The United States faces a protracted conflict in Ukraine. There is almost no chance of this war ending soon, and it is already having ripple effects across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and in the United States. As Ukraine’s most important supporter, Washington has developed a working policy for this war. Well before the war began, the United States was deeply involved in Ukraine’s military planning, and Ukraine’s current position—its capital city intact and the Ukrainian government still in control of around 80 percent of the country—would not have been possible without U.S. backing. Washington cannot point to success, but it has at least helped stave off failure. The Biden administration will not change its policy before or after the midterm congressional elections; nor should it. What the U.S. government must accept, and what the American people must understand, is the magnitude of this war and the depth of the transitions it will bring about. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, is a turning point in history, like the start of World War I and World War II, or the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s. But many people here have yet to realize, and adjust to, this new state of affairs.
Russia had three reasons for invading Ukraine in 2022. (The war itself began in 2014 and is in its eighth year, but the 2022 invasion changed its dynamic entirely.) The first reason is that Putin’s Russia sees itself as entitled to control Ukraine in one way or another. The second is that Putin could not accept Russia’s diminishing influence in Europe. The third is that Putin wanted to challenge U.S. power in Europe, on the assumption that this challenge, in February 2022, would benefit Russia and damage the United States.
Russia’s will to control Ukraine or annex its territory has a long history. In the seventeenth century, the eastern half of today’s Ukraine was absorbed into the Russian empire, and by 1914, when World War I began, Russia was occupying large parts of Poland. After World War I, Poland acquired western Ukraine, and Ukraine’s East became the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union. After World War II, all of Ukraine fell within the Soviet Union. The Kremlin viewed this setup as the only natural state of affairs—the way things always should have been. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was precipitated in part by a movement for Ukrainian independence, but this did not keep Moscow from regarding Ukrainian independence as conditional. By 2012, Putin’s modernization of the Russian military had given Moscow new options, and it was exactly at this moment that many Ukrainians started to turn against their pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and to call for a more Western-oriented Ukraine. After Yanukovych was forced out of office by a popular uprising, Russia’s response was to annex Crimea in March 2014. That set off a war with Ukraine, which settled into a negotiated stalemate in early 2015. Russia had some leverage as a result of this stalemate, but not as much as it wanted.
Putin’s problem after 2014 was that he still believed Russia had a “right” to control Ukraine, but he also knew that Russia did not in fact control it. Two successive Ukrainian presidents, Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky, pushed for closer ties with the United States and Europe. They both endorsed a Western orientation for their country. They both sought membership in the European Union and openly discussed the possibility of joining NATO. Even without membership in NATO, Ukraine’s military ties with the West developed considerably between 2014 and 2022. Putin assessed this trend as a threat to Russia. He feared that if these political, economic, and military ties with Europe and the United States were allowed to continue, they would eventually make Ukraine a part of the West. Russia would be sidelined and Putin humiliated. Joe Biden’s election in November 2020 was further confirmation of this trend. Putin knew he couldn’t persuade President Zelensky to change course, so he chose war. Even if a war failed to bring Ukraine into the Russian orbit, it would at least block Ukraine from becoming a well-functioning member of a Western coalition.