Amid impeachment hearings, it’s worth remembering why Ukraine matters
Ukraine’s future matters first to Ukrainians, who keep insisting — through elections, mass protests, and on the battlefield against Putin’s forces — that they want to live in freedom and by Western rather than Putin’s standards of governance. Ukraine also matters to the U.S. Although President Donald Trump seems to look at Ukraine in terms of his private political interests, U.S. interests in that country follow from America’s best — and most successful — foreign policy strategy.
Thirty years ago this week, the Berlin Wall came down amid the general collapse of communism in Europe. Americans thought that this was a big deal. So it was: The U.S. fought two World Wars and the Cold War because we believed that an undivided Europe was better for us than a Europe, and a world, dominated by hostile dictators. We won those struggles and should recall the lessons bought at so high a price.
America’s grand strategy in the 20th century used American power to advance a values-based international system. That strategy was neither heedless charity nor abstract idealism, but reflected shrewd assumptions (and massive self-confidence) that American ingenuity would flourish in an open, rules-based world without closed economic empires; that U.S. security and economic interests would advance with America’s values; that the U.S. would prosper best when other nations did as well. For all the blunders of application, that strategy served the U.S. and the world well.
For all its needed fixes, America’s grand strategy remains valid and applies to Ukraine. America’s interests continue to be served by the advance of freedom there. Not freedom imposed by us with the main costs borne by us, but freedom chosen and defended by the people with the most at stake, the Ukrainians, with our support.
The counterargument — around for decades and back with a vengeance from President Trump’s tweets — is that America’s grand strategy is a liability and waste of resources; that might makes right and values are blather, so America should grab what we can, taking our cut — the largest possible. “Spheres of influence,” a fancy term for this approach, in practice means dirty deals with Russia, China and local powers, letting them dominate their neighbors (like Ukraine) through force and fear. Such a system would mean American retreat, abandoning friends, principles and hopes for the future. We would also suffer permanent commercial disadvantage, pushed out of lucrative markets. Such a system wouldn’t bring stability, because the various subject peoples would periodically revolt, as they always do, and the great powers would start fighting among themselves over their respective spheres, as they always have.
Putin loves might-makes-right and hates the American grand strategy and wants to subjugate Ukraine in the name of his preferred alternative order and a Kremlin sphere of influence — the sort of closed empire the United States set out to replace with its own, better system.
It is in the U.S. national interest that Putin and his ambitions fail — and that Ukrainians succeed in remaking their country along free-market, democratic lines, breaking the web of corruption, Russian influence and oligarchic domination in the way.
The heavy lifting will be up to the Ukrainians. They already know that. They have been fighting and dying for their country since the Russians invaded in 2014 and are now struggling with deep national transformation like that launched by their Western neighbors 30 years ago. What they want (and what I heard when I was in Lviv and Kyiv last month) is that America stand with them as they make their own fight. “Will you abandon us as you have the Kurds?” asked one heroic veteran of the defense of Ukraine in the heavy early fighting with Russian forces and proxies. But, the Ukrainian fighter added, “We still believe in America.”
Americans should believe in ourselves and our own values, and act on that basis.
We already know what to do: Help Ukrainians defend their country from Kremlin aggression, which threatens us all; continue modest military assistance and stop subjecting it to our domestic politics; maintain the sanctions on Russia and prepare to escalate them, working with the Europeans, should the Russians intensify their attacks against Ukraine or refuse to negotiate seriously to end the conflict; pitch in with the Europeans to help the Ukrainians advance their free-market, democratic transformation.
Ukraine’s success — a free Ukraine, even without its Russian-occupied territories for now, is successfully transforming itself — is achievable, and at relatively modest costs to the United States. The consequences? Such a Ukraine would show the appeal and strength of the democratic model in the face of authoritarian aggression. Ukraine’s success would inspire other countries under Kremlin pressure, and possibly Russians themselves. And democratic solidarity in support of Ukraine would validate the enduring power of the American and transatlantic goal of a free world so despised and opposed by Putin and his friends. Success in Ukraine might even help Americans recall our own best values and traditions. It’s worth making the effort.
Ambassador Daniel Fried is the Atlantic Council’s Weiser Family Distinguished Fellow. In the course of his 40-year Foreign Service career, he played a key role in designing and implementing American policy in Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. He served as special assistant and NSC senior director for Presidents Clinton and Bush, ambassador to Poland, and assistant secretary of state for Europe. He helped lead the West’s response to Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine starting in 2014: as State Department coordinator for sanctions policy, he crafted U.S. sanctions against Russia, the largest U.S. sanctions program to date, and negotiated the imposition of similar sanctions by Europe, Canada, Japan, and Australia.
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