Yes, escalation in Ukraine is a major threat.
But 66% of Americans don’t see how.
Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about the war in Ukraine due to escalating tensions and aggressive posturing from Russia. Since last year, President Putin has been amassing large sums of troops and resources along Ukraine’s border, signaling a potential impending invasion. The purpose for these actions is Russia’s opposition to the eastward expansion of Western powers. However, if Russia fails to incite retreat via diplomatic concessions, then it may resort to military action.
Escalation to the point of military conflict would be catastrophic. While Ukraine is already fighting a military war in its eastern region, an explicit assault from Russia would take things to a whole new level. A Russian invasion would cause an international crisis with significant implications for global politics, capital markets and the loss of human life. As the world knows all too well, kinetic wars are very painful and we should do our best to avoid them. However, if diplomacy fails, then war may be inevitable.
Having visited the region and spent some time trying to understand its challenges, I have gathered some insights on the situation and its impact on world affairs. However, according to a recent Pew survey, two-thirds of Americans don’t see Russian aggression in Ukraine as a major threat to U.S. interests. This is terribly misguided. Further escalation in Ukraine is one of the top geopolitical risks of 2022, and Americans with global interests should be especially concerned. Below, I provide context on the current security crisis, an account of my travels throughout the conflict-zone and an assessment of the risks toward U.S. interests with hopes that more Americans will come to appreciate the severity of the situation.
A Series of Russian Aggressions
Ukraine’s fraught relationship with Russia has much to do with the shared cultural history between the two nations, as well as geopolitics. Modern-day Russia was actually founded in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city. Although Ukraine is a democratic nation today, it was formerly a constituent republic of the Soviet Union before its dissolution in 1991. The country is immediately bordered by Russia to the east, the European Union to the west, and the Middle East just south of the Black Sea. Perhaps there is something poetic to be said about how the very geography of Ukraine symbolizes the intersections between the broad divisions of global powers. I’m sure that this poetry has been recited elsewhere, but nevertheless, understanding this context is a precondition toward understanding the situation in which we may all be further implicated soon.
Culturally, Ukraine is somewhat divided between the east and the west with much of the eastern region speaking Russian and expressing pro-Russia sentiments, while the western region is more pro-Europe. Politically, following independence from the Soviet Union, Ukraine has repeatedly sought entry into the European Union and NATO, albeit unsuccessfully. Divisions on EU/NATO membership are also regional, however recent polling shows increasing popular support for EU/NATO membership nationwide.
However, Russia has continuously opposed Ukraine’s ambitions toward Western alliance. And they have repeatedly violated the sovereignty of Ukraine by interfering in its elections (sounds familiar), invading and annexing Crimea, and subverting the government through cyberattacks. As hostilities have heightened, the government of Ukraine has made explicit requests for American intervention. And Ukrainians’ views toward Russia have turned increasingly negative as well.
The current conflict is best characterized as a territorial dispute, and much of the action is focused in Donbas, a region in eastern Ukraine that borders Russia. Since 2014, militant pro-Russian separatists have fought to force the region to secede from Ukraine and form an independent state. Russia has repeatedly denied involvement with these separatists, however it is near universally acknowledged they have provided resources, training and strategic support to the militants. Consequently, Russia’s involvement has resulted in sanctions and repeated condemnation from the international community.
Although trench warfare is typically associated with the wars of the early 20th-century, it is alive and well in Ukraine. Approximately 75,000 troops are facing off along the front line which cuts through densely populated areas. The war has destroyed the local economy and industries, and according to the International Crisis Group, the combat zone is one of the world’s most mine-contaminated areas.
This situation has been making headlines in western media recently because Russia has started building-up weapons, supplies and as many as 130,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders. They have also started preparing logistical infrastructure for war such as field hospitals. Naturally, this activity has alarmed Western and Ukrainian officials because it clearly signals a potential invasion. Such an invasion would be calamitous, but the posturing is just the most recent in a series of Russian aggressions.
United States and NATO officials have held a series of unsuccessful negotiations with Russia, who demands that NATO: (1) stop its eastward expansion; (2) prohibit new countries (like Ukraine) from joining the alliance and (3) pull back any short or medium-range missile systems out of reach, replacing the previous intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) treaty of 2018. These demands would reshape the European security framework that has existed for decades. However, Russia continues to apply pressure with veiled threats, suggesting that if the United States and NATO don’t come around, then they would be making a “mistake” that would “undermine their own security and the security of the whole European continent.” And it is widely believed that if Putin does not receive sufficient concessions from the West, then he is likely to act.
A Community Under Attack
But Russia has already acted with military force — invading and annexing Crimea, and instigating the war in Donbas — resulting in immeasurable damage. As a student of global conflicts, I traveled to eastern Ukraine in 2017 in order to assess this damage for myself. It was a nerve-wracking journey, and I was repeatedly apprised of the risks from the State Department, family and friends. The journey would not have been possible without my amazing host Mike, who helped me arrange dozens of interviews with NGOs, activists and leaders, and let me camp out with him at his apartment in Kramatorsk, an important provisional capitol in the region. I am grateful for the experience and the insights gained were priceless.
Although Russian leadership has opposed Ukrainian nationalism and pride, I saw firsthand that the people were resilient and cared deeply about their communities — each, resisting the destruction wrought upon them in their own way. But above all, l learned this: Ordinary people can do extraordinary things when their community is under attack.
Academics who study the reasons why people join violent paramilitary organizations have identified what they call a “critical incident” as a primary determinant. Critical incidents are specific moments of victimization at the hands of an opposing group, such as an attack on an individual, their community, or their family. According to the literature, these incidents precipitate a period of reflection before potential recruits decide to join a violent cause.
During my first day in Kramatorsk I met with fighters from Pravyi sektor, a right-wing Ukrainian nationalist political party and paramilitary group. I wanted to hear their perspective on the war, and learn more about what motivated them. As I listened to their stories it became clear that critical incidents played a significant role, altering their reality and causing them to take up arms. For example, one fighter told a story about a 21-year old Kharkiv University student who was unjustly killed by Russian separatists. Angered by this, and his many “brothers” killed in the war, he decided to fight-back.
But what strikes me about this is that while violence is generally destructive and reprehensible, it is also often a very rational response to victimization. While we ordinary people may successfully avoid physical conflict as a means of settling disputes most of the time, it is likely because our environment does not require us to meaningfully consider the option. But under different circumstances the calculus may change.
The war in Ukraine has resulted in more than 14,000 casualties and 1.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs). An IDP is a refugee who remains within their country’s borders. During my travels I had the opportunity to meet with several such individuals. I traveled to Svyatohirsk, a resort town where a health spa has been converted into a sanatorium for IDPs, traveling through two military check points and passing by homes that were destroyed by bombs on the way.
We spent the day interacting with and interviewing IDPs. Each person had a unique and interesting experience, although they shared some common struggles. Several of the retired people living in the sanatorium received exiguous pensions from the government, which were not enough to cover basic expenses such as medicine. For example, one woman told us that she received 1700 hrvnia ($64.60) from the government per month, but had to spend something like 700 hrvnia ($26.60) on medicine. That leaves her with 1000 hryvnia ($38.00) to live on each month. Others spent significant portions of their pensions helping to support their families, some even raising grandchildren all by themselves. A few reported receiving no pension at all.
I met one man, Sasha, who was particularly striking. Displaced from his home, Sasha is an amputee and dancer who says that he doesn’t let his status as an IDP define his happiness. I asked him, “What do you think needs to happen to stop this war?” He said, “There are only two people who can stop this war: [the separatists] and Ukraine. Those two sides must come together to negotiate. It’s like when you’re fighting with your wife and she kicks you out. You can’t send a third party to go talk to her. You have to go there yourself and sort things out.”
Later that week, we returned to the UN compound in Kramatorsk where we met with a coordinator from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). She spoke to us about their office’s operations in Donbas, the problems that children and schools face, and the work that UNICEF does to help support local communities. Many schools experienced overpopulation due to influxes of children displaced by the war. In some areas the school population tripled as a result. Several schools that were close to the front lines were either shut down or had irregular classes due to safety concerns. We even heard of one school in Luhansk where there is shelling everyday so they hadn’t had classes in over a year. Additionally, schools with IDP populations struggled to offer full accommodations to their students because internally displaced children have very specialized needs in terms of emotional and psychological support. After the meeting at UNICEF, I decided that it would make sense to visit one of the aforementioned schools to learn more about the humanitarian crisis.
The UNICEF coordinator connected us with School #13 in Sloviansk. There, we met with two deputy administrators and a teacher. I was surprised and grateful for their willingness to share their stories. After greeting us at the main entrance they led us up to a tiny but well decorated office. Mike, our translator and I each introduced ourselves and I explained that I was interested in hearing about how this school has been impacted by the war. The headmistress asked, “Should we start from the beginning then?” I nodded.
At 12 o’clock midday on May 28, 2014 this school was shelled by separatist forces. They were the first school in Donbas to be hit by the attacks. Fortunately, there were no children present near the explosion. The shell hit just 10 minutes after they finished cleaning up for an end of the semester celebration. At a time when they were supposed to be rejoicing over academic achievement, they were instead mourning over devastation. Thirty-six windows were destroyed. There were fourteen crying little children at the school which they herded into the basement for safety. In the following days the school opened up the basement to the community where people hid from the shelling. There were two fatalities from this incident; a child and their mother who were walking near the school. Imaginably, the incident was very traumatic for the children and many were still emotionally and psychologically damaged by the attack. Some children were afraid to sit next to windows, while others cried at the sound of thunder.
However, I was impressed by the resilience of this school community to pull itself together and push forward in the face of such hardship. With help from UNICEF, the school established online classes so that students who could not travel to school could still have access to education (and this was pre-COVID, so virtual learning was much less widespread). The school set-up programs educating children on what to do if they see a grenade or shell. And they even started experimenting with a new democratic administrative model that gives students influence over decisions. School #13 rebuilt so successfully that it spread as a model for other schools throughout Ukraine.
It was amazing to witness how locals in the community responded to the austerity of war with resilience. These people kept building and rebuilding, unfaltering in the face of the adversity that was brought to them. I learned that it is during the times when we are tested the most that ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things, and there is a tremendous hope in that.
A Major Threat
Pew research recently found that U.S. public support for defending Ukraine from Russia might be weak. Only a quarter of Americans (26%) consider the Russian military buildup near Ukraine to be a major threat to U.S. interests; 33% say it is just a minor threat; some 7% say it is no threat at all; and one-third just aren’t sure. However, a much larger proportion (49%) of those who are well informed on the situation view Russia’s actions as a major threat, compared to just 26% of those who have heard a little about the situation and 9% who have heard nothing.
These statistics lead me to believe that ordinary Americans are not informed enough about the situation in Ukraine, or why it matters to us. And that is a big mistake. Escalations in Ukraine not only threaten a humanitarian crisis, they also threaten the United States’ long-term strategic interests. As for the humanitarian crisis, the cause for concern is clear: the people of Ukraine are a community under attack, and they have the most to lose. Plus, the war has already produced more than a million people who have been displaced from their homes, but if violence worsens then the crisis might spill over into Europe, causing an influx of refugees and straining resources.
Aside from general humanitarian concern, Americans should care about the situation in Ukraine because if the Russians are successful in their efforts to subvert this democratic nation, then it may embolden other emerging powers to actualize their expansionist ambitions too — especially China. Russia and China’s relationship has considerably improved over the years, and further alienation of Russia by the West will push them ever-further to the Chinese. The last thing that the United States needs is an emboldened Russia and China working in concert to defy American doctrine across Eurasia.
China’s military activity in the South China Sea, and its antagonism of Taiwan may pose more direct threats to the United States’ vital strategic interests than Russia’s antagonism of Ukraine. In particular, 60% of the world’s microchip manufacturing, including 92% of the world’s most advanced chips are produced in Taiwan. Thus, a Chinese strike in Taiwan has the potential to meaningfully disrupt the global economy, including several industries upon which the United States relies. And a strike in the South China Sea would disrupt more than $3 trillion dollars in global trade. America’s foreign policy relies on our global credibility to deter invasive actions such as those which loom large with China. However, embarrassment or defeat in Ukraine would seriously undermine our engagements elsewhere.
And not that threats to democratic power are ever opportune, but this situation unfolds amidst heightened recession risks, a never-ending pandemic and political disunity, which weakens our internal resolve. Russia will surely continue its exploitation of America’s divisions, especially now, with midterm elections just around the corner. A kinetic war in Europe might just be the final ingredient in this very potent cocktail of declining empire. Yet, it is imperative that the United States save face, standing behind strategic allies against threats to democracy — especially with recent failures, such as the bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan still so fresh in global memory.
It will be interesting to see how President Biden responds to this challenge, considering that foreign policy finesse is supposedly his area of core competency. As the President manages his own decline (in the polls, of course), our response to Ukraine will surely play an important role in his legacy. Diplomacy is the best strategy, especially since war would be very costly for all parties involved. But I wouldn’t underestimate Russian interests in the region, and how far they’d be willing to go to protect them.
A full scale invasion of Ukraine would surely elicit a military response from NATO, which would also be a test of U.S. hegemony. Failure would signal weakness to the rest of the world, causing allies to question our guarantees of protection, and causing rivals to question our determination. And that outcome would disrupt the global balance upon which we all rely.