Russia aims to resurrect its geopolitical dominance by amassing troops on the Ukrainian border. Conflict began in 2014 when street protests in Ukraine overthrew Russian-supported President Victor Yanukovych. In retaliation, Russia annexed Crimea sparking violence in eastern Ukraine. Since 2014 Russia has made substantial advances culminating with 175,000 troops on the Ukrainian border. Intelligence reports vary on the exact military capabilities of Russian forces, but unanimously agree that they are sufficient to overpower the Ukrainian military. Reports from intelligence sources indicate increased Russian propaganda in Ukraine, attempting to convince Ukrainians that Russia will benevolently liberate them from their western-controlled leaders. Intelligence officials urge Ukraine to strategically resist Russian aggression, abstaining from provocative actions that Russia could misinterpret for grounds of invasion.
Russia stands to gain two things by asserting military power on Ukraine’s border: bargaining leverage against the United States and NATO and, if that fails, geopolitical power through military aggression. The Kremlin demands that the United States guarantee Ukraine will not join NATO, and that NATO cease expansion into Eastern Europe (referring the Ukraine and Georgia) because it will interfere with Russian military activities. Putin’s ideal NATO agreement would “rule out any further eastward expansion of NATO and the deployment of weapons systems posing a threat to us in close proximity to Russia’s territory.”
The United States is committed to strengthen relations with Ukraine based on shared values and the promotion of a free and democratic Europe. To achieve this larger goal, the United States prioritizes advancing Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial independence, particularly against impending Russian aggression since the 2014 annexation of Crimea. The pinnacle of the strategic partnership resides in democracy—or rather the belief that democracy is essential for security, prosperity, and reform—as declared by the U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership.
NATO, and the United States through NATO, has been consistently supplying Ukraine with weaponry to fight against Russian aggression in Donbass. Ukraine’s accumulation of NATO equipment, including missiles, heightens Russian insecurity on democratic expansion. Acceptance of foreign aid provoked concerns about their alleged neutrality between Russia and NATO. Russia fears Ukraine’s pending NATO membership, and by extension a subsequent NATO member on their immediate border. Since 1997 nine former members of the Soviet Union or the Warsaw pact have joined NATO. Creeping through former Soviet-led territory, Ukraine’s impending membership brings NATO to border Russia—creating a substantial security threat.
The United States swiftly rejected Putin’s demands for assurance that Ukraine will not join NATO. Rather, the United States countered by threatening severe economic sanctions and escalating rhetoric regarding Ukraine. Economic sanctions targeting Russian businesses and individuals mean to compel Putin into compliance. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with European allies in Latvia and Sweden to gauge European resolve against the conflict in Ukraine. Britain has since joined the United States’ threats with sanctions of their own. The entire situation summarizes to a power-play between Russia and the West, echoing unresolved Soviet security threats.
President Biden reemphasized American commitment to impose hefty economic sanctions, should Russia invade. During the first of several phone calls, Biden outlined two options for President Putin: de-escalation through diplomacy and economic sanctions, or increasing US military and NATO presence within Eastern Europe. President Putin promptly denounced the proposed sanctions and denied planning to invade Ukraine and President Biden clarified that the United States would not supply offensive weaponry to Ukraine. Although hopeful at first, continuing negotiations on January 10, 2022 foreshadow a length stalemate against US-led NATO and Russia. Putin reiterated his demands against NATO military presence in former Soviet states and Ukrainian membership. NATO denies his insistence but would concede arms control and limiting military exercises.
American and Russian representatives plan to meet later this week and discuss Russian security concerns, however hope is diminishing. Russia must decide their true motivations: “whether they really are about security, in which case they should engage, or whether this was all a pretext.” It must be noted that throughout these calls and discussions, and in contradiction of the sovereignty NATO and the United States claim to support, Ukrainian representation is scare or absent. Ukrainians await their fate dolled by either country.
The escalating conflict pushes the United States to stand their ground against Russian aggression. The country must remain committed to its Ukrainian ally, standing idly violates the principles of sovereignty that the United States vowed to protect. The U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership illustrates this relationship: “Bolstering Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against threats to its territorial integrity and deepening Ukraine’s integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions are concurrent priorities [of the United States].” The United States’ dedication to Ukraine’s sovereignty extends to their decision to join NATO. While this attestation skillfully redirects responsibility from NATO to Ukraine, it fails to incentivize Ukraine to combat Russian aggression.
However Ukraine cannot feasibly join NATO without concrete assurance of Western aid against Russian intervention. The United States cannot promise Ukraine aid without provoking Russian engagement. Ukraine remains divided on their fight for democracy and which superpower to emulate. This circular situation leaves Ukraine torn between regional security and the international community. It leaves the United States hoping that diplomacy provides sufficient deterrence. Some Ukrainians claim to be ethnically Russian but loathe the leadership of President Putin and increasing resentment persuades many moderate Ukrainians in favor of NATO protection.
The United States recognizes Russia’s legitimate security concerns and that infringing NATO presence within buffer states elicits Russian antagonism. However Ukraine should remain free to join NATO of their own volition and the United States should seek to protect a free and fair election. Thus far American officials believe the best way to ensure Russian compliance is through strict economic sanctions, institutionally starving Russia in exchange for withdrawal of troops and political interference in Ukraine. Fear of justified Russian retaliation prevents the United States from providing direct or offensive military support to Ukraine.
The United States’ options remain limited, but slow negotiations are better than a Russian invasion. The United States cannot declare complete support of Ukraine because it could devolve into a great-power war. However the United States also cannot sit idly and allow Russia to transform Ukraine into another Belarus or Kazakhstan. Officials also consider the potential European security threats should Russia engage. Threats of economic sanctions since the annexation of Crimea test the credibility of the United States. Biden hopes to regain reliability after Obama’s sanction threats failed and Trump’s “America First” foreign policy diminished Europe’s trust in the United States’ resolve to defend allies.
Many policymakers believe that the United States failed to properly punish Russia after the annexation of Crimea. Subsequently, they push to impose the economic sanctions rather than toying with potentially meaningless threats. While valid, this option spends the majority of the United States’ bargaining power. Maintaining potential threats leaves ambiguity from both parties and indefinitely stalls escalation while Russia calculates the credibility of economic threats. Taking inspiration from US-China relations, the United States could deprive Russia of technological and military goods enticing compromise. The United States realizes its difficult position trying to defend Ukraine, because Ukraine is not a NATO member and therefore not entitled to NATO protection. However the United States may bolster American NATO presence in surrounding countries as a sign of solidarity and support
The unfolding situation imitates US-USSR relations during the Cold War: institutions and ideals contending on a battlefield of diplomacy. Russian demands starkly resemble the Berlin crisis of 1961 or Warsaw Pact powers invading Czechoslovakia in 1968. In succession, the Iron Curtain fell and the Cold War began, and sealed Czechoslovakia against Western help. Officials must consider US actions during these situations and navigate the current predicament with gratitude at continuing, if not progressing, diplomatic relations.
Other threats than direct invasion, such as Russia using Ukraine as a diversion against emerging Eurasian alliances of autocracies, hover above every diplomatic meeting. They threaten more than European security or a single state’s sovereignty, rather they endanger world order and the balance of power. Russian troops amassing on the Russia-Ukraine border, and the weight of its implications, leaves only diplomacy and time to decide the fate of Ukraine and the future world order.
 Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania