After months of rising tensions, Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. The conflict has had a staggering humanitarian toll: 2,685 civilians have been killed and another 4.1 million refugees have fled their homes. The EU crisis commissioner warned Europe to prepare for over seven million internally displaced Ukrainians; this level of displacement would make Ukraine the largest refugee crisis in recent memory. Given Jake Sullivan’s prediction the war will continue for “months,” the crisis will only escalate further.
While more can be done, the US and other nations have met the conflict with unprecedented levels of humanitarian support. The EU announced the employment of the Temporary Protection Directive, which allows refugees to enter member nations without applying for asylum for up to three years. The UN also appealed for $1.7 billion for humanitarian support. On March 24, Biden announced the US would accept up to 100,000 refugees and donate $1 billion to help EU countries mitigate the humanitarian crisis. The speed and magnitude of this aid sets Ukraine apart from recent crises.
Ordinary Americans also support humanitarian aid despite costs at home. The war has caused prices, particularly of fuel, to skyrocket. However, by the second week of the conflict, a survey found 69% of Americans supported sanctions, even if they came with increased energy prices. Currently, 82% of Americans favor providing even more aid. This support is noteworthy considering the importance of energy prices to voters, as well as the fact that support for Ukraine was reflected across party lines in an age of political polarization. A poll also found roughly two-thirds of all Americans support the United States’ accepting refugees. While the nation has recently seen a decline in support for asylum-seekers, Ukraine again reverses this trend.
This level of support is truly unprecedented, particularly by the US. What explains it?
First, the war in Ukraine is one of necessity to defend democratic values. The US did not choose this war. Nor is US involvement in the war based on strategic gains, as was the case in Afghanistan and Iraq, which saw declining support by the American public. Instead, the conflict is fought to defend a nation wrongfully attacked by an aggressive autocrat. Moreover, the conflict is fought explicitly in defense of democratic values, which the US has a long history of promoting. In his attack on Ukraine, Putin has sought to dismantle a democratic nation and isolate it from the West. In its support of Ukraine, the US thus fights a war to defend democracy, a refrain that strikes a chord with American values.
To take a more cynical view, US support of Ukraine compared to conflicts in the Middle East is also rooted in racial bias. Americans have grown used to seeing conflict in other regions, particularly in the Middle East. War in the West is different. Chris D’Agata, senior foreign correspondent at CBS News, explicitly stated Ukraine “isn’t a place… like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades.” Rather, he characterizes Ukraine as “relatively civilized, relatively European… where you wouldn’t expect that.” While he later apologized for his word choice, his rhetoric is reflected across coverage of the conflict. This racial bias is particularly apparent with regards to refugees; support for Ukrainian refugees comes even as the US has recently slammed its doors on asylum-seekers.
What do these factors mean for current support of Ukraine and beyond?
First, this is not to say the United States should not help Ukraine. Biden should absolutely take advantage of this opportunity to increase humanitarian support for those in Ukraine, as well as continue to accept refugees. These victims of conflict are absolutely deserving of aid, and the US should leverage its geopolitical power unilaterally and in measures like the UN humanitarian convoy to ensure Ukrainians receive the support they need.
The United States — Biden in particular — should also reexamine its history of humanitarian aid, particularly with regards to Afghanistan and Syria. As a nation that prides itself on being a beacon of democratic values and human rights, the US should be cognizant of the image it creates by providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine when it has failed to provide similar levels to other nations in the past. For the United States to continue to serve as a global human rights advocate and protector of the free world, Biden must tread carefully and seek to match this level of support in future conflicts, regardless of where they occur.
Grace Endrud (PPS ’24) is a Public Policy Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ’22 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.