President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the war in Ukraine, Saturday, March 26, 2022, at the Royal Castle in Warsaw.

Does War in Ukraine Impact Vital US Interests?

September 08, 2022
Ingrid Burke Friedman, Aleksandra Srdanovic and RM Staff

In the more than six months following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies have worked with surprising cohesion and efficiency to pass multiple rounds of sanctions on Moscow and ramp up military, economic and humanitarian aid for Kyiv. Still, conspicuously absent from these efforts are Western military boots on the ground. Although 40,000 troops under direct NATO command are deployed on its eastern flank, ready to defend the alliance itself, U.S. President Joe Biden has made clear he has no intention of sending American forces into Ukraine as have leaders of other NATO countries. As the White House’s then press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters the day after Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24: “It is not in our interest to be in a war with Russia. And so, no, we are not sending U.S. troops to Ukraine.” Psaki has left the White House, but her statement, nevertheless, continues to beg the following questions: Do Ukraine and the war it is fighting against Russia impact vital U.S. interests?1 If yes, then, why and how? If no, then why not? Below, you will find a sampling of pre-Feb. 24 and post-Feb. 24 answers to these questions, as given by U.S./Western policymakers and policy influentials (each section’s entries are in alphabetical order).

1. Ukraine and/or the Russian-Ukrainian war impact U.S. vital interests, in the view of the following U.S. officials, academics, pundits, journalists:

U.S. officials (current and former):

  • President Joe Biden: 
    • "An overwhelming majority of nations recognize that Putin is not only attacking Ukraine, he is attacking the very foundations of global peace and security—and everything the United Nations stands for. And an overwhelming majority of the world recognizes that if we do not stand up to Putin’s Russia, it will only inflict further chaos and aggression on the world." (White House statement, 03.02.22)
    • “The Russian Federation’s purported recognition of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) or Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) regions of Ukraine …. threatens the peace, stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and thereby constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” (Executive Order, 02.21.22)
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken: 
    • “We are resolute that a democratic, prosperous and secure Ukraine is in the interest not only of the people of Ukraine, but also of the United States and the international community.” (State Department website, last updated 03.01.22)
    • “In recent days, people on every continent have come out to demonstrate against Russia’s invasion--and for the rights of Ukrainians. They get that if we allow the rules of the international order to be flagrantly trampled anywhere, we weaken them everywhere.” (Twitter, 03.01.22)
    • “You’ve got one country, Russia, by its actions saying that it can just change the borders of its neighbor by force... And if we let that go with impunity, then I think we open a huge Pandora’s box where it's not just Ukraine; it's other autocratic countries around the world like Russia that say: ‘We’re going to do this, too.’ And that is a recipe for conflict. It’s a recipe for chaos. It’s a recipe for human suffering. And it’s a recipe for undermining democracy.” (Pod Save the World, 01.18.22)
  • Evelyn Farkas, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia in the Obama administration: "If Russia prevails again, we will remain stuck in a crisis not just over Ukraine but about the future of the global order far beyond that country’s borders." (Defense One, 01.11.22)
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham (South Carolina, R): “The Ukrainian victory over Russia would be priceless for the United States, because if Putin is not defeated in Ukraine he will continue to rewrite the map of Europe—his words, not mine.” (Office of U.S. Senator Linsday Graham, 05.19.22)
  • Sen. Jim Inhofe (Oklahoma, R): “Let’s be clear: Supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia puts American security interests first. With the military aid the U.S and our partners have already delivered, our friend Ukraine has pushed back Vladimir Putin’s invasion, dramatically weakened the Russian military, and prevented them from encroaching even closer to NATO territory. Continuing this aid now makes it less likely that our sons and daughters will have to fight a war against Russian aggression later.” (The Hill, 05.19.22)
  • Joseph Lieberman, Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 2000 and a U.S. senator from Connecticut, 1989-2013: "The current crisis in Eastern Europe is not just about whether the United States and NATO can stop Russia from invading Ukraine, as important as that is. It is also about the larger causes of personal freedom and opportunity that we Americans and Europeans hold so dear. Recent history teaches us that if we allow an expansionist autocrat like Russian president Vladimir Putin to impose his will by force on one nation, Ukraine, the security and freedom of much of the rest of Europe and the United States will ultimately be imperiled, and we will likely be drawn again into a much larger, more deadly, more costly war. That’s why it is so important to stop Putin now." (The National Interest, 02.07.22)
  • GOP Leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (California, R): "Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine is reckless and evil.....This act of war is intended to rewrite history and more concerning, upend the balance of power in Europe. Putin must be held accountable for his actions." (Twitter, 02.24.22)
  • Sen. James Risch (Idaho, R): “The war is not just about Ukraine. The fight in Ukraine is a strategic challenge with long-term implications for the free world. Ukraine is the opening move in a game to tip the balance of power toward Russia and China to dominate the world for the next century or more. For the sake of our country and the sake of the free world, the Administration needs to get serious about supporting Ukraine with war-fighting materials so we can prevent a more sweeping conflict coming to our shores.” (Office of U.S. Senator James E. Risch, 03.24.22)
  • Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah, R): "The peril of again looking away from Putin's tyranny falls not just on the people of the nations he has violated, it falls on America as well. … America and our allies must answer the call to protect freedom by subjecting Putin and Russia to the harshest economic penalties, by expelling them from global institutions, and by committing ourselves to the expansion and modernization of our national defense." (Twitter, 02.24.22)

Academics, pundits, journalists:

  • Elbridge Colby, principal, The Marathon Initiative: “Whatever happens [in the Russian-Ukrainian order], our response must be realistic and strategic, serving our interests in Europe while ensuring the prioritization of Asia. It is both right and in our strategic interests to help Ukraine and our European allies defend themselves and make sure Russia does not gain from this loathsome aggression. But we cannot rest our strategy on a fiction—that we can fight two major wars against China and Russia at anything at the same time. We need a strategy that accounts for that fact, not one that ignores it or wishes it away.” (Time, 02.27.22)
  • Paula Dobriansky, senior fellow, Belfer Center Future of Diplomacy Project: “At the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Ukraine is of strategic importance. The primary U.S. interests in the region are ensuring that Europe remains whole and free; upholding our democratic values; resolutely countering Moscow’s actions to undermine the post-Cold War trans-Atlantic security architecture and fragment the Alliance; and preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.” (Belfer Center, 12.15.21)
  • John Feffer, director, Foreign Policy in Focus: “If we support democracy, then we must oppose attacks on democracy. The Russian intervention is not just an assault on the people or the nation of Ukraine. It is an attack on a principle: that the collective decisions of a citizenry must be respected... Putin’s attack on Ukraine is an integral part of his campaign against democracy. If he wins, it will embolden all those who would like to consign democracy to the dustbin of history.” (Foreign Policy in Focus, 03.09.22)
  • Francis Fukuyama, senior fellow, Stanford University: “We are currently at a critical juncture in world history. If Putin succeeds in overthrowing democracy in Ukraine and replacing it with a puppet regime, he will have set a terrible precedent for the use of naked force. China will take a cue from this, as it contemplates options for re-incorporating Taiwan. The US and NATO will have been humiliated, and a signal will go out across the world that American promises of support are hollow and cooperation among democracies non-existent.” (Quillette, 02.26.22)
  • Jon Lerner, senior fellow, Hudson Institute:  “If Slavic and Orthodox Christian Ukraine becomes a normal successful democratic and western-oriented country, the renewal of the Russian empire is impossible. ... Given Russia’s worldwide disposition toward U.S. interests, the geopolitical benefits of a free and intact Ukraine are manifest.” (The National Interest, 06.28.21)
  • George Packer, staff writer, The Atlantic:  "To be realist in our age is not to define American interests so narrowly that Ukraine becomes disposable but to understand that the world has broken up into democratic and autocratic spheres;….... Ukrainians are fighting with the ferocity of people who know exactly what they have to lose. As long as they keep on, we owe them every chance to survive and, ultimately, succeed. They’re fighting on our behalf too." (The Atlantic, 02.28.22)
  • The Washington Post Editorial Board: “To prevent the continent from falling under the sway of a hostile hegemon—as it almost did in 1914, 1939 and during the Cold War—has been a vital U.S. interest for decades. This is the vital interest for which the United States invested in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other institutions. And it is precisely that vital interest that unchecked Russian aggression would sooner or later undermine, with far higher and more lasting costs to Americans than any that we might sustain from the sanctions and other measures Mr. Biden is contemplating now.” (The Washington Post, 02.24.22)
  • Frederick Kagan, director, Critical Threats Project; resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute: "The West must spend less energy fearing to ‘provoke’ aggression and more energy worrying about losing Ukraine and the vital buffer between Russia and Central Europe. It should worry about losing a core principle of the international system and about continuing the world’s descent into chaos. Those are the issues at stake in Ukraine today, and those are the stakes for which the West must be prepared to fight." (The Hill, 12.07.21)


2. Ukraine and/or the Russian-Ukrainian war are important to U.S. national security, but a Ukrainian victory in that war does not constitute a vital U.S. interest, in the view of the following U.S. officials, academics, pundits, journalists:

U.S. officials (current and former):

  • Graham Allison, former assistant secretary of defense:
    • “He [Biden] knows that the United States has no vital interest in Ukraine.” (Foreign Affairs, 04.05.22)
    • “America has no vital interests in Ukraine. Contrary to hotheads calling for a military response, President Biden wisely underlined that point when he said last week that sending troops to defend Ukraine is ‘not on the table’ Since Eisenhower, presidents have repeatedly had to face choices about sending troops to defend European victims of Soviet/Russian aggression. In every case, they decided: No. That was Bush’s decision in 2008 when Russia ‘liberated’ two provinces of Georgia; that was Obama’s decision in 2014 when Putin seized Crimea. Attempting to deter Putin by threatening severe economic consequences while engaging in serious diplomacy to find a ‘good-enough’ compromise makes great sense. Going to war over Ukraine would be folly.” (Belfer Center, 12.15.21)
  • Sen. Josh Hawley (Missouri, R): "The United States has an interest in maintaining Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. And we should urgently deliver to Ukraine assistance it needs to defend itself against Russia’s military buildup and other threats. Our interest is not so strong, however, as to justify committing the United States to go to war with Russia over Ukraine’s fate. Rather, we must aid Ukraine in a manner that aligns with the American interests at stake and preserves our ability to deny Chinese hegemony in the Indo-Pacific." (Letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, 02.01.22)

Academics, pundits, journalists:

  • Andrew Bacevich, president, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft: "Consider this simple definition of the phrase ‘vital interest’: a place or issue worth fighting for. Putin has repeatedly identified Ukraine as a vital Russian interest, and not without reason. President Biden has been equally clear in indicating that he does not consider Ukraine worth fighting for. That is, it does not qualify as a vital U.S. interest. At the same time, he has refused to concede the legitimacy of Russia’s claim." (Boston Globe, 02.25.22)
  • Tom Collina, director of policy, Ploughshares Fund: “Even as our hearts go out to the brave Ukrainian people, the Biden administration is right to resist calls to deepen American military involvement in Ukraine, because the consequences of a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia could be unimaginably dire.” (The New York Times, 03.18.22)
  • Mark Hannah, senior fellow, Eurasia Group Foundation: “Promises of unlimited support only embolden what is starting to be seen as the Ukrainian president’s ‘reckless stubbornness’ in outright rejecting the possibility of territorial concessions. …It is rare that a war ends in total defeat, and it is not realistic to expect Moscow will fully retreat. U.S. policy must now shift to embrace this reality, and plan for the months ahead when deep divisions within the Western coalition grow, and when, in a lopsided war of attrition, Ukraine might lose even more ground.” (Responsible Statecraft, 07.18.22)
  • Charles A. Kupchan, professor of international affairs, Georgetown University; senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations: “In effect, the United States and its allies, even as they impose severe sanctions on Russia and send arms to Ukraine, have revealed that they do not deem the defense of the country to be a vital interest. But if that is the case, then why have NATO members wanted to extend to Ukraine a security guarantee that would obligate them to go to war in its defense? NATO should extend security guarantees to countries that are of intrinsic strategic importance to the United States and its allies—it should not make countries strategically important by extending them such guarantees. In a world that is rapidly reverting to the logic of power politics, in which adversaries may regularly test U.S. commitments, NATO cannot afford to be profligate in handing out such guarantees. Strategic prudence requires distinguishing critical interests from lesser ones, and conducting statecraft accordingly.” (The National Interest, 09.02.22)
  • Robert A. Manning, senior fellow, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, New American Engagement Initiative, Atlantic Council: "One problem with drawing conclusions from the Ukraine crisis is that there is an asymmetry of interests. To Putin, Ukraine is a vital interest, part of Mother Russia; to the U.S., it is important but not vital, and not an existential threat. Putin’s overreach, however, has had the exact opposite effect than he intended: It has breathed new life into NATO; reinforced the U.S. leadership role; animated Ukrainian western-leaning nationalism; and spiked Euro-skepticism of Moscow." (The Hill, 02.18.22)
  • Kori Schake, senior fellow, director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, AEI: "Helping countries grow strong enough to defend themselves is in America’s interests. A fundamental principle in Europe since the end of World War II has been that borders change by peaceful negotiation, not force. That has made Europe peaceful and allowed it to grow incredibly prosperous — and helped the United States be safe and prosperous, too." (AEI/The New York Times, 02.12.22.)
  • Jordan Tama, associate professor, American University; non-resident senior fellow, Chicago Council on Global Affairs; and Dina Smeltz, senior fellow of public opinion and foreign policy, Chicago Council on Global Affairs: “Overall, the available data indicate that the public is more supportive of a strong response to Russian aggression than inward-looking caricatures of the American people would suggest. This should enable Biden to rally much of the public behind him if he responds forcefully to a Russian invasion, which in turn may strengthen his ability to deter Russia from attacking Ukraine in the first place. At the same time, public support for a tough U.S. response does not necessarily translate into public backing for very costly forms of military intervention, and Biden should not assume that public attitudes will not change.” (War on the Rocks, 02.03.22)
  • Mark Tooley, president, Institute on Religion and Democracy: "Ukraine, unlike the Persian Gulf oil sheikdoms, is not a direct vital interest to the United States. But preventing a world in which dictators freely invade their neighbors is in our interest. And so the United States will levy harsh financial sanctions against Putin and his regime of kleptocrats and oligarchs. And the United States presumably will, if Ukraine continues to resist, feed weapons and supplies to the country’s freedom fighters." (World, 02.24.22)


3. Ukraine and/or the Russian-Ukrainian war are not important to U.S. national security in the view of the following U.S. officials, academics, pundits, journalists:

U.S. officials (former, current and possibly future):

  • Former President Donald Trump: “America has no vital interest in choosing between warring factions whose animosities go back centuries in Eastern Europe. Their conflicts are not worth American lives. Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually." (The America We Deserve, published in 2000; quoted by the Daily Beast in 2018)
  • JD Vance, candidate for U.S. Senate (Ohio, R): “What's happening in Ukraine doesn't threaten our national security, but it does distract our leaders from the things that do actually threaten it, like the wide open southern border & all the fentanyl coming across killing American kids." (Twitter, 02.22.22)

Academics, pundits, journalists:

  • Doug Bandow, senior fellow, Cato Institute: "Ukraine is at best a peripheral U.S. interest. The Ukrainian people are entitled to set their own course but are unlucky: they are sharply divided and live in a bad neighborhood. This is not America’s responsibility to set right. Ukraine’s status as part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union did not matter to U.S. security. How Kyiv leans today matters no more. In contrast, Moscow views Ukraine as a vital interest, and will spend and risk much as a result." (CATO Institute/, 12.15.21)
  • Ted Galen Carpenter, senior fellow, Cato Institute: “It is reckless to treat Ukraine as a U.S. ally on strategic grounds, and it is morally offensive to do so on the basis of alleged democratic solidarity.” (The National Interest, 05.30.21)
  • Matthew Kroenig, deputy director, Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security: [Asked whether Ukraine is really so important to global security that the United States should be defending it]: "I do think it is important and that Washington could do more if U.S. officials wanted to reliably deter Russia." (Foreign Policy, 01.27.22)
  • Anatol Lieven, senior research fellow on Russia and Europe, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft: "At the heart of the present crisis lies one obvious fact. Russia regards excluding Ukraine from NATO and preserving Russian influence there as vital interests, for which it will fight. And under all the empty rhetoric, the West has no vital interest in Ukraine and therefore will not fight. And if we are not prepared to fight, then we should be prepared to compromise." (Responsible Statecraft, 02.23.22)
  • John Mearsheimer, professor, University of Chicago: Ukraine doesn't matter to us. You understand there is nobody calling for us to fight in Ukraine. Even John McCain, who up until recently has never seen a war he didn't want to fight, is not calling for using military force in Ukraine. What even John McCain is saying is Ukraine is not a vital strategic interest for the West.” (Realclearpolitics, 01.26.22)
  • Steven Walt, Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations, Harvard University: “Apart from a few hotheads, nobody in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment wants to fight a real war for Ukraine, a tacit acknowledgement that this is not, in fact, a truly vital interest.” (Foreign Policy, 02.23.22)


  1. As defined by a task-force co-chaired by Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill, vital U.S. national interests are conditions that are strictly necessary to safeguard and enhance Americans’ survival and well-being in a free and secure nation. Whether the Ukraine crisis rises to this level as yet lacks a clear consensus. 

Ingrid Burke Friedman

Ingrid Burke Friedman is a fellow at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and features editor at JURIST Legal News & Commentary. She previously served as a consular officer with the U.S. State Department.


Aleksandra Srdanovic

Aleksandra Srdanovic is a graduate student at Harvard University.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the individuals quoted. Official White House photo by Adam Schultz.