These questions are swirling suddenly in Washington as the Biden administration narrows its foreign policy focus to rallying NATO allies to defend a fledgling Ukrainian democracy, threatening the Kremlin with brutal sanctions and putting 8,500 American troops on “high alert” status for possible rapid deployment to Eastern Europe.
Some skeptics of the administration and the Pentagon say it’s a textbook “wag-the-dog” scenario. They say the president and the foreign policy establishment are seizing on a far-off war and the media hype that comes with it to distract American voters from his difficult first year in office, with soaring inflation, spiking violence in U.S. cities, widening dissatisfaction over his COVID-19 strategy, unchecked illegal immigration at the southern border, the blocking of key legislation and so on.
Ukraine, the skeptics note, is far from the U.S. homeland, is not a member of NATO and has its own internal challenges dealing with corruption and weak governing structures. Russia, by contrast, is a nuclear power and the world’s second-largest energy producer and is only moving closer to communist China the longer its clash with the U.S. and NATO continues.
“Why is it disloyal to side with Russia but loyal to side with Ukraine?” influential Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson said on his show Monday night. “They’re both foreign countries that don’t care anything about the United States. Kind of strange.”
Most in the national security establishment, including a long list of hawkish Republicans in Congress, say the Ukraine crisis represents a test of President Reagan’s “peace through strength” doctrine, with a growing risk of global conflict if the Biden administration doesn’t project U.S. power.
Many say it is clearly in the U.S. interest to protect a European democracy in the face of expanding military aggression, if only to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin and others who would challenge the liberal democratic order.
“Russia is attempting to annex Ukraine,” said former U.S. Ambassador William B. Taylor, who has served in Kyiv under two presidents since 2006 and now focuses on Russia and Europe at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
“Just like Americans support their soldiers fighting for them on the front lines, the international community should support Ukraine fighting for them on the front line with Russia,” he said. “The attack on Ukraine is an attack on the order, the norms, the treaties, the commitments, the principles that have kept Europe free of major wars since World War II. Restoring that order requires [that] Russia be stopped and Ukrainian sovereignty restored.”
The administration makes a similar point when explaining its intervention on behalf of Ukraine by readying U.S. troop deployments, delivering significant financial aid packages to Kyiv, sending weapons and ammunition to the Ukrainian military and directly engaging the Russians in high-level diplomatic talks.
Fundamental principles are at stake, officials say, and other U.S. adversaries — most notably Chinese communist leaders with an eye toward reclaiming Taiwan through military force — would be emboldened by a weak Western response to a Russian invasion.
Prominent Republicans agree, though they call President Biden’s handling of the crisis weak.
“This is not just about Ukraine,” Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CBS News over the weekend.
“It’s about China. It’s about [Chinese] President Xi and Taiwan,” he said. “It’s about the ayatollah [of Iran] and the bomb. It’s about North Korea that just fired off two missiles … these hypersonic weapons. I think this has broader global ramifications.”
That position is not unanimous, even within the Republican caucus.
“To be clear, what is happening in Russia is concerning, but it is a problem for Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe,” said Rep. Paul A. Gosar, Arizona Republican. He said Mr. Biden is trying to “change the conversation” about his troubled domestic record with talk of war abroad.
“Let me also be perfectly clear,” Mr. Gosar wrote in a ‘special edition’ constituent newsletter this week, “not one American soldier should be shipped across the world to fight to protect the Russian-Ukrainian border. Not one American soldier should die there and not one American bullet should be fired there.”
‘No legal or moral obligations’
For Biden critics, the foreign policy establishment consensus offers little justification for putting American lives at risk in Eastern Europe or dedicating a massive amount of time, money and energy to a border dispute on the other side of the world with no direct impact on U.S. citizens.
It’s a key part of President Trump’s foreign policy legacy within the Republican Party, where skepticism of far-flung conflicts and a passionate “America first” approach to global affairs has expanded far beyond the libertarian wing and is now firmly a part of mainstream dialogue.
Another argument is legality. Ukraine isn’t a NATO member, so the U.S. and its allies in the trans-Atlantic alliance aren’t bound to act. Mr. Biden has said on multiple occasions that U.S. forces won’t get involved on the ground if Russia invades its neighbor.
“The fixation on Ukraine is also odd because we are under no legal or moral obligations to protect Ukraine, nor do we have any treaty obligations to Ukraine. No one has explained what American interest is at risk in Ukraine, nor has anyone explained why American lives or property should be put at risk in the event of a Russian invasion into one of its former provinces,” Michael McKenna, a deputy director of the office of legislative affairs in the Trump White House, wrote in a recent column for The Washington Times.
“It is not clear why this border dispute in a corner of Eastern Europe is worthy of our attention. … Russia is not a material threat to the United States,” he wrote. “The real and existential threat we face is from the Communist Chinese Party. Russia, and by extension Ukraine, is a sideshow.”
Within the Republican Party, all issues involving Ukraine come against the backdrop of the January 2020 House impeachment of Mr. Trump and subsequent Senate trial and acquittal. It was a July 2019 phone call during which Mr. Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate Biden family corruption in Ukraine that led to the impeachment. Mr. Zelenskyy never launched an investigation of corruption involving the Bidens despite long-standing questions surrounding the Ukrainian business dealings of the president’s son Hunter Biden.
Mr. Zelenskyy denied in 2019 that he felt pressured by Mr. Trump, though witness testimony during the impeachment trial suggested that the Ukrainian leader could have expected a high-profile White House visit in exchange for launching an investigation into the Bidens.
Instead, Mr. Zelenskyy met with Mr. Biden at the White House in August.
Mr. Zelenskyy is a crucial player in the Ukraine–Russia crisis. He is deeply unpopular with the Kremlin because of his largely pro-Western stance, particularly his desire to bring Ukraine closer to NATO.
Mr. Zelenskyy was elected in 2019, five years after a popular revolt drove pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from power and forced him to flee to Russia. Since then, Russia’s influence over Ukrainian policies has diminished. Foreign policy specialists generally agree that regaining some of that control is one of Mr. Putin’s prime motivations in threatening invasion.
Still, preventing Russian sway over Ukrainian society and politics is hardly a reason for major U.S. intervention, skeptics say.
Instead, U.S. motivation centers on staving off a Russian invasion because it would almost surely spark a much broader conflict with potentially catastrophic consequences for Europe and possibly the world.
“There are no core U.S. security interests at stake in Ukraine, a country that is geographically distant from the U.S. … and is not a NATO ally,” said Rajan Menon, director of the Grand Strategy program at Defense Priorities, a think tank that advocates for a more restrained U.S. military role and less intervention abroad.
“The U.S. has no compelling reason to allow the crisis in Ukraine to precipitate a U.S.-Russia war, one that could escalate into a nuclear confrontation,” Mr. Menon wrote in an analysis this week. “The U.S. interest in averting a Europe-wide conflagration — which would hurt the U.S. economy, could segue into a conflict between Russia and one of the countries on NATO’s eastern flank, and cause substantial harm to Ukrainians — calls for prudent diplomacy to stave off an invasion.”