Conservative opinion in America seems to be hardening around opposition to U.S. support for Ukraine. The United States, the logic goes, has no stake in whether or not Russia invades Ukraine. Ukraine is a European nation and that makes it Europe’s problem.
This argument is wrong and reflects a dangerous misunderstanding of what is at stake in Ukraine’s confrontations with Russia.
For starters, modern Europe has never been able to handle its own military confrontations. The only nation in the NATO alliance that can lead the Europeans in a major multinational endeavor is the United States. There is a simple explanation for this imbalance: Because a European state strong enough to lead a coalition against a threat such as Russia would also be strong enough to dominate Western Europe. Which is not a state of affairs helpful to America’s interests.
Next, what happens in Ukraine does not necessarily stay in Ukraine. Previous invasions of Ukraine by Russia have devastated the Donbas region and the cost has been tremendous. If Russia invades again, the cost of rebuilding Ukrainian infrastructure Russian forces destroy could, in the words of the former Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski, “turn Ukraine into a failed state.”
Finally, tolerating a militaristic expansion of this kind would mean that “European security and stability” is a myth. There is every reason to believe that failing to stop Russia from continuing to try and destroy its much-smaller neighbor does not prevent war with Moscow, but rather makes likely a much larger, wider war in Europe in the future.
Then there is the question of NATO. Another claim being advanced is that since Ukraine is not a NATO member, we have no obligation to come to its aid.
True, Ukraine is not a treaty member—but it has the longest history of cooperation with NATO of any nation in the region. Ukraine joined the North Atlantic cooperation council in 1991, making it the first of the former Soviet republics to do so. In 1994, Ukraine became part of the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) program. In 1997, the NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC) was established to enhance cooperation between NATO states and Ukraine.
In 2001, Ukraine was the first former Soviet republic to open a NATO liaison office. Ukraine has also participated in numerous NATO operations and has passed through several steps to move toward officially applying for membership in the alliance. Ukraine is also one in a special category of only six non-member nations to become NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partners (EOP). Three of the others are Georgia, Sweden, and Finland.
Russia is a threat to the security of all four of these countries. (As one diplomat from the region stated at a recent security conference in Warsaw, “Being in this neighborhood means you have to learn to sleep with one eye open.”) Georgia and Ukraine also share the dubious distinction of having been previously invaded by Russia and still having Moscow’s military occupying parts of their territory. (The Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and in Ukraine the entire Crimean Peninsula and the eastern Donbas regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.)
All of which means that if Ukraine receives no help from NATO because they are not a full-fledged member, it will send an ominous signal. It would say that decades of partnering with our alliance, participating in its missions, and contributing personnel and equipment to its operations counts for nothing. If you are attacked by the Russians, there will be no boots on the ground coming to your aid. Which would make the status of being any kind of NATO partner nation worth nothing—and could cripple, if not destroy, the alliance.
Another conservative talking point is that Russia has already invaded Ukraine twice, so why worry about a third invasion?
Well, beyond the immediate concern about what could happen in Europe as a whole there is the simple fact that if Ukraine is occupied or partitioned, the world can forget about stopping nuclear proliferation.
People seem to have forgotten the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. It was an agreement signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia in which Ukraine agreed to transfer the nuclear weapons left on its territory after the collapse of the USSR back to Russia. In return, Moscow agreed to recognize the borders of these new nations in perpetuity and “to refrain from the threat or use of force” against Ukraine.
In the present day, to quote a 2019 Brookings Institution assessment,
Russia has broken virtually all the commitments it undertook in that document. It used military force to seize, and then illegally annex, Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in early 2014. And Russian and Russian proxy forces have waged war for more than five years in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas, claiming more than 13,000 lives and driving some 2 million people from their homes.
If this is how a nation that voluntarily turns over its nuclear weapons has its security guarantees upheld, then no one—looking at you, North Korea—will ever give up its nuclear arsenal. The Iranians will be given even more incentive to build one of their own. Pakistan and India will not stop increasing the size of their nuclear stockpiles. And nations such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Poland will be incentivized to develop their own nuclear capabilities.
That’s how big the stakes are in Ukraine.
The final argument conservatives deploy against helping Ukraine is that America should be worried about China, not Russia.
It’s true that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the biggest strategic threat to America (and the rest of the world).
But that is precisely why the United States sent senior officials to Ukraine in recent years asking the government in Kyiv to prevent some of the leading Ukrainian defense industrial firms from transferring their know-how to the PRC.
Specifically, the Trump administration put considerable effort into preventing Ukraine from selling the massive Motor Sich aeroengine design and production facility in Zaporizhye to a PRC firm under the control of Beijing’s military. Chinese industry has consistently failed in efforts to design and build reliable jet engines for its jet fighter programs. Getting its hands on this Ukrainian firm would have completed that gap in their defense industrial chain.
Ukraine possesses a cornucopia of other capable defense enterprises, many of which the Chinese for years have been trying to gain control of as well—and undoubtedly would under a Russian occupation of Ukraine. Should Russia take over Ukraine, Moscow’s allies in Beijing would receive an enormous plus-up to their defense sector’s technology base.
These are just some of the consequences on the menu if a serious, aggressive effort is not made to keep Russia from moving further into Ukrainian territory.