WASHINGTON – The impeachment drama is now over, but one of its key foreign policy subplots is not going away. Underlying the competing claims about how damaging U.S. President Donald Trump’s actions toward Ukraine really were was a deeper debate about how much that country truly matters to the United States. The answer is that Ukraine does matter, because it is at the center of several core issues of geopolitical competition. But the sound bites to which the foreign policy community sometimes resorts in explaining the country’s importance don’t do justice to the nuance of the issues — and they may actually undermine the case for supporting Ukraine.
The debate over Ukraine reflects the country’s awkward geopolitical position. Today, it is on the front lines of the confrontation between Russia and the West: It is the place where Moscow’s military aggression has been most blatant. Yet Ukraine is not a U.S. treaty ally or a member of the European Union; it sits on the periphery of the transatlantic and European communities. Over the past 30 years, Ukraine has had some governments that aligned closely with Moscow and others that sought to break free of Russia’s grip, a dynamic resulting from long-standing linguistic and political divisions. The American policy debate has mirrored these ambiguities. Some prominent observers have suggested that Ukraine belongs within Russia’s sphere of influence, while others have argued for pulling it closer to the West.
These divisions resurfaced during the impeachment saga. Trump clearly didn’t care much about Ukraine; otherwise, he wouldn’t have played personal politics with the military assistance Kiev badly needed. Yet the president’s opponents in Congress, as well as several officials within his administration, argued that the U.S. indeed has a vital interest in supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression.
National Security Council official Tim Morrison put it starkly, saying that “the United States aids Ukraine and her people so they can fight Russia over there and we don’t have to fight Russia here.” House Democrat Jason Crow used nearly the same formulation: “We help our partner fight Russia over there, so we don’t have to fight Russia here.” These assertions, in turn, caused eye-rolling among advocates of geopolitical restraint, who alleged that the foreign policy community had fallen into an intellectually sloppy habit of arguing that any U.S. retrenchment would result in prompt and utter catastrophe.
These critics are right in one sense: No one really believes that, if Washington didn’t provide Ukraine with military assistance, the consequence would be a Russian invasion of the U.S. But the real reason this argument is so problematic is that it undermines the better arguments for U.S. support to Ukraine — a threefold case that is strong on the merits, if somewhat more nuanced than the “fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here” scenario.
First, Ukraine matters because the U.S. should prefer to keep its competitions with rival powers as close to their borders — and as far from America and its key allies — as possible. If the U.S. and Russia must compete over the future of Europe, it is better that they do so principally in Ukraine, as opposed to Poland or Germany. Helping Ukraine defend its sovereignty is a way of keeping Russia preoccupied in its own backyard. During the Cold War, one reason the Soviet Union sought a foothold in Latin America was to distract the U.S. and divert American energies from other theaters. The inverse logic applies to U.S.-Russia relations today.
Second, Ukraine’s importance relates to a long-standing premise of American foreign policy: that Washington should confront instability and aggression early, before it metastasizes like an aggressive cancer. The logic is that the relative stability the world has enjoyed since World War II is more fragile than it looks, and it will hold only so long as bad actors believe that bad actions will be punished. If the U.S. sends, through its acquiescence, the message that Russia will not pay a heavy price for aggression and territorial aggrandizement in Ukraine, it will simply encourage similar behavior — by the Russians or other international predators — elsewhere.
No, this will probably not lead to a Russian military attack on the U.S. But it could lead to a gradual erosion of the congenial international environment America has worked so hard to build.
This calculus was a major reason the U.S. decided to confront Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 1990, after he invaded Kuwait. Doing otherwise, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft warned, would set “a terrible precedent — one that would only accelerate violent centrifugal tendencies — in this emerging ‘post Cold War’ era.” At the dawn of another new geopolitical era, the same basic principle applies in Ukraine.
Third, Ukraine matters because of its place in the intensifying struggle between democratic and authoritarian forms of rule. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s coercion of Ukraine is not simply a matter of military aggression. It has also involved ongoing efforts, dating back to the early 2000s, to prevent Ukraine from joining the ranks of the world’s truly democratic governments, by fostering corruption and supporting illiberal leaders. Since 2013, Putin has used Ukraine as a laboratory for many of the influence operations and active measures Russia has employed against the West.
Given Ukraine’s strategic importance, the fact that illiberalism is now roiling a number of European countries, and the fact that the success of democracy in Ukraine will surely undermine the legitimacy of Putin’s autocracy in Russia, the U.S. has a real interest in the fate of political reform in Kyiv. That is why measures to promote good governance and combat corruption in Ukraine are just as important as the military aid America has provided — and why Trump’s casual perversion of Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts are indeed so damaging.
Parsing the debate about Ukraine’s significance may seem like an academic exercise. But it goes to the heart of the challenge that supporters of an assertive U.S. foreign policy now face. The paradox of the current moment is that skepticism about America’s global role has been rising, just as threats to the U.S.-led international order are also increasing. American policymakers must relearn how to justify policies — promoting free trade, supporting U.S. allies, shaping the balance of power in faraway regions — whose logic no longer seems as self-evident as it might once have been.
That’s a real political challenge, as well as an intellectual one, and resorting to arguments that lend themselves to easy ridicule won’t make that challenge any easier.
There are plenty of good reasons for the U.S. to care about what happens in Ukraine. Emphasizing the implausible ones only weakens the case.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg columnist and a professor at Johns Hopkins University.