Perspective: Why a free Ukraine matters to America — and the rest of the world
Russia’s invasion is a blow to existing international order. And the results will likely be tragic.
Let’s not mince words. An authoritarian state has invaded its democratic neighbor. Russia has forcefully violated Ukraine, and it has done so in support of a revision of internationally recognized borders. This is a challenge for Europe, for the United States and for the entire world.
First of all, this is a blow to the heart of the existing international order. This order, imperfect as it is, is based on respect for the territorial integrity of sovereign states. Thus Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a serious concern for every country in the world — with the important exception of a handful of countries that have designs on territory not currently under their control as well as the capability to take what they want.
The world and the United States is better off if a large country cannot take what it wants from a smaller neighbor by force. Such a world is dangerous, something we know from centuries of experience.
The “Long Peace” that the world has enjoyed for the past 77 years has been a striking contrast, even with its civil wars and insurgencies and a handful of significant interstate wars. The security and predictability of this period have facilitated economic growth and prosperity, and have even made possible an unprecedented degree of international cooperation that has allowed the nations of the world to make at least a stab at dealing with their common problems. In other words, you may think the world has been a mess, but a quick look at history will tell you it could have been a lot worse without the “Long Peace.”
But the specific danger posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is even worse. In the language of international relations, Russia is a revisionist power. Under Putin, Russia is not satisfied with its current position in the world, with its current sphere of influence or even with its current borders. Putin’s Russia wants to revise all of this, or more precisely, to expand it. It wants to change things; it wants more influence than it has.
This is not to say that expansion is a grassroots demand of ordinary Russians. In fact, polls indicate that most Russians did not favor armed intervention in Ukraine. Once the Russian government’s propaganda machine catches up with Russian policy this may change. The government’s control over mass media is a powerful tool.
Still, the driver here is clearly Putin. Analysts disagree on whether his revisionism derives from his own psychological needs or whether it might be a function of the particular equation that he and the oligarchs around him have put together to stay in power, but the fact of this revisionism is undeniable. Nevertheless, this does not settle the crucial question of the limits of Putin’s revisionist appetite. How far will he go? How far does he want to go?
These questions are most urgent right now in other former Soviet republics in Europe. Moldova has its own pro-Russian breakaway province, Transnistria, which Russia could use as a pretext for invasion just as it is currently using Ukraine’s Donbas and Luhansk regions. The Baltic states — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — are NATO members but their Russian-speaking minorities could provide another kind of pretext for Russian intervention. The geographic oddity that Russia’s Kaliningrad, the headquarters of the Russian Baltic fleet, is not contiguous with the rest of Russia makes Lithuania and Latvia vulnerable to a Russian demand for a land corridor through their territory.
Might these countries be next on Putin’s list, whether for outright annexation or dismemberment or mere intimidation and domination? If anyone took seriously the claims Putin made in his Feb. 21 speech about Ukraine’s lack of true nationhood, about it being “an inalienable part of (Russian) history, culture and spiritual space,” they might think that Ukraine is a special case. But Ukraine has its own centuries-long history and its own national identity. Indeed, Russian citizens recognize this. Surveys show that while a majority approved of the 2014 annexation of Crimea, viewing it as inherently Russian, they do not believe that other Ukrainian territories should be “returned” to Russia.
In addition, the claim Putin frequently makes, that Russian aggression is a necessary response to the threat posed by the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, would apply equally well to actions against Moldova or the Baltic states. So too would the more plausible motive of restoring as much of the Soviet empire as possible. After all, Putin has described its collapse as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the (20th) century.”
And this motive of course would mean that all the countries of the former Soviet bloc in Europe are in Putin’s crosshairs. If Russia effectively dominates Ukraine, it will border on Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, as well as taking over all of Poland’s eastern border. Here annexation may not be a real fear, but domination through intimidation and harassment is a serious danger. Already Poland has been facing a crisis caused by Russian satellite Belarus funneling groups of migrants across its border.
Does this matter to Western Europe? Germany, France, and other West European states have made it clear that they do not wish to return to the bad old Cold War days when they faced an armed and dangerous enemy bloc with Soviet troops stationed just one country away or even just on the other side of the border. Russian expansion is a serious concern throughout Europe.
Finally, we should not ignore the plight of Ukraine itself. No matter what Putin may claim, Ukraine is a democracy. Its current president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, won a free and fair election, beating the incumbent. It is also a democracy whose citizens value their separation from Russia. In 1991, more than 90% of Ukrainian voters opted for independence in a national referendum. Just eight years ago, tens of thousands of Ukrainians protested for months against a government viewed as corrupt and pro-Russian, eventually unseating it and bringing about new elections. In a poll this month, more than 57% of respondents declared themselves ready to personally take action to resist Russian intervention.
Thus, according to opinion polls from both countries, a country whose citizens value their independence is being invaded by a country whose citizens view their military’s action unenthusiastically at best. But since only the former country is a democracy and since the latter country is much more powerful, the results are likely to be tragic.
Marjorie Castle teaches political science at the University of Utah. She completed her graduate studies at Stanford University and specializes in political regime change.