Why Ukraine Matters

Russian President Vladimir Putin has alarmed the world with his deployment of 100,000 troops to the border Russia shares with Ukraine. Just as alarmingly, he has begun relocating fighter jets and antiaircraft defenses into Belarus.

As Russia takes increasingly belligerent moves, many Americans may wonder why any of that should matter, and what it has to do with the United States. A lot, as it turns out.

Ukraine, a country of 44 million people, has steadily moved westward in terms of its alignment with principles of individual liberty and democracy.

Russia, meanwhile, is governed by Putin, an authoritarian who wishes to re-establish the Soviet-era Russia-dominated sphere of influence. In 2014, Putin took the radical step of annexing Crimea from Ukraine. Now Putin is signaling that he is willing to go to war to overtake all of Ukraine.

President Joe Biden has given Putin every indication that the West will more or less allow some of his aggressive behavior. For example, at a recent press conference, President Biden said that a “minor incursion” by Putin might not trigger a unified response from the West. Putin may want to explore the limits of Biden’s “minor incursion” doctrine. It certainly sounded like an open invitation for some level of aggression.

There are three reasons why Ukraine matters, and why America has an interest in Ukraine’s independence:

  1. Energy. More of Europe is now dependent on Russia for its energy, giving Russia extraordinary leverage in any dispute. Russia today supplies most of the gas and oil consumed in Europe.
  2. Our promises. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine possessed a significant stockpile of nuclear weapons. Three years late, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, promising “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine,” in exchange for Ukraine’s decision to surrender all of its nuclear weapons. Ukraine has lived up to its end of the bargain; shouldn’t the nations involved in the Budapest Memorandum do the same?
  3. Respecting established international law. The United Nations Charter codifies international law, which expressly prohibits the conquest of territories and the remaking of border lines on the map by use of force. These principles are essential for spelling out what the international community will not accept from expansionist-minded dictators. Ignoring Putin’s plans to remake Europe’s map would be the wrong signal for the United States to give to China and Iran.

For all of these reasons, Putin’s aggressive acts are larger than Ukraine’s problems; they are the world’s problems – and are of particular concern for the United States.

Additional Resources

AEI’s Critical Threats Project