Why the Ukraine conflict really does matter to the U.S.

Opponents of Ukraine aid often fail to grasp the extent to which a Russian success would weaken the United States.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy receives an American flag after addressing the U.S. Congress on December 21, 2022.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy receives an American flag after addressing the U.S. Congress on December 21, 2022. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Critics of Ukraine aid believe the spread of war in Europe would not affect the U.S.
  • The European and American economies are too deeply intertwined to decouple
  • A war-torn Europe would make the U.S. worse off both economically and politically

Finally, it looks like the U.S. will send a package of military and economic aid to Ukraine. Hammering out a deal to send Ukraine the critically needed funds and weapons took months, due to fierce opposition from American politicians who ask why the United States should worry about whether Russia gains territory in Ukraine.

Those in favor of sending aid to Kyiv sometimes have trouble arguing the point effectively. They say that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s zeal for imperialistic adventures will quickly turn from Ukraine to NATO countries like the Baltic states or Poland. Or, they say, if the West does not stand up for the rule-based world order, China will seize on its fecklessness to invade Taiwan.

Those opposed to sending Ukraine aid have rightly pointed out some big holes in those arguments. Even if Russia manages to take over Ukraine in its entirety – an unlikely outcome even though it has gained some momentum on the battlefield – its forces have been so depleted that it will probably need years to rebuild enough strength to consider taking on NATO. And though China would love for the West to abandon democracies like Ukraine, it has concocted its own justifications and will likely attack Taiwan when it thinks the time is right, whether the West is united or not.

Recently, a group of actors, writers and activists sent an open letter to the U.S. Congress, pleading for it to send more aid to Ukraine. The missive made some better points, including that Ukraine’s struggle through conventional warfare against a nuclear-armed Russia shows that having nuclear weapons does not guarantee victory on the battlefield.

It also argued that if Ukraine is defeated, we can expect more war in Europe. And while it may not come immediately to NATO, it may come sooner to places like Moldova or Georgia. An emboldened Moscow would see these countries as easy pickings.

Still, Ukraine skeptics wonder why that should matter. American trade with those countries is minuscule. Rather than worry about them, the thinking goes, Washington should worry about what is happening at home.

An unstable Europe hurts the U.S.

What all this misses is the effect that instability in Europe over decades will have on the U.S. For all of the hoopla around American trade with China, it pales in comparison with U.S.-Europe trade. In 2022, trade in goods and services between the U.S. and the European Union amounted to over $1.3 trillion – more than double the $643 billion in trade with China. 

Now consider what having an aggressive, nuclear-armed Russia at the doorstep of Central Europe will do to the Old Continent’s economy and stability. Americans have rightly complained in recent years that Western Europe does not do enough to pay for its own defense (a state of affairs that was encouraged by the U.S. for decades). Yet the massive amounts Europe would have to spend on security with a belligerent Moscow bearing down could force it to divert funds away from investment in infrastructure or implement severe tax hikes. 

In any case, building up a European military that could take on Russia on its own would take years, and in the meantime the U.S. would be required to send more troops to Europe to shore up its flanks. Europe will become poorer, buying fewer American goods, investing less in the U.S., and offering a smaller return on investment for American firms. Many European countries can hardly afford to borrow more as it is. At least six European countries have debt exceeding 100 percent of their gross domestic product, with the United Kingdom just under that threshold at 97 percent.

Mike Johnson (Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives)
Originally skeptical of U.S. support for Ukraine, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Republican Mike Johnson, changed his tune and pushed forward a legislative package that included $61 billion in military and economic aid to the country. © Getty Images

As economic woes weigh more heavily on European countries, populist leaders on both the left and right who see a quick solution in cozying up to Russia will gain political momentum. No doubt the Kremlin will support these leaders’ campaigns and offer sweet energy and security deals, if only these states turn away from the West.

Countries that resist will likely face provocations like cyberattacks and encroachments on their airspace, or perhaps brazen missile tests causing brief states of emergency. This instability could easily lead to an unforeseen accident that spirals out of control. The constant threat of a Cuban Missile Crisis-style tipping point in Europe would necessarily require U.S. attention and resources as Washington tries to avoid a potential nuclear conflict in Europe. 

Waiting out Russian President Vladimir Putin is no solution either. At 71 years old, it is likely he has two more decades in power. But when Mr. Putin finally does go, whoever replaces him will be under enormous political pressure to show that they are a strong leader. Since Russia’s system requires a dysfunctional society and economy, the most natural way to accomplish this is to take more territory. 

Poorer and less secure

There are some, however, who would still prefer to leave Europe to its own devices. For them, the U.S. might as well abandon NATO. But that naively ignores our globally connected world and Europe’s immense impact on American security and the economy. If Europe were to grow more belligerent toward the U.S., it would make Americans poorer and less secure.

A cursory look at history shows that when there is conflict in Europe, the U.S. often gets drawn in, no matter how isolationist the sentiment in America at the time. From World War I to the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, the U.S. frequently ends up fighting Europe’s battles, whether it likes it or not.

More on the invasion of Ukraine

In short, a result in Ukraine where Russia can claim any sort of victory would be devastating for security in Europe and put tremendous strain on the American economy and its defense. This can hardly be the result those who clamor for ending U.S. support for Ukraine really want.



Least likely: The U.S. abandons Ukraine

It is an interesting phenomenon that when populist U.S. politicians gain power, they stop calling as hard for an end to Ukraine aid as they once did. That is because the reality of the policies they have called for finally sets in when they become the ones who have to make the big decisions. 

That makes it unlikely, but possible, that the U.S. could abandon Ukraine entirely. Under this scenario, Ukraine fatigue would grip a large enough segment of the American populace for anti-Ukraine politicians to be able to continually hold up aid. Former President Donald Trump, a severe critic of Ukraine, would win the November presidential election and decide that spending any more political capital supporting the government in Kyiv is not in his interest. Ukraine falters, and Russia makes big territorial gains.

The consequences of this scenario are outlined above – an unsecure, bordering on unstable, Europe whose economy quickly begins to deteriorate and whose security environment requires even more support from the U.S. than it is currently receiving. The U.S. economy declines, and its leaders will have to worry about a much less stable and predictable world.

Somewhat likely: The U.S. gives Ukraine everything it needs

The resistance in Congress to continuing Ukraine aid, though loud and effective so far, is being mounted by a fairly small group of politicians. A majority of Americans understand what is at stake in Russia’s war on Ukraine and favor continuing support. 

There is good reason to believe the hurdles can be overcome, as evidenced by the passage of a new aid package, and it is possible that anti-Ukraine politicians will be defeated at the ballot box in November. If that happens, aid to Ukraine could even increase, allowing it to win some important victories that shore up international support and create positive momentum. Despite his resistance to go all-in on Ukraine support so far, President Joe Biden would see the political benefits to doing so.

If this happens, Ukraine can be expected to push Russia back to at least the pre-2022 borders, handing President Putin a stinging defeat. That would make further Russian aggression in the short- to medium-term less likely. In that time, the U.S. could work with its European allies to increase defense spending budgets and improve security, to deter further such moves by Moscow once it is back on its feet.

Most likely: Continued lukewarm support

Divisiveness in the U.S. is such that one side of the political aisle reflexively opposes anything the other side supports. The even split between Republicans and Democrats is likely to come through again in November’s elections, which will make getting any more Ukraine aid packages through Congress a tough slog. With aid from the U.S. limited, Kyiv will find it difficult to make significant progress on the battlefield, but will be able to hold the Russians off just enough to keep a breakthrough from occurring. A drawn-out state of conflict – sometimes low-intensity, sometimes fierce – will prevail for years. 

Under this scenario, the consequences are negative on the whole, but less severe than if the U.S. were to abandon Ukraine entirely. Europe would be far less stable and secure than it has been over the last few decades, but there might be some breathing room for the Europeans to beef up their defenses. Nevertheless, there will be acute economic consequences, with businesses less likely to invest where war could break out and the U.S. under more pressure to invest in European security, regardless of whatever increases the Europeans make on their own. Decades of uncertainty – akin to the Cold War but even more unpredictable – will follow.

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