Zelensky and Biden 2021

What Is America's Interest in the Ukraine War?

October 30, 2022
Joshua Shifrinson

This article was originally published by The National Interest. 

RUSSIA'S INVASION of Ukraine in February 2022 has produced an outpouring of international support for Kyiv. The United States has led these efforts. Even before Russian forces surged across the border, the United States and many of its allies signaled their opposition to Moscow’s predatory ambitions by warning of a range of potential sanctions Russia would incur, working to mobilize a potential diplomatic coalition against Moscow, and bolstering Ukraine’s military forces. Since the invasion, the United States has taken the lead in providing Ukraine with military equipment and training, economic aid, a near-blank check of diplomatic support, intelligence of use for stymying Russia’s offensive, and threatening draconian consequences should Russia use nuclear weapons in its campaign. Increasingly fervent bipartisan calls to penalize Russia, Ukraine’s lobbying efforts for additional aid, mounting calls from many think tankers and pundits to do more on Kyiv’s behalf, and the Biden administration’s gradual increase in support for Kyiv since February all suggest the American commitment may only grow in the future.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration and other proponents of current U.S. policy have so far failed to offer a strategic argument on behalf of the costs and risks that current U.S. policy incurs in the Russia-Ukraine War. To be sure, many have defined specific objectives vis-à-vis Ukraine itself. Still, definition and discussion of how U.S. efforts in Ukraine contribute to overarching U.S. national objectives and interests are broadly lacking, reduced primarily to gesticulations toward broad principles that might justify the American response in Ukraine so far. 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?

ALTHOUGH OFTEN lost amid the rush of events, policymakers and pundits have been quick to imply an abiding American interest in Ukraine. Without fully elaborating on the argument or issues at hand, these claims broadly fall into two camps.

One line holds that the United States cannot tolerate Russian aggression in Ukraine because it will only encourage further aggrandizement and expanding threats to the United States. This claim comes in two forms. The narrow version holds that the danger of future aggression is from Russia specifically—that is, if Russia goes unchallenged in Ukraine, then Moscow will simply expand its ambitions, challenge the United States’ North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, and ultimately threaten European security writ large. Along these lines, former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul argues that “we have a security interest in [helping Ukraine defeat Russia]. Let’s just put it very simply: if Putin wins in Donbas and is encouraged to go further into Ukraine, that will be threatening to our NATO allies.” Likewise, former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley asserts that the United States has an abiding concern in deterring Russian president Vladimir Putin “from thinking he can in the next five or ten years repeat this performance.” This particular concern helps explain why at least some in the Biden administration call for “weaken[ing] Russia” by bleeding it in Ukraine: as a National Security Council spokesperson put it, “one of our goals has been to limit Russia’s ability to do something like this again” by undercutting “Russia’s economic and military power to threaten and attack its neighbors.”

The broad version links the Ukraine War not to Russia per se but to potential aggrandizement by other actors, especially China. President Joe Biden himself advanced a version of this argument, writing in March that, “If Russia does not pay a heavy price for its actions, it will send a message to other would-be aggressors that they too can seize territory and subjugate other countries”; elsewhere, he asserts that “Throughout our history, we’ve learned that when dictators do not pay the price for their aggression, they cause more chaos and engage in more aggression.” Nor is this concern Biden’s alone: suggesting its bipartisan appeal, Representative Michael McCaul of Texas offers that failing to act in Ukraine would “embolden Vladimir Putin and his fellow autocrats by demonstrating the United States will surrender in the face of saber-rattling,” concluding that “U.S. credibility from Kyiv to Taipei cannot withstand another blow of this nature.”

Distinct from concerns with future aggrandizement, a second set of arguments holds that the United States has an abiding interest in Ukraine because it affects the so-called “liberal international order.” As Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserts, “the international rules-based order that’s critical to maintaining peace and security is being put to the test by Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine.” The logic here looks to be two-fold. First, failing to back Ukraine would call into question American support for democracies worldwide, thereby undermining the viability of democracy as a way of organizing any society’s political life. As Biden explained, Ukraine was part and parcel of an ongoing “battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression”; by implication, not aiding Ukraine would set the United States back in this contest. Second, Russian aggrandizement is itself a challenge to key principles—mostly unspecified, but seemingly notions that powerful states should not use force to impose their will on weaker actors and that violations of state sovereignty should not be tolerated—upon which the liberal order supposedly rests. To ignore Russian aggression would call into question the future operation of the U.S.-backed system. As Anne Applebaum argues, the United States must be invested in the conflict since

"the realistic, honest understanding of the war is an understanding that we now face a country that is revanchist, that seeks to expand its territory for ideological reasons, that wishes to end the American presence in Europe, that wishes to end the European Union, that wishes to undermine NATO and has a fundamentally different view of the world from the one that we have."

Put simply, inaction risks empowering alternate principles upon which international order would rest and which, presumably, would harm the United States.

DISTURBINGLY, HOWEVER, these claims have gone broadly unremarked. Again, the United States has run real risks—most dramatically, possible military escalation and thus a nuclear exchange with Russia—and borne real costs—including aid equivalent to the budgets of the U.S. Transportation, Labor, and Commerce Departments combined—for the sake of helping Ukraine. Many analysts claim that the escalation risks involved are lower than one might think as, for instance, Russia would not be so suicidal as to risk war with the United States and its allies. Still, billions of dollars remain at stake at a time of rising domestic resource demands, and the fact that policymakers and analysts are debating how threatening American responses are likely to be viewed in Moscow suggests the risks being run are not negligible. It may be impolitic, but sound statecraft means we ought to ask whether the game is worth the candle.

The truth is that none of the avowed U.S. interests in Ukraine stand up to scrutiny. As importantly, believing they are U.S. interests contradicts core tenets of long-established U.S. grand strategy; making policy based on such concerns risks creating further strategic dilemmas for the United States, Ukraine, and Russia in ways that may only worsen the consequences of the present conflict.

Further Aggrandizement: An Overstated Worry. Worry that failure to act in Ukraine will simply whet Russia’s appetite for European aggression beyond Ukraine—particularly against the United States’ NATO allies—and thus merits a deepening American response is questionable. To be sure, some states at some times are dominated by domestic elites convinced that aggression is cheap, easy, and worthwhile. Still, to argue that unchallenged Russian behavior in Ukraine will yield further Russian aggrandizement is to argue that there are no other possible constraints that can keep Russian ambitions or behavior in check. Common sense, international relations theory, and current trends in European security all indicate otherwise.

States faced with a proximate and militarily ambitious actor tend to balance and check its opportunities for further aggression. In an anarchic world, this sort of behavior reflects the fact that self-interested states have to ensure their own security and so are incentivized to offset potential aggressors. We see these trends in Europe today, where Russia’s actions have rapidly spurred both arming (e.g., Germany’s growing defense budget) and allying (e.g., Sweden and Finland joining NATO, discussion of European military autonomy). Moreover, the distribution of power in Europe—where the European members of NATO alone have a combined gross domestic product twelve times that of Russia—underlines that there are multiple states which, singly or collectively, are more than capable of influencing Russian calculations. Russia, in short, is increasingly hemmed in and is likely to be further constrained should it contemplate future aggression in Europe. 

Even a leader as daring as Putin cannot easily ignore this situation and is likely to factor it in to Russian strategic choices. Yet even if he—or a successor—were to overlook these constraints, the beauty of balancing is that aggressors nevertheless encounter resistance that thwarts their efforts. Put differently, even a reckless Russia that somehow concludes aggression after Ukraine is viable is unlikely to get very far.

This is doubly true so far as possible aggression against NATO members is concerned. Distinct from efforts to aid Ukraine itself, the alliance has responded to Russian aggression by drawing together to a degree unmatched in the last twenty years; both declared policy and emerging military trends indicate that its members are increasingly committed to defending what Biden termed “every inch of NATO territory.” The conflict has thus made it abundantly clear that Russia risks an overwhelming (outside the nuclear realm) counterbalancing coalition should it attempt to move against NATO members. Combined, and entirely separate from anything on the ground in Ukraine, there are thus strong reasons borne of the strategic map to doubt whether any Russian policymaker will conclude further aggression in Europe will pay, or succeed in such a course if they do. Ukraine is not decisive in shaping or thwarting Russian ambitions.

A similar problem applies to claims that failing to act in Ukraine will cause other states, particularly China, to conclude that aggression pays. By this logic, the world is full of potential aggressors that are held in check by their fear of an American response; it further implies that aggression anywhere is a threat to U.S. national security. Arguing that the United States must act in Ukraine to forestall others’ aggression is thus tantamount to arguing that the United States must serve as a global police officer that dare not rest anywhere, even for a moment.

Holding aside that policymakers have long abjured the idea of the United States serving as the world’s policeman, there are several problems with this argument. First, as Stephen Walt notes, the historical record is replete with aggressors paying exorbitant costs for their behavior—think of Germany’s defeat, occupation, and division following World War II or the firebombing of Japan. Nevertheless, aggression remains a reality in international politics as, even when one aggressor is defeated, others do not readily seem to “learn” the lesson.

Second, allowing that potential aggressors may exist, an array of research indicates that state calculations are shaped not by general impressions of how a single great power may respond, but contextual judgments of whether counterbalancing and punishment are likely given the distribution of power and known state interests. Extending the point, the United States (1) can afford to ignore Ukraine without risking aggression in other theaters provided it has an interest in and the wherewithal for checking other potential threats, or (2) there are local actors able and interested in the same. This makes intuitive sense: Beijing, for instance, is likely to care far more about what the United States, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, Australia, etc. can and will do in Asia than it cares about what the United States does 4,000 miles away. Analysts that treat Ukraine as decisive to other states’ aggression overlook the geopolitical constraints that are likely to shape others’ interest in and opportunities for aggrandizement.

Third, one ought to treat the underlying idea that aggression anywhere constitutes a threat to the United States with skepticism. Even a cursory glance at the diplomatic record underlines that the United States is not truly threatened by aggression in and of itself. In recent years alone, the Russo-Georgian War, the Saudi campaign in Yemen, fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and other episodes have had little impact on the United States’ well-being. This is the advantage of being a rich and insulated great power surrounded by ocean moats. Finally, and even if it were true that the United States had an interest in forestalling most aggression, it does not follow that further involvement in Ukraine constitutes the sole way of underscoring that America will penalize aggression more generally. After all, not only can—as the prior paragraph suggests—the United States take steps to reinforce its ability to thwart aggression by specific actors of interest irrespective of what happens in Ukraine, but so too can Washington signal its commitment by, e.g., encouraging a NATO build-up in Eastern Europe and maintaining so-called “crippling” sanctions on Moscow.

Threats to Order: Theory, Not Reality. Assertions that neglecting to act in Ukraine will undermine the liberal order are similarly suspect. First, while the United States has often sought to promote democracy abroad, it tempers this impulse with consideration of geopolitical imperatives regardless of how this affected democracy’s spread. To this end, the United States frequently overthrew elected governments in states such as Iran and Guatemala during the Cold War, has regularly made deals with autocrats (for instance, in Cold War-era Taiwan and South Korea and post-Cold War Saudi Arabia), and tolerates democratic backsliding among major allies today (as seen, for example, in Hungary, Poland, Pakistan, and Turkey). In short, Washington has never made the defense of foreign democracy per se an interest—as the record suggests, the question was instead whether policymakers perceived a given country as important to U.S. interests; so far as a liberal order emerged after World War II (and there are good questions whether one has), it was despite U.S. ambivalence over backstopping other democracies as an end unto themselves Asserting that the liberal order now requires the United States to defend Ukraine inverts the logic driving American policy. 

Of course, a critic might counter that the United States ought to make the defense of democracies a core interest lest democratic losses multiply in the years ahead. Here, a different problem emerges: Ukraine is a poor fit for demonstrating an American commitment to this objective. Polite company may not comment on it, but Ukraine’s current democratic bona fides are questionable. Independent assessments by Freedom House, the Polity project, or the Varieties of Democracy Project consistently judge Ukraine as less than a full-fledged democracy—listed as an “anocracy” by Polity, for instance, and a “hybrid regime” with a 39 percent “democracy percentage” by Freedom House. Corruption, constrained press freedoms, questions over judicial integrity, and “the lack of rule of law” are all problems. Nor have these assessments improved over time. The V-Dem project, for example, shows Ukraine’s democracy scores moving within middle ranges since independence, while Freedom House metrics indicate little change in Ukraine’s democratic performance since the mid-2010s. The intra-elite infighting and crackdowns on political opponents witnessed over much of the last decade illustrate a similar trend. In short, even if one argues that the fate of the liberal order rests on active U.S. support for liberal democracies, Ukraine today is a poor proving ground of that commitment.

Finally, arguments that failure to oppose Russia in Ukraine will undermine the norms and operating principles of the “liberal order” are problematic. As scholars such as Patrick Porter and Paul Staniland document, the liberal order was never violence-free. If anything, the order itself has both survived and often relied upon a large degree of state-led violence and challenges to sovereignty in support of dubious objectives throughout its postwar history. It is thus hard to see how Russia’s deplorable behavior in Ukraine is somehow more injurious to a liberal order than the Vietnam or Iraq wars, Israeli use of force in its near abroad, or the Saudi campaign in Yemen, among others.

By the same token, the “liberal order” has shown a remarkable capacity for tolerating a wide range of inter- and intra-state violence and sovereignty violations. Even a cursory glance at history reveals the trend, with the “liberal order” no more torn asunder by the American and allied reluctance to act in Bosnia until much of the bloodletting was over than it was by the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Seen in this light, the Russian invasion is not so much a threat to the order as a particularly thuggish manifestation of the sort of violence and violations that have long existed within “the order,” by a state many actors do not especially like. Again, we can and should lament the horrors visited upon Ukraine. However, claims that Russian aggression somehow overturns the principles upon which the order rests fall flat. 

PROPONENTS OF U.S. “do-more-ism” might fall back to argue that core tenets of U.S. grand strategy writ large and policy toward Europe in particular mandate American involvement in Ukraine. Here, the case might go, the long-standing U.S. interest in preventing the emergence of a Eurasian regional hegemon and/or in building what then-President Bill Clinton termed a Europe “whole, free, and at peace” require thwarting Russia by deepening support for Ukraine. Yet not only is neither issue at stake in Ukraine, but both the current thrust of U.S. policy and potential further U.S. involvement contradict these goals in key ways.

The United States has long looked to prevent a regional hegemon from emerging in Eurasia. Russia today, however, is not poised to be a regional hegemon. It has an impressive nuclear arsenal, potent military-industrial complex, and gains some degree of political influence from exporting key commodities and energy products. Still, its economy is smaller than Italy’s, it occupies an unfavorable piece of real estate, suffers from a history of antagonizing its neighbors, and is beset with demographic problems. Moreover, it faces—as its battlefield performance demonstrates—limits in turning its latent capability into usable power, just as its ability to translate material and energy exports into geopolitical leverage is constrained by the availability (particularly over the medium and long term) of alternate suppliers. Other regional actors, meanwhile, have more than enough raw capacity to resist it either alone or in combination; given the quick and hard balancing against Russia’s invasion, they also seem to have the political will to resist Russian designs. And where the Soviet Union (the last potential Eurasian hegemon in modern history) benefitted from forward-deployed armies across a pliant Eastern Europe that seemed poised to reach the Atlantic coast in weeks, Russian forces today are more than 1,000 miles further east than their Soviet counterparts; even if the capability were available, there is significantly more territory for Russia to cross and time to mount a response than when Europe last faced a potential hegemonic bid.

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.

As for sustaining a favorable distribution of power, the United States ought to encourage European efforts at arming and allying independent of the United States. To date, U.S. policymakers have been almost giddy at the prospect of “revitalizing NATO” by bolstering European defense spending, having European states focus their newfound military interests into the alliance, seeing the alliance take on new allies, and underlining the American commitment to transatlantic security. This reaction is understandable given long-standing concerns with allied free-riding, NATO’s mission drift, and the future of American “leadership” in Europe. As U.S. attention shifts toward Asia, however, it also reinforces European defense reliance on the United States as the security guarantor of first and last resort within NATO that may prove wanting over the long term. A sounder course would be to redirect Europe’s laudable newfound interest in military affairs into greater strategic autonomy and improvements to European states’ military toolkits. Helping others to help themselves would go a long way towards promoting American national interests in Ukraine and elsewhere.


Joshua Shifrinson

Joshua Shifrinson is an associate professor with the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, a senior fellow with the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, and a non-resident senior fellow with the Cato Institute. An earlier version of this essay appeared in September 2022 with Defense Priorities.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. White House photo shared in the public domain.