The tensions on the Ukrainian-Russian border have led national newscasts in the U.S. for weeks now, but most Americans may not even know where Ukraine is, much less understand its geopolitical significance.
According to aWashington Post survey conducted when Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, only 16% of Americans could find Ukraine on a map. In fact, the median respondent to the survey missed Ukraine by 1,800 miles, more than the distance from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Now, the Pentagon is deploying 3,000 troops to help defend European allies in case authoritarian Russia decides to invade a democratic country most Americans know very little about. About 1,000 of the troops will be moved from Germany to Romania, with the other 2,000 mostly heading from the U.S. to Poland. Last week, the Biden administration put 8,500 U.S. troops on heightened alert for deployment to Eastern Europe.
Defense Departmentspokesman John Kirby said the troops would mostly bolster NATO’s rapid response force in Eastern Europe and the Baltic nations. He took care not to suggest that combat troops would deploy to Ukraine itself, but the U.S. has had military advisors there for years. In fact,according to the State Department, the U.S. has committed more than $2.7 billion in training and equipment since 2014 to help Ukraine maintain its territorial integrity.
Why Should Americans Care?
If the troops and the financial commitment weren’t enough, Americans should be concerned about hostilities breaking out between Europe’s two largest countries for many reasons.
1. National Security. Most important is that conflict would threaten American national security and increase U.S. vulnerability. A war, to usePresident Biden’s words, “would change the world,” and would involve “the largest invasion since World War II.”
2. European Stability. Aside from the terrible cost in human lives, an all-out war would immediately undermine European security and could lead to a wider conflict. It would also devastate the world economy.
3. A New Iron Curtain? It’s perfectly conceivable that a Russian takeover of Ukraine, to paraphraseWinston Churchill, would make a new Iron Curtain descend across Europe, endangering global stability. Already, Russian dominance has effectively extended into Belarus, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
4. Chinese Expansionism. A Russian invasion could embolden China to take even more aggressive action with respect to Taiwan, possibly drawing the U.S. into another serious conflict. It might also encourage the Chinese to take even greater control over Hong Kong and accelerate its military takeover of disputed areas in the South China Sea.
5. Sovereignty. International law and world order can’t survive without respect for the sovereignty of nations. Russian President Vladimir Putin has long bemoaned thecollapse of the Soviet empire, and he has repeatedly claimed that Ukraine is part of Russia. In a long, ramblingpiece he published on July 12, 2021, Putin claimed that Russians and Ukrainians “are one people,” and that he is “confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”
6. Cyberwarfare. If Russia were to invade Ukraine with relative impunity, it could further encourage not only Putin’s geographical adventurism, but also his cyber incursions. Multiple investigations have shown how Russia interfered in recent American elections, andintelligence reports indicate that it is doing so again in the 2022 midterms.Hackers under the control of the Russian government have successfully attacked multiple U.S. government agencies.Until recently, Moscow had done little to control hacker groups responsible for high-profile ransomware cyberattacks against American businesses.
7. Kremlin Malign Influence. Cyberwarfare is just one example of what theCentre for Strategic and International Studies think tank describes as the Kremlin’s “pattern of malign influence.” The CSIS Kremlin Playbook 2 describes how Russia focuses “on weakening the internal cohesion of societies and strengthening the perception of the dysfunction of the western democratic and economic systems.”
8. NATO Divisions. Finally, the debate over how to react to Russian aggression could lead to divisions within NATO. That’s because most of its members are highly dependent on Russia for their energy needs, and they may not want to anger the Russian Bear. In fact, Russia provides more than40% of European Union gas imports.The European Statistical Office (Eurostat) estimates that Germany, which has NATO’s second-largest economy after the U.S., imports 50-75% of its natural gas from Russia. The good news is that so far Russia’s actions seem to be uniting NATO against a common threat.
Has Appeasement Led to the Recent Tensions?
Appeasing dictators is a recipe for disaster. Putin has faced some sanctions from the West in response to his bad behavior over the past couple of decades, but they utterly failed.
For example,the G8 (now the G7) canceled a summit in Sochi and suspended Russia’s membership in the group after the 2014 Crimean invasion. Eight years later, Russia still controls the Crimean Peninsula.
Not only that, the Kremlin has continued to foment a civil war in the Ukraine’s Donbas region by supporting pro-Russian separatists. By May of 2020,according to multiple sources, the conflict had killed more than 14,000 people.
Putin had already seen that he could get away with military action against former Soviet republics. In 2008,Russia invaded Georgia, coming within striking distance of its capital, Tbilisi. With Putin’s blessing, the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia declared their independence. To this day, they are underRussian control, recognized only by a handful of Kremlin allies like Venezuela, Syria, and Nicaragua.
Despite the 2008 Russian invasion, much of the U.S. political class dismissed Putin’s power and nefarious influence. Four years later in a presidential debate, President Obama famously slammed his opponent Mitt Romney for claiming that Russia was the biggest geopolitical threat to the U.S. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” Obama said. (In 2017, former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, an Obama supporter,apologized to Romney saying she had “underestimated” Russia back then.)
Putin has also sensed American weakness in Afghanistan, and has seen how the West has largely stood by as China has ignored its commitments in Hong Kong.
Again, appeasing dictators is a recipe for disaster.
What Do Americans Think?
Americans are divided on whether the U.S. has a responsibility to protect Ukraine, according to aYouGov survey released Monday, Jan. 24, 2022. But a surprising percentage of adults surveyed (35%) believe the U.S. does, with another third disagreeing, and the final third not sure.
An earlierYouGov poll in December that was commissioned by the Charles Koch Institute found that 48% of “internet using adults” strongly or somewhat oppose the U.S. going to war with Russia to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Again, to my surprise, 27% favor the U.S. fighting with Russia over Ukraine. The same survey, though, found a seeming contradiction, because only 10% support for the U.S. getting “more militarily engaged in conflicts around the world.”
Another survey fromTrafalgar Group/Convention of States Action found 15.3% of likely voters think the U.S. should provide troops as boots on the ground if Russia invades Ukraine, while 23.2% support providing military advisors.
Despite Putin’s delusions of grandeur and nostalgia for the Soviet empire, it’s difficult to imagine that he wants a full-blown war with Ukraine.
As my Bulletin colleagueIan Bremmer wrote, “another large-scale invasion of Ukraine would impose high human, economic, and political costs on Russia and Putin.” He points out that Russian forces would incur heavy losses, and that occupation will come at a high financial cost as well, even without factoring in potential new and much more punitive Western sanctions.
Putin needs to factor that into his cost-benefit analysis, while also learning a different lesson from Afghanistan. Instead of the perceived American weakness of last summer, he must keep in mind the pain Russia suffered because of theSoviet War in Afghanistan war in the late 70s and 80s. Costly in financial terms (tens of billions in present-day dollars) and in human lives (nearly 15,000 Russian deaths), it significantly contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Two things Putin wants are a commitment that Ukraine will never be part of NATO and a pullback of alliance forces deployed to ex-Soviet countries that have become NATO members.
None of that is likely to happen, and it shouldn’t. The West cannot give in to bullying from the former KGB lieutenant colonel.
The problem is finding an off-ramp where Putin can save face that doesn’t constitute appeasement or strengthen his malign geopolitical influence.
In a call last week to French President Emmanuel Macron,Putin reportedly repeated that he has “no offensive plans.”
Prove it, Mr. Putin, and de-escalate immediately.
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Cover photo: Armored personnel carriers of the 92nd separate mechanized brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces move to park in their base near Klugino-Bashkirivka village, in the Kharkiv region on Jan. 31, 2022. The tanks have to restore their combat capability in preparation for a potential Russian invasion after completing a combat mission in war-torn eastern Ukraine. (Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images)