ukraine are fundamentally affected by perception and the foreign actors' position, and emphasize the need to consider other influences.
The Nature of US Assistance in Ukraine
The United States has been heavily involved in Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War, spending more than $26 billion between 1992 and 2005 on assistance to states formerly part of the Soviet Union. (7) In addition to promoting free markets and establishing security partnerships, the US government fundamentally aims to facilitate the transition from authoritarian to democratic political systems. (8) A large share of this spending has gone to Ukraine. Various estimates suggest that the aggregate amount of US assistance to Ukraine since the end of the Cold War is roughly between $3 and $5 billion. (9)
The Nexus between Government and Private Actors
The US provides assistance to Ukrainian actors through a wide variety of institutions: (10)
* Government bodies, such as the State Department, the United States Embassy in Kiev as well as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. government's development agency;
* Private organizations such as the NED and two of its affiliated institutions, the International...