Roman Popadiuk: Why Ukraine Matters

Prior to the midterm elections, some Republicans voiced skepticism about support of Ukraine, with House minority leader Kevin McCarthy claiming that Ukraine should not warrant a “blank check”. While McCarthy quickly downplayed his comments, his view did not change. Now with their newly acquired control of the House, some Republicans are set to put this view into policy by curtailing U.S. financial and military assistance to Ukraine. These Republicans – as well as some Democrats – have voiced concerns that the war in Ukraine could bring the U.S. into direct conflict with Russia, including the risk of nuclear war, and that our resources should be directed to helping Americans at home. Open debate is always welcome, and the need to meet social and economic needs at home is valid and needs to be addressed. However, for a society to remain free and prosper it has to feel confident that its wellbeing will not be challenged by external threats. If Republicans pursue policies in line with the critical rhetoric on Ukraine, there can be major consequences for our national security, the West, and the international political and economic order.

Russia has historically associated its security with geography, pushing its boundaries or control of territories as far as possible, particularly in relation to Europe. While this type of geographic incentive may seem ironic in this age of intercontinental missiles and other sophisticated weapons, it is nonetheless a feature of Russian foreign policy. It is underpinned by Russia’s view of itself as being a defender of Slav populations, a defender of the Orthodox faithful, and as serving as a bulwark against what it views as a decadent and hostile West. Any weakening in support of Ukraine will give Russia an incentive to push even further to control or influence the countries in the surrounding region.

Russian policy is a reflection of various currents of Russian history and is solidified by an authoritarian structure. Throughout its history, Russia has made steps toward a more open society but has always fallen back on its authoritarian roots. These competing tracks will continue for some time before Russian reformers are able to turn the corner and establish a permanent foothold. Stymying the expansionist tendencies of the Russian government can aid in weakening the authoritarian structure, thereby hastening the development of a more open and free society and help lead to a more cooperative international role for Russia.

Ukraine can be a key actor for breaking Russia’s energy leverage on Europe. Ukraine holds the second largest gas reserves in Europe which have remained largely untapped, and has one of the world’s best gas infrastructures, a vestige of the Soviet era that already ties Ukraine to Europe. If properly developed, Ukraine’s energy sector can help power Europe’s energy needs, further break Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, and provide Europe the luxury of time to develop strategies for new and alternative sources of energy.

U.S. backsliding on Ukraine will also embolden China to pursue its expansionist goals in Asia and help intensify Beijing’s actions against Taiwan, including a possible invasion. The latter would test the U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” whereby the U.S. does not make clear whether or not we will defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression. There is the possibility, therefore, that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could bring the U.S. into direct conflict with China. It seems wise to stop this train of events by standing firm against the Russian aggression in Ukraine, thereby sending China a clear signal that U.S. resolve is strong.

How the U.S. acts in Ukraine will also send signals to the world on whether or not the U.S. can be depended upon for political, diplomatic, and economic support. Any weakening of the U.S. stance on Ukraine can lead countries to make accommodations with China, as well as Russia, and hasten greater China-Russia cooperation to undermine U.S. positions and standing in the world. China is already challenging U.S. and Western interests with its Belt and Road Initiative, an economic development program which has provided China with political and economic inroads in various countries.

The leaders of both political parties need to understand that the rules of the game are changing. While greater transparency and accountability of U.S. funding of Ukraine, as some have called for, is important, it should not be a step toward pulling back on the U.S. role in the world and in slowing support of Ukraine. We have been careful to maintain a balance between avoiding military confrontation and exerting pressure on Russia, but there is still much that can be done without risking this balance. Maintaining strong support of Ukraine is a good start. For our own security and the stability of the world community, the U.S. needs to play a dynamic leadership role to meet the challenges Russia and China pose. Ukraine appears to be the test case.

Roman Popadiuk served as the first U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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