By: Nava Katz  | 

The Pundit: The Russia-Ukraine Conflict and What it Means for US-Russia Relations

Since the beginning of December, it’s been difficult to find a news publication without at least one article discussing the recent buildup of Russia’s military presence near the Ukrainian border. This movement of troops in the Crimean Peninsula and near the eastern border of Ukraine has generated a slew of speculation about Russian President Vladmir Putin’s intentions, and whether Russia will invade Ukraine like its 2014 invasion and seizure of Crimea. 

Russia and Ukraine have a long and complicated history. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has felt threatened by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s eastward expansion and the general shift towards Western alliance in the region. As one of Russia’s closest neighbors, a pro-West independent state of Ukraine has been particularly troubling for Putin, who feels that Western influence is creeping too close for comfort. 

Following a wave of protests from pro-Russian Ukranians, Putin invaded the Crimean Peninsula and annexed it, claiming that he was protecting the interests of its people and military assets. Ukraine and the West protested the move as a breach of Ukrainian sovereignty, and the West made a largely ineffective attempt at imposing sanctions. Although the Minsk agreement in 2014 and 2015 tried to establish peace between Russia and Ukraine, little progress was made and the area by the Crimean border has experienced low-grade conflict since then. 

Last spring, Putin caused a security scare when he orchestrated troop escalations near the border, which turned out to be a false alarm. Putin soon removed the troops and claimed that the escalation had just been for military training purposes. This has only pushed Ukraine to further align itself with the West, increasing tensions with Russia.

Now, Ukraine, with the support of Western powers, has been scrambling to prevent another invasion. In a recent video call with Putin, President Biden warned that military escalation would result in strong economic consequences or other measures. However, Russia doesn't even seem to feel threatened by the prospect of military conflict. If Russia does choose to invade, the ensuing war will be very costly for Ukraine, which does not have enough military strength to hold off Russia on its own. Without being an official NATO member, Ukraine is unlikely to get much military support and assistance, particularly in terms of troops on the ground. 

Russia’s violations of international norms are characteristic of its contentious relationship with America and the entire globe. Russia directly seeks the destruction of the U.S. and rejects the liberal world order. There is no hope in persuading it to cooperate because it no longer desires cooperation or a respected place within the free world. This is incredibly dangerous to American interests at home and abroad. Russia seeks to become a global leader by weakening our international standing. They manipulate and erode who we are as a nation, operating on the (correct) premise that if we are a failure as a democracy in our own eyes and in those of our allies, we will lose both national and international respect. Internal and international affairs are deeply intertwined, but issues at home shift our focus away from maintaining leadership abroad. In light of this history, Putin’s intentions may be unclear, but his motivations aren’t. He sees America as weak and is capitalizing on the current set of circumstances. So what can be done? Some have advocated for less of a hardline approach, saying that Ukraine should submit to some of Russia’s demands like removal of NATO troops from the region. However, we cannot ignore the fact that Putin (and the world) is looking to see how far he can push without the U.S. taking action. This is a critical turning point in how the international community will view America going forward. With the rise of Russia and China, and on the heels of the PR disasters that were America’s pullouts from its last two wars, we need to reestablish that we will not condone violations of international norms. Our behavior will be an indication of our strength in a time of a newly emerging world order, and will be crucial in signaling not only to Russia, but to China, Iran and other malicious actors that the U.S. continues to be a significant power. It is imperative that the U.S. takes strong actions, possibly even cutting off bad actors from the SWIFT international payment system (something Russia says would be a  “declaration of war”). Neglecting to act in a forceful manner will only hasten our decline and continue to embolden Putin and others who will follow his belligerent example.

Photo Caption: Russian troops guarding a military base during the 2014 Crimean invasion

Photo Credit: Anton Holoborodko/Creative Commons