Before the United States can decide how it might want to support Ukraine in that country’s war with Russia, Washington needs to decide just how Ukraine fits into U.S. strategic interests and, more generally, those of the West. In a recently released National Security Strategy, the White House failed to do either, stating only that Russian aggression should be resisted and that the Ukrainian people should be supported “as they choose their own future and develop their democracy and economy.”
That all sounds fine. But what does “support” mean? Former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was less obfuscatory at a January 29hearing of the Senate Committee on Armed Services. Ukraine “should be maintained with its existing borders and Russian troops should be withdrawn as part of a settlement.” The “outcome,” he continued, “must be a free Ukraine” and it “may include military measures as part of it. But I am uneasy when one speaks of military measures alone without having a strategy fully put forward.”
Kissinger seems right to say that Ukraine should remain free, but why? Answering that question requires an overarching strategy that proceeds from hard geopolitical realities. Some analysts argue that Russia is far more important to the United States than Ukraine because of its size, oil, economy, and military. Others suggest that Ukraine is equally important, not least because its citizens yearn to fully join the West. In fact, both camps are right. Both are also wrong. Depending on whether Russia is a strategic asset or a strategic threat to the United States, Ukraine could be either strategically unimportant or critical.
In a geopolitical vacuum (or “other things being equal,” as academics might put it), Ukraine matters little to the United States in terms of security, stability, prosperity, and democracy. As long as Ukraine remains a militarily and economically weak state with no strategic resources, its ability to affect the United States in any way will remain marginal