For many, the question is, why should the United States worry at all about Ukraine?
Some on the ideological right argue that Ukraine isn’t really a democracy, and therefore not worth the trouble. They accuse Democrats of using this crisis as a political distraction with an eye toward midterm elections.
These are cynical arguments that ignore some harsh realities. They are also dangerous, given how Putin could be emboldened even further if he felt the United States was politically divided over how to respond to his aggressions.
Level-headed Republicans, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, are taking a more responsible approach.
McConnell hasn’t said much, at all. Often, opposition leaders refrain from criticism during a time of crisis. Graham told ABC News, “(Putin’s) decision should be met with forceful sanctions to destroy the ruble and crush the Russian oil and gas sector.”
But the question remains, why concern ourselves at all with Ukraine?
Here are some answers:
True, Ukraine has hardly been a model democracy. It has a post-Soviet history of corruption. Its court system remains suspect. Since 2014, however, reformers have succeeded in passing a number of laws requiring greater transparency in public life. Public servants must declare all their wealth, including income, assets, real estate, corporate holdings, bank account balances and luxuries such as art and fur coats.
“These measures significantly empowered civil society experts and investigative journalists to reveal and expose corruption, thus elevating the risk for corrupt officials, who are sensitive to any public exposure of their wrongdoings,” reports foreignpolicy.com.
Further, Ukraine has a better record on religious freedom than does Russia, and that is important for a lot of reasons. Although Ukraine is not free from vandalism and crimes against worshippers, numerous religious groups practice there. However, the State Department reports that this isn’t the case in Russian-controlled breakaway territories, where Jehovah’s Witnesses, especially, have faced persecution.
Beyond this, however, Americans must understand that a violent and prolonged war in Europe would have the potential to spread across other borders. Once a war begins, it can turn quickly on unpredictable events or mistakes.
The most obvious result could be thousands, if not millions, of refugees trying to flee across the border into NATO nations, such as Poland, or even as far away as the United States, should the administration act as it did with Afghani refugees.
Second, such a war could have far-reaching economic impacts on the price of gasoline, food and other items. It could exacerbate supply chain troubles already impacted by the pandemic. Already, the U.S. stock market has reacted negatively to the twists and turns of Russian threats. News of Russia’s decision to send more troops into breakaway regions led to a sharp downturn Tuesday on Wall Street. Oil prices jumped.
Third, a war, and U.S. sanctions, could lead to an escalation of cyber warfare against the West, including the United States. These could include attacks on financial institutions, businesses, the power grid or important government databases. It could mean an increase in disinformation tactics aimed at public opinion. Thanks to the internet, no conflict is too far-flung to hit home.
In short, as an unnamed senior Western intelligence official told the BBC this week, “Let’s not be blind. If Russia initiates a scenario of any kind it will also initiate action against Nato members. To think war could be contained to one nation would be foolish.”
So, if Ukraine really matters to the United States and its security, what should be done?
The initial answer is, more than what has been done. President Joe Biden acted with resolve on Tuesday, calling Putin’s buildup in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine an invasion. He must not hesitate to be even more forceful. Some of his statements early in this crisis were too mild.
Aggressors typically have the upper hand when carrying out expansionist threats. Democracies tend to be preoccupied with things such as economic expansion, trade and myriad domestic issues. They understand how destructive war can be to prosperity and progress, two primary goals for politicians who want to be reelected. They hesitate to put the lives of their own young men and women at risk through military action, particularly when the conflict is far away.
Dictatorial aggressors don’t fit this pattern of familiar motivations and concerns, leaving other nations struggling to respond to what, in their worlds, would be considered irrational behavior.
Overreact, and you could create another Vietnam or Afghanistan, where lives are sacrificed for little tangible benefit. Under-react, and you could end up with another World War II.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board this week was not the only one to draw connections between Russian President Vladimir Putin’s historical and ethnic arguments for possessing Ukraine to Hitler’s claim to the Sudetenland in the 1930s. At the time, that was met with a tepid response from the rest of Europe.
Or, as Walter Russell Mead wrote in the Journal on Tuesday, Putin’s aggression brings back memories of a famous French leader. “Like Napoleon Bonaparte, he can surprise and outmaneuver his opponents because he is willing to assume risks they would never consider, and so to attack in times and ways they can neither imagine nor plan for,” he said.
Against these realities, Biden’s response has at times appeared too defensive, reacting to events rather than leading or initiating surprises of his own. But solutions to this crisis aren’t clear. Biden’s best weapon has been to promise severe sanctions, but this has hardly fazed the Russian leader. Short of military conflict involving NATO, nothing is likely to stop Putin other than prolonged, consistent and unified pressure.
On Tuesday, after Putin had announced he was sending further troops to two breakaway territories within Ukraine, Biden spoke about unleashing a “first tranche” of sanctions, including against Russian elites and their family members. The movement of Russia sovereign debt would be curtailed.
Biden also announced the movement of troops and equipment to help allies in Europe. Then he added that they would not be there to “fight Russia.”
One wonders why he needed to add that postscript. Why not leave the Russian leader wondering?
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has urged the United States to impose the full arsenal of severe sanctions now, rather than wait until an attack occurs and his economy is in ruins.
It’s an understandable position. Still, Putin likely already has calculated the risks sanctions pose and decided to accept them, just as he seems unimpressed by threats that his nation would become an “international pariah,” as the White House has warned.
Americans, themselves, seem divided. A CBS News poll earlier this month found 53% saying they would prefer the United States stay out of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine entirely, while 43% said the U.S. should support Ukraine.
A new poll by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics found 76% of Utahns saying they are concerned about the buildup of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine, but only 46% saying they support sending troops into Eastern Europe as a deterrent force.
Putin has made it clear that he considers Ukraine a legitimate part of Russia. He likely understands that his forays into Ukraine in recent years have served to drive the nation closer to the West, just as they have aided the Ukrainian move toward democracy.
With this in mind, Biden should make a greater show of unity, both at home and among NATO nations. Germany’s decision to halt the opening of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would have enhanced its reliance on Russian natural gas, was a good step in that direction.
Beyond that, the president needs to inspire. He needs to convince Americans to care about the fate of Ukraine. He speaks too much about the inevitability of an attack and about the weakness of Ukraine. He has spoken in ways that almost invited a “minor incursion” into Ukrainian territory.
Putin, in his rambling and historically inaccurate speech this week, made his intentions clear. As Joshua A. Tucker, a political science professor at New York University and an expert on Russia, told The New York Times, Putin was laying the rhetorical groundwork for the notion “that Ukraine is not currently entitled to the sorts of rights that we associate with sovereign nations.”
Americans know in their hearts that this isn’t right. Ukraine is independent because its people overwhelmingly voted for that. It turned over all of its Soviet-era nuclear weapons to Russia in exchange for assurances it could remain independent.
Americans should understand intrinsically that acting indifferent to a major war in Europe — especially one where the aggressor is so clearly in the wrong — would lead to consequences. Ukraine’s future is of vital concern to the United States.