How impeachment damaged US foreign policy

How impeachment damaged US foreign policy
© Greg Nash

For more than a quarter of a year, Washington, D.C., was trapped in the drama of impeachment. The depositions, public hearings, and deliberations on the Senate floor have placed the Eastern European country of Ukraine at the center of the U.S. political universe. 

Even with impeachment finally concluded, Ukraine is becoming something it shouldn’t be: a litmus test used by politicians, analysts, and pundits to determine what is and is not in the U.S. interest.

Those who oppose the appropriation of hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. security assistance — a euphemistic term for lethal weaponry — to Kyiv are now being viewed skeptically. In contrast, others who support it are given carte-blanche to guide the debate.

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Arming Ukraine has been conjoined with the ugliness of impeachment, and you aren’t considered serious if you dare question the wisdom of giving Ukraine anti-tank missiles, sniper rifles, and grenade launchers.

This is a troubling development because there are legitimate reasons why continuing to appropriate $365 million to the Ukrainians is not in the U.S. national security interest. 

First, despite what the foreign policy elite in Washington has been saying for years, Ukraine’s stability is not vital to the United States. While a corruption-free, transparent, vibrant democracy in Ukraine would be welcome, the governance of Ukraine is not going to determine how powerful the United States is in Europe. 

One can’t say the same thing about Russia, a country that has always possessed a significant stake in how its neighbor to the west operates.  

While Russian intervention in Eastern Ukraine is unfortunate for the Ukrainians, Russia’s actions are a reaction to decades of NATO enlargement that the Kremlin has been vehemently opposed since Mikhail Gorbachev’s time.

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Since the mid-1990s, Moscow has watched as the borders of NATO—a military organization designed to counter Russian power — expanded closer to its territory. For better or worse, the Russians saw former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s hasty departure from Kyiv in 2014 as the straw that broke the camel’s back. From Moscow’s vantage point, the fleeing of a pro-Russian leader was a sudden and dangerous turn of events for Russian influence—even more frightening given that it occurred in a neighboring state. 

For Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinFauci: 'I seriously doubt' Russia's coronavirus vaccine is safe and effective Overnight Health Care: Russia claims it has coronavirus vaccine amid skepticism | Trump announces deal with Moderna for vaccine doses | Most states facing shortage of ICU doctors: research CNBC's Jim Cramer on 'Chernobyl II' Russian coronavirus vaccine: 'I'm gonna pass' MORE, Ukraine drifting into the Western orbit was a non-starter.

Because Russia’s gamble in Ukraine is so large, nothing Washington can provide in the form of javelin missiles, ammunition, or weaponry to the government in Kyiv ($1.5 billion since 2014) will compensate for the number of resources Moscow is willing to invest.

Put: when combined with its geographic location and the detrimental impact a Ukraine with an anti-Moscow orientation would have on Russia’s strategic position, the Kremlin is both able and willing to outmatch whatever arms the United States sends. Russia has escalation dominance in this conflict.

By treating lethal assistance to Ukraine as an annual entitlement, Washington also continues to strangle U.S.-Russia relations, already at a poisonous point. Despite President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrat calls on White House to withdraw ambassador to Belarus nominee TikTok collected data from mobile devices to track Android users: report Peterson wins Minnesota House primary in crucial swing district MORE’s hope for a more constructive relationship with Moscow, ties between the only two nuclear superpowers are at best static and, at worst irreconcilable in short to medium term. The relationship had not experienced such a cold spell since the early 1980s when the United States and the Soviet Union were deploying nuclear-tipped missiles in Europe. 

That freeze-thawed out. U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Gorbachev would put their considerable foreign policy disagreements to the side to focus on the mutual interest of establishing what would turn out to be the beginning of a decades-old arms control regime.

Whether U.S.-Russia relations undergo a similar thaw in the future will not only depend on the ability of Washington and Moscow leaders to set priorities, but also on never forgetting about the big picture.

If the United States truly wants to help Ukraine enter an era of peace, it should do so through diplomatic rather than military means. After nearly five years of conflict, the war in Eastern Ukraine has finally approached a point where a political resolution is imaginable.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sat down with Putin in France for the first time last December, a summit that produced a general recommitment to a 2015 ceasefire, an agreement to pull fighters back from designated areas of the front-line, and a goal to seal all prisoners. Weeks later, Kyiv and the separatists exchanged approximately 200 prisoners. Additional talks are scheduled for later this spring to assess progress on the ground. 

Sending more military aid to Ukraine, as the Trump administration is preparing to do, makes a distant prospect of an end to the only shooting war in Europe. More arms shipments will continue to increase tensions between Washington and Moscow, inviting retaliation.

The worst outcome of this months-long impeachment process would be if a good policy were sacrificed at the altar for the sake of political expediency. U.S. foreign policy should have only one litmus test: does the policy make the United States safer?

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.