What Is America's Interest in the Ukraine War?

What Is America's Interest in the Ukraine War?

Amid the continuing war and ongoing calls for the United States to “do more,” the question remains: what, if any, are the United States’ strategic interests in Ukraine—and how might the United States best service them?

Nor would a Russian victory in Ukraine change this situation. Even adding all of Ukraine’s resources to Russia’s, its economy would still be smaller than Italy’s, and its population barely that of France, Germany, and Poland combined; it would continue to face limits in using commodity and energy exports to influence European politics beyond the short term, and would still remain a massively smaller geopolitical competitor than the Cold War-era Soviet Union. Moreover, Russian forces would remain more than 500 miles further east than their Cold War Soviet equivalents while facing the need to move across the rest of an Eastern Europe that would be anything but cooperative. If anything, the main effect of a Russian victory in Ukraine would be to raise threat perceptions among European countries and so induce even more balancing by highly capable players against Moscow. Russia, in short, is not poised to dominate the continent regardless of what happens in Ukraine. The United States seeks to prevent the rise of a Eurasian hegemon but, thankfully, the structure of European politics already solves this problem so far as Russia is concerned.

If anything, American policy in Ukraine may end up undermining the U.S. objective of preventing a Eurasian hegemon. The problem here is not Russia, but China. Due in no small part to the intensity of the U.S.-led response to Russia’s invasion, Russia has increasingly turned to China for economic aid, diplomatic support, and military assistance. This has rebounded to China’s advantage, with Beijing able to set favorable terms of trade with Moscow, increase market access for China’s own goods and services, and gain political leverage that may eventually translate into Russian diplomatic backing for China’s own interests. At a time when the United States and its allies have otherwise sought to slow China’s economic growth and limit its geopolitical reach in order to arrest its rise as a peer competitor, this result would complicate U.S. grand strategy. 

On the military front, the United States looks to be committed to a reinforced presence in Europe for the foreseeable future. This means that resources which could otherwise be reallocated to competing with China will be unavailable. For sure, reinforcing Europe requires land forces while competing with China primarily requires air and sea assets; in the short-term, the United States may be able to use its military to play the central role against both Russia and China. Still, many of the long-range strike and reconnaissance assets needed to bolster defenses against Russia are those useful for addressing a rising China, implying greater tradeoffs across the theaters than may be immediately apparent. Similarly, if China is truly the “pacing threat” driving U.S. strategy, then the assets currently being allocated to Europe—with plans now calling for additional ground forces, strike aircraft, naval vessels, and support elements that will bring U.S. force totals to roughly 100,000 personnel—may eventually leave U.S. strategy under-resourced in key ways.

As for building a Europe “whole, free, and at peace,” the sad reality is that American policy toward Ukraine underscores that this ambition was a questionable and problematic objective from the start. Without conquering the continent under the American aegis and imposing democracy, crafting a Europe whole, free, and at peace required that no rivalries or conflicts between European states emerge while democracy and integration marched forward. From the start, this left American ambitions hostage to local developments outside the United States’ control: should integration or democracy slow, or tensions erupt, the United States would have to select at most two of the three stated objectives. 

The rise of Russo-Ukrainian tensions from the mid-2010s highlights the tradeoff. Ukraine is relatively freer than Russia and many of its citizens desire greater integration with the rest of Europe, but the latter objective could only be accomplished (as diplomats and intelligence analysts had long reported) at the risk of a crisis with Russia and a dividing line in Eastern Europe. Conversely, the United States could have prioritized peace and avoided dividing lines across Eastern Europe by conciliating Moscow, but this was only viable if Washington accepted limits on Ukraine’s Western integration (and likely Russian influence over Ukrainian politics). As U.S. choices since 2014 indicate, policymakers dealing with this tradeoff took steps that, although not the direct cause of the present war, undermined the “at peace” leg of the triangle. “Whole, free, and at peace” was a noble objective. Still, it was an ambition that was never truly the United States’ to produce, and has already been relegated to the background of U.S. policy.

IF CLAIMED U.S. interests in Ukraine are wanting, and current U.S. policy cannot be justified in light of U.S. grand strategic precepts, should the United States care at all about the Russian invasion of Ukraine? If so, what might a revised U.S. policy entail?

Strategy requires setting priorities and allocating relatively scarce resources to service those objectives. For much of the post-Cold War era, however, unipolarity meant that the United States seemingly did not have to do much priority setting or worry overly much about resources: with power starkly weighted in the United States’ favor, policymakers could pursue such disparate objectives as NATO enlargement, regime change in the Middle East, and hedging against China without concerning themselves too much as to where the resources would come from or how the parts fit together.

Today, however, the situation is different. A combination of domestic demands and renewed geopolitical competition—particularly in Asia, where China is the most likely candidate to seek Eurasian hegemony—is compelling policymakers to re-evaluate U.S. priorities and to consider where the requisite resources will come from. Compared to the Cold War and immediate post-Cold War era, Europe is being downgraded.

Viewed in this light, American interests in Ukraine are fairly limited. First, the United States has a strong interest in preventing the conflict from spilling beyond Ukraine. This reduces the chance that the United States may be pulled into a broader confrontation with Moscow that might escalate to war, with all the attendant dangers. Second, the United States maintains an interest in avoiding such a collapse of U.S.-Russian relations (1) that any future engagement with Russia on issues of mutual concern (e.g., arms control, counter-terrorism, climate change) is impossible, and (2) that Moscow, as Henry Kissinger cautions, is driven to seek “a permanent alliance elsewhere”—that is, with China. These outcomes would complicate the United States’ strategic map and exacerbate the already difficult adjustments underway in U.S. grand strategy as the unipolar era comes to an end. Finally, Washington has at least some interest in sustaining the already-favorable European balance of power as an insurance policy against the risk of Russia—or any state—calculating that further aggression may pay. Note that this latter interest is not about teaching Russia or others a lesson by causing harm (as the current policy conversation has it), but rather about reducing opportunities for Russian aggrandizement going forward.

Servicing these more limited objectives requires meaningful adjustments to current U.S. policy. In practice, limiting the risk of spillover and an irrevocable collapse in relations means bringing the conflict to a timely end without drawing the United States further into the contest. Given the battlefield distribution of power and Russia’s apparent willingness—as Putin’s recent mobilization orders and threat to use nuclear weapons emphasize—to tolerate large costs for the sake of its conflict, this means applying significant pressure on Kyiv to negotiate with Russia while engaging Moscow to foster a diplomatic deal to end the conflict. In doing so, the United States would have to turn away from its stated deference to Kyiv’s war aims and toward a policy that would create incentives for ending the war and disincentives for its continuation for both Kyiv and Moscow. By the same token, the United States would also need to find a way of reopening dialogue with Moscow and give Russia sufficient inducements to end the conflict. 

Critics will charge that this course sells out Ukraine, rewards Russian aggression and nuclear brinksmanship, and does nothing to prevent Russia from biding its time before re-invading Ukraine. These charges are at least partly true. Still, two points are important. On one level, again, the United States has minimal interests in what happens in or to Ukraine per se; if Ukraine were central to the balance of power, this would change—but it isn’t. Accordingly, as tragic as it would be to witness future Russian aggression against Ukraine, it would be a still greater tragedy if the United States ends up in conflict with Russia or facilitating the rise of a true Eurasian hegemon by misallocating its time and resources. By the same token, this would hardly be the first time when a reassessment of U.S. interests and priorities led the United States to compel partners and allies into making harsh sacrifices while dealing with real or potential aggressors. Similar policies, for instance, were behind the U.S. push to end the Vietnam War, to divide Cold War Germany, and to foster different Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli deals. Not all of these contests ended with the United States’ preferred party “winning” at the diplomatic table (or, in South Vietnam’s case, surviving). Nevertheless, just as the United States saw its own interests preserved in these prior episodes, so too may its fairly limited interests in Ukraine be advanced by deploying a similar playbook.