Why Ukraine Matters

On the stand-still and what lies ahead
The National Guard of Ukraine use anti-aircraft defence equipment, August 2022 (Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Sipa USA via AP Images).

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.

 

Putin 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.

Putin’s policies toward Europe have been paradoxical and in many ways self-defeating. He conceives of Russia as a European power, and indeed Russia has been part of the state system in Europe since the seventeenth century. Putin’s first job was as a KGB officer in Dresden. He is well aware that the Soviet Union was once a major power within Europe, and that’s what he would like Russia to be. He believes that Moscow deserves a say in how Europe is structured, in what its security arrangements are, and in what its political order will be. In 2009, during the brief period when Putin was prime minister, Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev released plans for a Europe that would be jointly fashioned by Russia and the nations of Europe. This went nowhere. Then, to Putin’s great anger, Ukraine began turning away from Russia and toward Europe after 2013. A Poland in Europe was one thing—Russia could tolerate that. But a Ukraine in Europe was a bridge too far.

What makes Putin’s posture toward Europe so self-defeating has to do with his use of force to get what he wants. He resorted to force in 2014, when he annexed Crimea and invaded Eastern Ukraine. That horrified many Europeans, inspiring them to support Ukraine and to impose economic sanctions on Russia. Putin’s much more extreme use of force in 2022 has had a similar effect. It has led to greater European unity on a number of issues. It has provoked a very ambitious sanctions regime and led European countries to send large amounts of military aid to Ukraine. It has also solidified the relationship between Europe and the United States and prodded Sweden and Finland—nominally neutral states until 2022—to join NATO, which they are likely to do soon. The invasion has made Russia impossible to ignore, while bolstering the idea of a united Europe to which Russia does not belong. Coercion is now Putin’s only tool for influencing European politics and security, and coercion is by definition a blunt instrument.

The third layer of Russia’s war against Ukraine is the conflict between Russia and the United States. Putin has waged war in Ukraine because he perceives the United States to be too strong in one way and very weak in another. Contemptuous of the government in Kyiv, Putin construes it as Washington’s puppet. The United States, he fears, has manipulated the Ukrainians, convincing them that Russia is their enemy. He believes that the United States wishes to transform Ukraine into a staging ground for U.S. military power and that, were it to succeed in this plan, Russia would face an existential threat. At the same time, Putin has argued that the United States is a country in decline, heavily indebted and politically polarized. Its own citizens attacked its most symbolically resonant building on January 6, 2021. The United States botched its withdrawal from Afghanistan a year ago, after losing to a premodern army of Islamicists. Even in Ukraine, Putin suspects, U.S. power may prove hollow. He has put this proposition to the test by invading. He knew the United States would respond by backing Ukraine, but this did not deter him. He seems to believe that U.S. backing isn’t worth what it used to be.

Even in Ukraine, Putin suspects, U.S. power may prove hollow.

The hope in Moscow was for a quick decapitation of the Ukrainian government, but the war has not gone according to Putin’s plan. Russia’s military setbacks have been severe. Kyiv was not taken. Nor were Chernihiv and Kharkiv. Russia has lost an immense amount of equipment, and its combat forces have suffered unknown numbers of deaths and casualties, very likely in the tens of thousands. The Russian army is now defending an enormous line of contacts between itself and Ukrainian forces, which are receiving ever more sophisticated weapons from the United States and other partners. Russia may not be able to hold all the territory it has taken since the start of the war, and for the next several months at least a shortage of manpower will make it hard for it to go on the offensive. It is mired in a war of attrition. Meanwhile, it is also largely cut off from Europe. The sanctions are having a serious effect on Russia’s economy in general, and particularly on the industrial base of its military. War crimes committed by Russian soldiers have gone unpunished but not unreported. They—and the war itself—have turned Ukrainian public opinion against Russia for generations to come. Putin’s war has all the hallmarks of a strategic blunder: overconfident planning, deficiencies of execution, vacuity of concept.

 

Nevertheless, the war still presents acute challenges to Ukraine and, by extension, to Europe and the United States. The greatest challenge will be to sustain the war effort, and to understand the stakes. Nor will it be enough for only policymakers to understand. A majority of ordinary citizens in all the countries involved will also need to know what’s going on and why. Impatience or a lack of focus on their part could eventually play into Putin’s hands.

Russia cannot defeat Ukraine outright—it will not get the Ukrainians to surrender—but it can still do a lot to prevent the country’s development. Russia is likely intent on the conquest of all Ukrainian territory on the Black Sea; this would entail the invasion of Odesa and the Southwest of Ukraine. Were Russia to succeed in this, Ukraine’s economy would be devastated. (Already much of the country’s industrial and agricultural base is in the East and South—areas that Russia now controls.) A war that lasts years is the most likely scenario. Such a war would mean missile strikes all over the country, continual attacks on infrastructure, as well as conventional military campaigns by Russian forces. This would cause foreign direct investment in Ukraine to dry up (no one wants to build what is sure to be destroyed). Ukraine’s GDP has already declined precipitously because of the war. A primary challenge, then, will be to sustain Ukraine, economically and socially. There are now an estimated 6 million Ukrainian refugees, along with 6 million internally displaced people, and these numbers could grow. Here too, the sustenance of Ukrainian society, including that part of it living in exile, is essential—no less essential than supporting Ukraine’s military.

Russia is going to make sure that Europe suffers for its support of Ukraine. This winter, Russia will likely cut off gas supplies to various European countries still dependent on Russian energy. This will force governments to ration, and it will have a profound effect on economic life—especially in Germany. Many German businesses depend on the cheap electricity made possible by easy access to natural gas. Russia’s goal is to impress on the people of Europe the cost of their governments’ foreign policy. Russia may well offer a peace plan, on its own terms, and tie this plan to the provision of Russian gas to Europe. Russia could also resort to disinformation on behalf of pro-Russian politicians and political parties in Europe. Refugee flows from Ukraine have already bolstered populist sentiment in several European countries, though notably not in Poland and the Baltic States, which closely identify with the cause of Ukrainians living under the shadow of war. The Russian calculus is that most Europeans care more about their standard of living than about Ukraine, and this is the vulnerability Moscow will try to exploit.

Russia’s influence in the United States is smaller. The United States produces a decent amount of its own gas and oil and is therefore far less dependent on Russian energy. The midterm congressional elections are not going to change U.S. foreign policy. In our system of government, the executive branch has great latitude over security issues, and that branch will not change hands until 2025 at the earliest. The U.S. challenge, given Europe’s coming energy crisis, will be to maintain the transatlantic alliance, to keep it focused on Ukraine, to maintain the sanctions on Russia, to keep arms flowing to Ukraine, and—no less important—to keep Ukraine afloat financially. None of this will be easy. Zelensky’s charisma, the plight of Ukrainians, and the surprise of Ukraine’s early military success have all contributed to high levels of public support for Ukraine in the West. Over time, however, domestic concerns will reassert themselves, the war will receive less attention in the media, and the desire for a return to normalcy—whatever that means—will grow stronger. The West’s ultimate challenge is not the policy it has chosen for assisting Ukraine. It is the politics behind this policy.

The United States and Europe cannot afford an insular or top-down approach to Ukraine. It is not a technical problem, this war. It is an all-hands-on-deck problem. European leaders and the American president must do all they can to explain what’s at stake for the people of Ukraine and their neighbors. They must explain why even a partial Russian victory would be very costly. They must explain the priorities of the countries that stand behind Ukraine, and they must do so in a language that is vivid, nonpartisan, and frequently reinforced in speeches to the general public—and not just at elite political gatherings like NATO summits or meetings of the G7. They must counsel patience and explain why careful resolve is preferable to a short-term rush to compromise. Putin’s strategic blunder in Ukraine will not inevitably lead to his defeat. He will try to improvise his way to some kind of success, complete or incomplete. The war in Ukraine will not be over for a long time to come. That is another reason for politicians in the West to make their case eloquently and often. Putin is waiting for the citizens of Western countries to lose interest. We must make sure that they don’t.

Published in the September 2022 issue: 

Michael C. Kimmage is a professor of history at the Catholic University of America and a fellow at the German Marshall Fund. From 2014 to 2016 he served on the Secretary’s policy planning staff at the U.S. Department of State, where he held the Russia/Ukraine portfolio.

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