Why Does Ukraine Matter to the United States?

Nearly two months after Russia invaded Ukraine, much of the news reports center on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s endgame. In an interview with Ian Bremmer on his podcast, the former Finnish Prime Minister, Alexander Stubb, succinctly summarized Putin’s objectives: “You have to remember that Mr. Putin has three aims at the moment. Number one – invade and annex Ukraine. Number two – push back the frontiers of NATO. Number 3 – prevent Finland and Sweden from joining NATO.”

Mr. Stubb correctly points out that the invasion of Ukraine is Mr. Putin’s top priority. In July 2021, he published a long essay in which Mr. Putin waxes poetic on his belief that Ukrainians and Russians are a “single people, unified by language, culture, and religion.” Russia certainly sees Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence as the country was an important part of the Soviet Union until gaining independence in 1991. Yet, while most analysis focuses on Ukraine’s importance to Russia, one question remains insufficiently answered: why does Ukraine matter to the United States?

U.S.-Ukraine Relations

The United States and Ukraine established diplomatic relations in 1991 after the latter gained independence from the Soviet Union as the United States supported Ukraine’s desire to join Western institutions after living in the shadows of the Soviet Union. Throughout the more than 30 years of engagement, the United States has provided Ukraine with significant amounts of military and financial aid from the United States, which continues to increase as the war in Ukraine continues, particularly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and backing separatist factions in the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine in 2014.

During the Trump administration, Ukraine figured prominently in U.S. politics with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky finding himself in the middle of a political scandal that enveloped Washington. In 2019, former President Donald Trump blocked $391 million in military aid to Ukraine until Mr. Zelensky agreed to investigate corruption charges against Joe Biden, his most likely competitor in the 2020 presidential elections.

Ukraine hoped for improved relations as the Biden administration took office, and relations have fared a bit better. Mr. Biden and Mr. Zelensky have spoken several times, before and during the invasion. U.S. engagement with Ukraine now focuses on combating Russia’s war in Ukraine as the United States and its European allies lead the charge in providing financial aid and weapons in Ukraine to boost the Ukrainian military’s fight against Russia and imposing crippling sanctions that have battered Russia’s economy.

Mr. Biden has drawn the line, declaring that the United States will not engage in direct military conflict with Russia unless a NATO country is attacked. The bottom line, though, is that the United States does not have a mutual defense treaty with Ukraine, so there is no obligation for the United States or its NATO allies to protect the war-torn country militarily. Despite not being a traditional ally, what happens to Ukraine matters to the United States.

There’s This Thing Called Sovereignty

Russia’s invasions against Ukraine, both in 2014 and today, fly in the face of international norms. The invasion is also a violation of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. As part of the U.S.-led liberal world order, sovereignty is a concept dating back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which brought an end to the Thirty Years War.

By annexing Crimea in 2014, backing pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region of Ukraine, and invading Ukraine in early 2022, Russia has violated the sovereignty of another independent country that Putin insists – in violation of international law – has no sovereignty rights.

The Russian invasion is also a violation of an international agreement. Once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, its nuclear stockpile, capable of striking the U.S. and its allies, became a key concern for the West. This was particularly true in Ukraine. Thus, in 1994, the United States, Ukraine, Russia, and the United Kingdom signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assistance where Ukraine promised to return its nuclear weapons to Russia. In exchange, Russia promised to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

While the Memorandum is considered a diplomatic agreement and not a treaty, Russia reneged on that international agreement. Mr. Putin has shown his intention of restoring the former Russian empire, carving away at sovereign states in Europe. If the United States and its European allies don’t stop Russia from violating the sovereignty of Ukraine, Mr. Putin will not stop there.

On the Domestic Front

Americans are already feeling the impacts of Western sanctions imposed on Russia as punishment for the invasion of Ukraine. The war has pushed gas prices to record highs in the United States despite the fact that the United States does not purchase much oil from Russia. However, Russia is a major global supplier of crude oil and natural gas, particularly to U.S. allies in Europe. Russia has threatened to cut off oil supplies, causing global oil prices to skyrocket. Higher gas prices will contribute to inflation and slower economic recovery for the United States.  

Cyberwarfare remains a concern as well. The U.S. government has warned that Russia is preparing cyberattacks targeting U.S. energy and financial industries as a result of the Western sanctions. As Foreign Policy recently pointed out, Russia “doesn’t have to hit the biggest American target to have an impact…but can bloody the nose of U.S. companies in digital attacks”. Russian cyberattacks on U.S. companies will impact the average American.

American communities are also likely to be seeing increased number of Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers. The Biden administration announced a program to allow U.S. citizens and groups to sponsor Ukrainian citizens displaced due to the Russian invasion as part of Mr. Biden’s promise to bring 100,000 Ukrainians who have fled their homeland to the United States. In early April, the New York Times reported that significant numbers of Ukrainian nationals are crossing the U.S. border with Mexico. Increased numbers of Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers will also impact the average American.

Could the War Spill Over Into NATO Territory?

There is still a possibility that the war in Ukraine will spill over into NATO territory. The invasion has rightfully alarmed most NATO allies, especially those in closer proximity to Russia and Ukraine. Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are particularly concerned, seeing themselves as the obvious targets of Russian aggression against NATO. The war is even pushing historically neutral countries – specifically, Finland and Sweden – to consider joining NATO.

However, NATOs’ response, while readying itself to defend every inch of allied territory, has been restrained for fear of escalating the fight with Russia. NATO allies have deployed more troops to its eastern flank to bolster the defenses of Ukraine’s neighbors. NATO even activated its NATO Response Force in case the war expands beyond NATO’s borders. NATO is preparing military options to be in position should Russia attack a NATO country.

While the war in Ukraine may seem like it is far away from the United States, it really is not. For years, NATO, including the United States, largely took for granted that Mr. Putin would refrain from attacking NATO countries because of NATO’s Article 5, which acted as a deterrent. That factor is no longer a given.

Ukraine is not protected under NATO’s Article 5 commitment, which states that an attack on one is an attack on all. As a result, the allied countries continue to offer limited assistance, stopping short of sending troops. Yet, if Russia’s actions spill over into NATO territory – even if U.S. and NATO troops stay out of Ukraine – the United States would be obligated under the alliance’s Article 5 to defend any ally that is attacked.

The Nuclear Option

The NATO allies’ fears go even further than direct conflict: the use of nuclear weapons. The fear is not unfounded. The day Russia invaded Ukraine, Mr. Putin warned the West: “No matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats to our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your history.” Just three days later, Mr. Putin then placed Russia’s nuclear forces on “special combat readiness.”

The West interpreted the ambiguity surrounding the warnings as threat to use nuclear options. Russia certainly has a robust nuclear arsenal that rivals that of the United States. Russia is estimated to have 1,558 deployed nuclear warheads and 2,889 in reserve. Analysts believe that Russia has thousands of non-strategic nuclear weapons as well. Mr. Putin sees his nuclear arsenal as a way to persuade the West into backing down against his intentions in Ukraine. The likelihood of Russia using nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out. And, if Russia resorts to the nuclear weapon option, whether in Ukraine or against NATO, it would have devastating consequences not just for the United States, but for the entire world.

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