Ukraine is now also America’s war
America has crossed a threshold in Ukraine, both in its short-term involvement and its long-term intent. The United States was initially cautious through the fall and winter as Russia, a nuclear country with veto power in the UN Security Council, mustered more than one hundred and fifty thousand troops along the Ukrainian border. He didn’t want to sting the Russian bear or personally provoke Vladimir Putin. Two days after long convoys of Russian tanks crossed the border on February 24, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was still asserting that America’s goal, backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid, was simply to stand behind Ukraine. people. The White House sanctioned Russia – initially targeting a few banks, oligarchs, political elites, state-owned companies and Putin’s own family – for pressuring the Russian leader to put his troops back in their box, without resorting to military intervention. “Direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War III, something we must work to prevent,” President Joe Biden said in early March.
Yet, in just over nine weeks, the conflict quickly escalated into a full-fledged proxy war with Russia, with global ramifications. US officials now define America’s role in more ambitious terms that border on aggressiveness. The goal – backed by tens of billions of dollars in aid – is to “weaken” Russia and ensure that a sovereign Ukraine will outlive Putin. “Throughout our history, we’ve learned that when dictators don’t pay the price for their aggression, they cause more chaos and engage in more aggression,” the president told reporters Thursday. “They keep moving. And the costs, the threats to America and the world, keep mounting.
With virtually no appropriate funds left, Biden asked Congress for thirty-three billion dollars — for new military, economic and humanitarian support — in the latest of several packages for Ukraine. “The cost of this fight is not cheap,” the president acknowledged. (As Politico noted, the new aid makes up about half of Russia’s entire defense budget — and also more than half of the US State Department’s annual budget. Over the next five months, l U.S. aid to Ukraine will average more than two hundred million dollars a day.) The investment, Biden said, was a small price “to reduce the risk of future conflicts” with Russia.
For Putin, the war in Ukraine always seemed to be, at least in part, a proxy battle with NATO and his American leadership. Prior to his invasion, he publicly expressed deep paranoia about the military alliance and its continued expansion into countries formerly aligned with the Soviet Union. He also brokered a five-thousand-word deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping to form a de facto alliance of authoritarian regimes. They oppose together NATO enlargement.
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Biden tried to resist this framing. At the start of the invasion, the United States invoked the principles of sovereignty, a democratically elected government and territorial integrity. Over the past week, however, Ukraine’s existential crisis has increasingly come across as America’s war too. On April 24, Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin rode a train with blacked-out windows to kyiv to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky and symbolically reinforce American support. Stealth travel reflected the increasingly ambitious American goal. “We want to see Russia weakened to the point where they can’t do the kinds of things they did by invading Ukraine,” Austin told reporters near the Polish border. Blinken said: “We don’t know how the rest of this war will play out, but we do know that a sovereign, independent Ukraine will be here much longer than Vladimir Putin is on the scene.”
On Tuesday, Austin brought together defense leaders from more than forty countries— well beyond the NATO – at Ramstein, an American base in southwestern Germany, to coordinate support for Ukraine. Austin, a retired general involved in both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, announced the formation of a new coalition of “nations of goodwill” which will meet monthly to “step up” an international campaign to win “the fight today and the fights to come”. Calling for more help, Biden said, “We also have to do our part, leading the alliance.”
Change was perhaps inevitable, given the barbarism of the war, which claimed the lives of thousands of civilians, and Russia’s defiance of the conventions and obligations of modern art. “If this remains unchanged, if there is no response to this aggression, if Russia gets away with it at no cost, then the so-called international order is gone,” said General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. , said on CNN. “And if that happens, we are heading into an era of seriously heightened instability.” On Friday, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby choked up during a briefing as he spoke about Putin’s “depravity”.
The United States has become more deeply engaged for at least four reasons. Diplomacy between Ukraine and Russia has stalled over revelations of atrocities committed by Russian troops, including the execution of civilians in Bucha. Moscow’s early participation in the peace talks never seemed credible anyway; Putin is too greedy and historically ambitious. Russia has claimed southern Crimea, the eastern region of Donbass and the lands between them along the strategic Black Sea. Putin is not yet ready – or perhaps not yet under enough pressure – to negotiate seriously.
The United States was also emboldened by the stunning underperformance of Russia’s military, the largest in Europe. US intelligence originally feared kyiv would fall within seventy-two hours. But Ukraine held the capital and Russian forces withdrew. Washington no longer hesitates to push the bear. Yet time “is still not on Ukraine’s side,” Milley reportedly told the coalition of defense leaders at Ramstein. His concern was heightened on Thursday, when Russia struck cities across Ukraine just an hour after UN Secretary-General António Guterres, speaking at a press conference in Kyiv, described the country as “the epicenter of unbearable grief and pain”. Guterres’ trip to kyiv followed talks with Putin in Moscow. The UN chief, who visited Bucha, clearly took sides in the conflict. “War is nonsense in the 21st century,” he said. “War is bad.”
The growing US involvement also reflects broader fears – long harbored by countries on or near Russia’s border – that Putin’s aggression will not stop with Ukraine. On April 22, a senior Russian military commander announced that Moscow was seeking “full control” over eastern and southern Ukraine in part to pave the way for neighboring Moldova, a small landlocked country that supports the Union. European but depends on Russian energy. In congressional testimony Thursday, Blinken cited the urgent need to “seize strategic opportunities” and address the “risks presented by Russia’s overreach as countries reconsider their policies, their priorities, their relationships.” Moscow’s blatant rhetoric on nuclear weapons has also increasingly alarmed US officials. “No one wants to see this war escalate more than it already has,” Kirby said on April 27. “Certainly, no one wants to see – or no one should want to see – this escalates into the nuclear realm.”
The Biden administration has public support for its growing role — for now. Despite war-weariness after two decades in Afghanistan and Iraq, about two-thirds of Americans believe the US has a ‘moral responsibility’ to do more to stop the killing of civilians in Ukraine, according to a Quinnipiac poll released in mid-April. In a country polarized on most other issues, a majority of both sides agreed. Three quarters of respondents also fear that the worst is yet to come. And more than eighty percent think Vladimir Putin is a war criminal. Yet public moral outrage “stops at the water’s edge when it comes to committing the US military to combat,” noted Quinnipiac University analyst Tim Malloy. Only nineteen percent of Americans think the United States should do more even if it risks direct war with Russia.
This belief may soon be put to the test. The role of the United States has evolved from a reactive response to Russia’s unwarranted war to a proactive assertion of American leadership and influence. Perhaps out of desperation, Putin’s rhetoric has grown bolder. On Wednesday, he warned he could launch a “lightning-fast” response to any nation that steps in to thwart or threaten Russia. “We have all the instruments for this, which no one can boast of,” he said, in an apparent reference to Moscow’s nuclear and missile arsenal. “We will use them if we have to.” War could now play out in many disparate ways. Each carries its own dangers, both for the United States and for Ukraine.