The US government has reacted to the Russian invasion of Ukraine with a mix of forward leaning policies and attempts to keep the conflict from escalating.
The forward leaning policies include measures to arm the Ukrainian resistance, provide them with logistical support, and robust intelligence sharing. The United States has also led an international effort to economically punish Russia for its invasion as well as isolate it from the international community.
The U.S. has also made it clear to China that economic or military support for the Russian aggression against Ukraine will result in concrete penalties for China. The American government has also tried to limit the spread of the war into other countries or escalate tensions that could possibly lead to direct conflict between the U.S. and Russia.
Many in the United States and around the world wonder why the United States has acted with this mix of policies. The forward leaning policies come from the calculation that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a direct threat to U.S. national security interests.
Ukraine can and must be defended from Russian aggression or the U.S., itself, stands to lose tremendously.
Supporting Ukraine is not an act of altruism on the part of the U.S. If Russia succeeds in its efforts to dominate and destroy Ukraine, the U.S. becomes a less safe and prosperous country.
It also happens that supporting Ukraine is the morally correct thing to do in the face of an imperialist Russian regime set upon upsetting the global order.
Supporting Ukraine serves the United States’ security, economic, political, and diplomatic interests. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a threat to U.S. security interests in direct and indirect ways.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine threatens U.S. national security because if that invasion succeeds in its goals, it will very likely encourage Putin to attack other countries that he believes are part of his conception of a revitalized Russian empire. If he attacks a NATO country, the United States is obligated to intervene militarily.
Defeating the Russian aggression against Ukraine means the U.S. is less likely to have to fight the Russians on a greater and more costly scale.
Successful Russian military adventurism in Ukraine will encourage Russia to use its military power in other parts of the world, thus raising the probability for a clash with the U.S. Also, it is very important to note that China is closely watching what the U.S. is doing to stave off a Russian victory in Ukraine.
If the U.S. appears to acquiesce to the Russian efforts to wipe out Ukrainian sovereignty, it likely raises the possibility that China will believe it will have a free hand to invade Taiwan. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would very likely draw the United States into the armed defense of the island. Thus, for the United States, the best way to prevent further wars for itself is to help successfully defend Ukraine.
The U.S. also has direct economic interests in defending Ukraine. The Russian invasion has gravely damaged economic relations and economies around the world. The sanctions against Russia are one reason that economies and economic ties have been damaged but there is also the serious element of uncertainty and risk that Russian aggression engenders in markets.
As is well known, markets do not react well to uncertainty. The Russian efforts to upend the rule-based global order is destabilizing markets around the world. Furthermore, Ukraine is a major food producer for the world and the Russian invasion has severely damaged the country’s ability to export grains and other food products. All of this has a negative impact on commodity prices, and this is damaging the U.S. economy.
Even if the U.S. were not to sanction Russia for its invasion, the U.S. economy would be negatively affected by Russian efforts to create an altered European order with a new Russian empire at its center. This aggression would devastate trade, cause economic panic among many of our important global trading partners, and would disrupt energy supplies to the U.S. The best option for continued U.S. economic prosperity is a Russia that withdraws from Ukraine and stops trying to upset the global order.
One thing that is very important to understand is that the Russian antagonism with the West and Eastern Europeans that have leaned toward the West stems from Putin and his cronies’ feeling very threatened by liberal (law-based) democracy.
The authoritarian kleptocracy that Putin and his allies have created in Russia would not be sustainable in a democratic country governed by the rule of law. Putin knows this well and this is why he feels so threatened by democratic activists at home and successful democracies abroad that serve as positive examples for his own people. This is why Putin has worked so hard to undermine democratic politics in the United States and elsewhere.
This is also why he is trying to squash the democracy that has grown in Ukraine. Thus, Putinism is a political model directly in conflict with law-based democracies. The United States is very aware of this and that is why the defense of democracy in Ukraine is so important.
If Ukraine is defeated, other democratic states, particularly those who have authoritarian movements backed by Putin, could see more instability, violence, or even the rise of would-be dictators who envy Putin as a role model. The United States is a country that is in such a threatened position.
Finally, the United States stands by Ukraine because its allies are looking to it for leadership and resolve. If the U.S. is seen to waiver in its support for a democratic, sovereign Ukraine, U.S. allies will rightly question whether the U.S. will stand by them in their time of need. Will the U.S. stand to defend them from the Russian and Chinese authoritarian giants?
If doubt about U.S. support develops, alliances could collapse, and the U.S. would find itself weaker and more isolated in the world. It would also mean a world more at the mercy of countries that do not even trust their own citizens enough to allow them a say in their destinies.