The US should treat Ukraine as a neutral state

Once again, Russian troop movements around Ukraine have Western strategists warning that an all-out invasion by Russia is imminent.  There are about 100,000 troops close to the Ukraine border, but the Russian leadership says it is not getting ready for an invasion.

President Biden indicated that Putin would pay a serious price for invading and stressed that any Russian military incursion would lead to a swift, severe response from the West.  For its part, the Kremlin stated that continuing such comments could only further destabilize the situation.

This is problematic.  President Biden's low polling numbers and multiple policy failures make preventing Russia from invading Ukraine one of the few topics that generate bipartisan support from the American people.  Launching a war is a great way to bring up those flagging poll numbers.  Some would argue that a hot war is a sure way to deal with a recession and even improve re-election odds.  Let's hope, though, that it doesn't come to this.

The West is the only real source for weapons capable of defeating modern Russian military forces and equipment, so the West's response could simply be to ship military aid to Ukraine.  The U.S. has done so in the past.  Or, as some people fear, it could lead to a larger scale war with U.S. and NATO troops in direct conflict with Russian forces — a potential WW3.  This is all the scarier since the major belligerents are nuclear powers.

Significantly, neither the U.S. nor the Eastern and Western Europeans have anything to gain from such a conflict even if it is limited to a conventional fight.

Ukraine is strategically valuable mainly to Russia, which sees it as a buffer state between Russia and the potentially hostile West.  Furthermore, the mix of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine since the Stalin years makes it attractive as part of the current Russian Empire.  There is no real strategic value in Ukraine for the U.S.  There has been substantial discussion about bringing Ukraine into NATO, but this is likely folly because Ukraine is a weakened state that does not add to NATO's strength.  Rather, it creates a high-risk liability.

Image: Satellite images of Russian troops near the Ukraine border.  YouTube screen grab.

This does not mean that strong U.S. diplomatic pressure on Russia to respect Ukraine's sovereignty isn't called for.  It should mean that there is no need for a U.S./NATO military response should the Russians move in.

The best thing for Europe is an independent Ukraine established via political compromise.  This is called diplomacy, not appeasement.  Using military movements and threats of military action is the last diplomatic response.

Ukraine is not a U.S. ally, nor is it part of NATO, and as such, it does not enjoy any guarantee of support from NATO.  Furthermore, the strategic balance does not change much for NATO if the Russians occupy Ukraine.  The reverse is certainly true for Russia.

Many pundits suggest that if Ukraine were to fall to Russia, then Putin would target Poland.  Poland is already a NATO member, and if Russia invaded it, that would require a swift response from its NATO allies — and the Russians well know this.

Poland has been a strong NATO ally since 1999 and is considered vital to NATO's eastern flank security.  The U.S. has the forward headquarters of the U.S. Army V Corps in the Polish city of Poznań, and some 5,500 U.S. troops in the country.  Furthermore, despite the Soviet Union's decades of post-WWII dominance over it, Poland is not as mixed with ethnic Russians as are parts of Ukraine.  In other words, the Poles see themselves as much more Western and ethnically very separate from Russia and their nation as a military power in its own right.

So the threats Russia poses to Ukraine and Poland are very different.  Poland has strategic value to NATO, and Ukraine does not — at least not as much as its value to Russia — and that is the key decision point for any U.S. or NATO response to a Russian invasion.  Is it valuable enough to fight for?

The best course of action with Russia is to contain it within its own reasonably identifiable sphere of influence, which includes Ukraine.  Should it be allowed to invade Ukraine without a Western response?  Absolutely not but that response should not be a war.  It should be diplomatic and economic and driven by the E.U.  A free and independent Ukraine is actually a benefit to both East and West.

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