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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 29 hearing 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 Ukraine “should be maintained with its existing borders and Russian troops should be withdrawn as part of a settlement.”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 at best.
In contrast, Russia matters much more than Ukraine, regardless of whether it, Russia, is weak or strong, friendly or hostile. Although its economy is in a shambles and its population is in decline, Russia is a regional power that is actively enhancing its military capabilities. It is a territorially huge state that occupies a pivotal position between Europe and Asia. It has a seat on the United Nations Security Council and possesses a vast array of nuclear weapons. It also possesses large reserves of two of the world’s most important strategic resources, oil and gas.
Under normal circumstances, when Russia’s relations with the West are friendly—and, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s beliefs to the contrary, a strong and friendly Russia is in the West’s best interests—it makes eminent sense for the United States and Europe to place greater strategic importance on Russia than on Ukraine. But we live in an abnormal world.
When relations with Russia deteriorate somewhat—to the point that Moscow interferes with the West’s pursuit of its interests—Ukraine takes on potential tactical importance for the West. The United States and Europe can then use Ukraine to counterbalance or, more precisely, to signal their displeasure with Russian behavior by including Kiev in Western peacekeeping missions or in diplomatic initiatives in the United Nations, OSCE, and other international or regional institutions. When relations with Russia deteriorate to the point that a hostile Russia becomes a strategic threat to the West, Ukraine acquires immediate strategic importance for the United States and Europe. Under such conditions, Ukraine is not just a useful counterbalance to Russia but a central component of the West’s strategic defense against Russia. Ukraine’s importance to the West is thus a function of U.S. and European relations with Russia. In this case, the West would regard Ukraine as an ally similar in strategic importance to West Germany during the Cold War.
How should the West interpret its relations with Russia and the place therein of Ukraine? In the last 24 years, Russia has progressively moved from being weak and friendly under President Boris Yeltsin (Ukraine matters little strategically) to weak and hostile under the first few years of Vladimir Putin’s rule (Ukraine still matters little) to strong and hostile since Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 and Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008 (Ukraine starts to matter strategically). In 2014, with Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the aggression in Ukraine’s Donbas region, Russia moved from simple hostility to the West to an outright assault on it and its values, institutions, and interests (Ukraine becomes a strategic asset). Putin’s drift into hostility was not the product of some supposed Western desire to wrest Kiev from Russia and to incorporate Ukraine into NATO—besides, only a small minority of Ukrainians ever wanted to join NATO before 2014—but, rather, of Putin’s establishment in the mid-2000s of a fascist-type regime that made imperial revival and the reestablishment of Russia’s place in the sun the core of his legitimation strategy.
Putin therefore sees Russia as being embroiled in a civilizational clash with the West. In his view, Russia stands for authoritarianism, conservatism, and moral vitality, whereas the West represents chaotic democracy, rampant liberalism, and moral decay. Putin’s aggression in Ukraine challenges the entire postwar security architecture, as well as the relevance of its institutions—NATO, the European Union, the OSCE, and, ultimately, even the United Nations. Finally, Putin appears determined to weaken the West economically, to split it politically, and to establish Russia as the hegemonic power on the European continent.
Putin’s actions thereby threaten the West’s security, stability, prosperity, and democracy. War in Europe has become both thinkable and real, and Putin’s saber-rattling along Europe’s perimeter suggests that he may be interested in expanding his aggression beyond Ukraine. In addition to destabilizing Europe, Putin is also lowering living standards there, by forcing the continent to countenance spending more on defense at a time of economic decline. Finally, by promoting his aggressive authoritarianism and cultivating supporters thereof in Europe, he is undermining European democracy and European values.
Putin’s war against Ukraine is thus a war against Europe. As such, Russia has become a strategic threat to the United States. And now, as a result, Ukraine’s geopolitical position between Russia and the West has made it into a critical component of the West’s defense against Putin’s Russia. It will also be a strategic asset should Putin’s corrupt, ossified, authoritarian state implode. In this case, a strong Ukraine would defend the West—not against Russian aggression but against Russian instability.
Ukraine’s newfound strategic important to the West has several implications for Western policy toward Ukraine. Ukraine can defend the West against Russia only if Ukraine can defend itself against Russia right now and has the economic and political capacity to generate a political system that can defend itself against instability in the long term. In other words, Ukraine needs to have an army strong enough to deter further Russian attacks and it needs to have an economy strong enough to sustain a strong military. As former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said at the January 29 Senate hearing, “Our support for Ukraine must enhance its security capabilities and support the new government’s ambitious reforms, because Ukraine will need to restore security and implement dramatic economic changes to emerge from the current crisis.”
Providing Ukraine with both military and economic assistance as part of a larger Western defensive strategy against a hostile Russia rests on two assumptions. First, that it is in the West’s and Ukraine’s best interests for Russia to be strong and friendly, as only such a Russia can be a reliable partner in maintaining a stable and just international order. And, second, that Putin is concerned with Russia’s interests—security, stability, and prosperity, if not democracy—and is rationally responsive to positive and negative incentives. If Putin is determined to continue escalating the war (as he has, relentlessly, since his annexation of Crimea), destroy Ukraine, and march on Europe regardless of cost, treating Ukraine as a Western strategic asset would have no impact on his intentions, but it would objectively hinder their execution. If, alternatively, Putin is a rational Russian patriot, then a stronger Ukraine—and a strong and friendly Ukraine is in Russia’s best interests—would lead him to de-escalate and to seek a negotiated solution to the war. We have no way of knowing which Putin is the real one, but a stronger Ukraine has the same positive strategic consequences in both scenarios.
The task for the United States and the rest of the West is thus clear. Policymakers need not be “uneasy when one speaks of military measures,” precisely because a strategy justifying such measures exists. Putin’s Russia is strong and exceedingly hostile to everything the West stands for, and a strong Ukraine can help stop Russian aggression against the West. Neither Western boots on the ground in Ukraine, nor NATO membership for Ukraine would be necessary. Ukraine should be strong enough militarily to prevent further Russian expansion. To achieve that end, Kiev needs real-time intelligence, sophisticated communications, and antitank missiles. The challenge for the West is actually greater economically and could entail as much as the $50 billion in aid that the investor George Soros suggests is imperative.
If Putin becomes genuinely conciliatory and the war in the Donbas ends, the West’s commitment to Ukraine would focus only on economic assistance. If he continues, irrationally, to escalate, the West will have increased Ukraine’s, and its own, defensive posture. Whatever his response, the United States and Europe must never lose sight of the fact that their Ukraine strategy is only part of a larger Russia strategy whose goal has to be a strong and friendly Russia. As assistance to Ukraine is ramped up, therefore, the West must also redouble its diplomatic efforts, which work best when appeals to reason are backed by economic and military incentives.
If and when Russia abandons its hostility and becomes friendly toward the West, which could take months or years, Ukraine’s strategic importance would fall away and the West could regard Ukraine as just another stable, secure, and pro-Western state enjoying normal relations with a strong and amicable Russia. In the meantime, defending Ukraine’s strategic interests—security, stability, prosperity, and democracy—is the best way to defend the West’s own strategic interests.