Don't Give Ukraine a U.S. Security Guarantee | Opinion

This past April, it appeared as if Russian President Vladimir Putin was preparing for a full-fledged invasion of Ukrainian territory. As many as 110,000 Russian troops, alongside additional military trucks, tanks and other armored vehicles, were being positioned close to Ukraine's border in what the U.S. and Europe described as a highly publicized attempt at Russian coercion. Fortunately, a military incursion never occurred.

This month's Russian build-up in the same area looks eerily similar to what occurred in the spring. Tens of thousands of Russian troops are yet again massing near Ukraine, with some Ukrainian defense officials predicting a Russian offensive in the beginning of next year. Like in April, U.S. officials are scrambling for options in the event Moscow orders an invasion—the two most popular being more weapons transfers to the Ukrainian military and more sanctions against the Russian energy industry. Washington is so concerned about another Putin surprise that U.S. officials reportedly shared maps of Russian military movements with NATO members this month.

What exactly is Putin up to? A number of theories have been presented. Some seasoned Russia analysts believe Putin is trying to resolve the eight-year Ukrainian crisis on Moscow's terms before he vacates office (whenever that may be). Others cite Putin's frustrations with the Minsk II process, in which Kyiv is supposed to trade a degree of political autonomy to the Donbas region in exchange for a Russian troop withdrawal. The honest fact of the matter is we don't know what Putin is thinking. As Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin admitted last week, "We're not sure exactly what Mr. Putin is up to."

Ultimately for U.S. policymakers, Putin's calculations are less important than how Washington chooses to respond to an evolving dilemma. The default option in U.S. policy circles is stand up to Russia in defense of its smaller neighbor. This is an understandable emotional reaction. Russia, after all, violated international law when it decided to send forces into the Crimean Peninsula to occupy and later annex it. The Russians breached Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity the moment it decided to foment an anti-Kyiv separatist rebellion in Donetsk and Luhansk and make heavy weapons like battle tanks, multiple-rocket launcher systems, rockets and armored personnel carriers available to their proxies. From the U.S. and European standpoint, Russia's activity in Ukraine has been nothing short of an abomination.

Rapid Trident military exercises
Ukrainian servicemen take part in the joint Rapid Trident military exercises with the United States and other NATO countries nor far from Lviv on Sept. 24, 2021. YURIY DYACHYSHYN/AFP via Getty Images

Yet it would be foolhardy and outright dangerous if U.S. policymakers let emotional qualms, however strong and ingrained, to dictate U.S. policy in Ukraine. The ugly reality is that however disturbing the U.S. may find Russia's conduct, Ukraine is not a vital U.S. interest or a problem that can be resolved without Russian buy-in.

Since the war in eastern Ukraine began in 2014, Washington has penalized Moscow with a series of economic sanctions in the hope the Russian government would cease its military campaign in the country and withdraw its support to the separatists. U.S. military support to the Ukrainian military, including the provision of anti-tank Javelin missiles, was crafted for the same purpose. Since 2014, the U.S. has provided Kyiv with $2.5 billion in military aid through a specially-created fund called the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative.

Despite this support, Russia is no closer to cutting its involvement in Ukraine or handing Crimea back to Kyiv today than it was two, three, or five years ago. While the war in eastern Ukraine is certainly not as violent as it was during its peak in 2014 and 2015, hostilities still flare up between Ukrainian troops and separatist forces. The Donbas remains divided by deeply-dug trenches, with civilians in the region still living in a war-zone. Sanctions and diplomatic opprobrium aside, the Russians have no intention of stopping their involvement in Ukraine and can essentially turn up the temperature whenever it's in their interest to do so.

While those in Washington are reluctant to admit it, there is an asymmetry of interests in Ukraine. The political disposition and geopolitical positioning of Ukraine doesn't matter a whole lot to the United States, but it's extremely important to Russia. It may be undesirable, but the U.S. can live with a Russian-influenced Ukraine and did throughout the entirety of the Cold War period. For Russia, however, a Western-influenced or aligned Ukraine is a red-line to be prevented, even if the economic, military and diplomatic costs of doing so prove to be high.

Ideally, Ukraine would be able to establish its own independent foreign policy without any external interference. Yet geography and power matter in the confines of international relations—and for nearly a decade, Russia has demonstrated a willingness to leverage its power to maintain a strong presence in its neighborhood.

One can't blame Kyiv for worrying about a possible Russian invasion. Its request for more U.S. trainers, reconnaissance drones, anti-tank missiles and air defense batteries will be met with sympathetic ears on Capitol Hill and segments of the Biden administration.

But if U.S. officials were being honest with themselves, they would recognize that more military assistance to the Ukrainians is unlikely to do much of anything except prompt Russia to retaliate in kind. And if the U.S. genuinely cares about Ukraine, they will look their Ukrainian colleagues in the eye and deliver them a tough message: As the weaker party in this dispute, your only viable option is to stop stalling on implementation of the Minsk II agreement and come to a diplomatic settlement. There is no sense in holding out any longer. The U.S. won't be getting into a war with a nuclear-armed Russia on Kyiv's behalf.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.