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In our opinion: As the Ukraine scandal unfolds, Americans shouldn’t lose sight of the larger problem

How far is the West prepared to go to protect Ukraine against Russian aggression?

A film still from “Our New President” by Maxim Pozdorovkin, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
A film still from “Our New President” by Maxim Pozdorovkin, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
Provided by Sundance Institute

The questions gripping Washington this week can be simply stated: Did the president pressure the leader of a foreign nation to conduct an investigation into his political rival, and did he threaten to withhold military aid as part of that pressure?

The answers are important, and for obvious reasons. Presidents should not use the power of their office as leverage for help in political campaigns.

But while Congress and the public wait for the facts to unfold, the irony of this crisis is that it diverts attention from a question of greater consequence.

How far is the West prepared to go to protect Ukraine against Russian aggression?

Because Ukraine is so far from the United States and so close to Russia, its importance has perhaps been muted in the minds of many Americans. Even former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson once asked the G-7 foreign ministers why American taxpayers should care about the former Soviet republic.

The answer is that it would be hard to find a freedom-loving people who have done more to ensure global stability following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 1991, Ukrainian voters voted overwhelmingly for independence. As the most heavily armed former Soviet republic, Ukraine then chose to destroy its nuclear arsenal, which comprised about one-third of the former Soviet Union’s stockpile.

The fledgling nation’s bold stand diffused what could have been a problematic geopolitical situation for the West. The weapons it destroyed had been designed to attack the United States.

But Ukraine’s friendly outreach to the West didn’t end there. It sent soldiers — three battalions worth — to Iraq after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, to help with the stabilization force. Its government has consistently made future membership in NATO a top priority.

Not insignificantly, Ukraine has adopted many basic freedoms, including religious liberty. While some conflicts have been reported, the aim, according to the U.S. Department of State, has been to “foster the creation of a tolerant society and provide for freedom of conscience and worship.”

And yet, despite Ukraine’s efforts to be a peaceful and democratic member of the international community, Russia has been able to exert its will on the country since 2014 with a minimum of resistance, other than sanctions, condemnations and passive aid for Ukraine. One year ago, Russia began stopping Ukrainian ships from freely passing through the Sea of Azov, an area of total Russian control since its forceful annexation of Crimea.

That situation was resolved after an international tribunal ruled against Russia, and after the U.S., Canada and the EU instituted tough sanctions and President Donalc Trump canceled a meeting with Vladimir Putin.

But tensions between Russia and Ukraine have hardly gone away.

And, not surprisingly, some in Ukraine have considered the decision to destroy the nation’s nuclear arsenal a mistake, noting that nations possessing such weapons get treated with greater respect.

To be clear, the allegations against Trump are serious and alarming, especially if they were intended to attach political conditions to military aid. The president’s allegations against Joe Biden’s son, that he tried to hamper an investigation into a Ukrainian gas company of which he is a board member, also are serious. But Biden’s son is not the president of the United States, and so these are of lesser importance.

But, just for a moment, put yourself in the place of a Ukrainian citizen with worries about Russian expansion and the loss of personal liberties, and with misgivings about its readiness to sacrifice military strength in favor of close relations with the U.S. Chances are this domestic problem suddenly becomes a distraction from a much larger issue.

As the scandal unfolds, Americans can’t afford to lose sight of this much larger problem.