Don't Exaggerate What's at Stake in Ukraine

The "liberal world order" doesn't require a war with Russia over the Donbass.


Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, though it claims it doesn't intend to invade. The U.S. is sending weapons, layering on sanctions, and placing 8,500 troops on "high alert" for possible deployment to Eastern Europe. And last week President Joe Biden, facing criticism for his "weak" stance on the conflict, drew a line in the sand: "If any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion. Let there be no doubt if [Russian President Vladimir] Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price."

With a little less hubris and a little more realism, the escalation of the Ukraine affair could've at least been mitigated. But the foreign policy establishment seems to have forgotten how to do a cost-benefit analysis. The risks of this conflict simply outweigh Ukraine's importance to U.S. foreign policy.

Sen. Chris Coons (D–Del.) wants "the sorts of sanctions that we use to bring Iran to the table." But Russia controls a significant portion of global energy markets—nearly 40 percent of Europe's gas imports—so permitting Iran-like measures against it would have disastrous effects. Economic sanctions on Russia were futile in 2014 when it invaded Crimea, and there's no reason to believe that they would provide a deterrent effect now. More often than not, U.S. sanctions hurt American economic interests without changing the target's behavior in the slightest.

Meanwhile, American military aid worth more than $200 million has reached Ukraine. This weapons dump has been justified a few different ways, ranging from the idea that it will change Putin's mind to the notion that it will give the Ukrainian military a real chance against potential invaders. In 2021, the U.S. sent $650 million worth of weapons and military equipment to Ukrainethe most since 2014—and it clearly didn't deter Putin from surrounding Ukraine on three fronts. It's hard to believe that sending even more equipment into Ukraine will do the trick.

Defending Ukraine has never been about Ukraine, Michael Brendan Dougherty argues in National Review, but about defending "liberal world order." The chief argument of the Russia hawks, like former President of the World Peace Foundation Robert Rotberg, is that failing to protect Ukraine from Russia would mean the U.S. is dishonoring those who fought in World War II. That the U.S. would be putting its hard-earned "superpower" status at risk. This is an exaggeration of disastrous magnitude.

"The world is paying a high price for relying on a flawed theory of world politics," writes Harvard University's Stephen Walt in Foreign Affairs. Russia sees Ukraine as a strategic imperative. Ukraine will never be as high on America's list of foreign policy priorities as it is on Russia's. And the situation in that region will never become a fight to crown the next global superpower.

Ukraine is not yet a member of NATO. Preventing Ukraine from joining NATO is Putin's top priority, but he also wishes to shut down any further NATO expansion. There are serious disagreements between member nations—best exemplified by Germany refusing to send weapons—about how to treat Ukraine due to differing attitudes toward Moscow. Getting heavily involved in Ukraine would distract NATO from its more challenging adversary: China.

Biden may not have any good options here. He doesn't want to sit idly on the sidelines while Russia trounces Ukraine, but it would be irresponsible to go to war there, especially just after ending another war that spanned 20 years.