By Benjamin Giltner
War is afoot in Ukraine, and its impact has been tragic. Ukrainian civilians are being targeted, with one of the most recent attacks including a Ukrainian children’s hospital. On the other side, over 7,000 Russian soldiers have died and protests have been suppressed throughout the country.
What is the United States to do?
To answer that, we must examine American national interests in Ukraine, the impact of these interests on the American people and the reasons that the United States should not go to war against Russia.
The United States has two national interests in this war in Ukraine. The first American interest is to end the war as soon as possible.
To end the war in Ukraine as soon as possible, the United States should pursue the pathway of negotiated settlement. It is the lesser of two evils. Seeking unconditional surrender will probably result in Russia digging in its heels, especially with Vladimir Putin’s political legitimacy at risk.
In his book A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, from the Pagans to Putin, Mark Galeotti makes clear that Putin has created a quasi-social contract with the Russian people: do not criticize his regime and he will bring the people (and elites) prosperity.
With sanctions targeting both Russian elites and society, Putin is at risk of losing this legitimacy. As Andrea Kendall-Taylor points out, the only way for Putin to keep his legitimacy is to emerge with something from this war.
In essence, Putin needs to make sure that this war has not been for nothing. The overthrow of Nikita Khrushchev after the Cuban Missile Crisis makes some observers like Herman Pirchner Jr. ponder how much more risk the Russian elite will tolerate because of Putin’s war against Ukraine.
The brave fortitude of Ukrainians to push back and defend their country from Russian encroachment has forced Russia to reduce its political demands in this war. This is a sign that Russia may be willing to negotiate an end to this war.
However, such a scenario will only take place after Russia is convinced that it is stuck in a quagmire. In essence, Ukraine needs to become Russia’s Vietnam, or better yet, something synonymous to Russia’s Winter War against Finland.
The second U.S. national interest is to refrain from going to war against Russia.
The reasoning for this is simple: the invasion of Ukraine does not risk the national security of the United States. There is no possibility of Russia invading the shores of the United States. As Barry Posen has famously argued, the geographic position of the United States makes it one of the most secure nations in the world.
Prudence is needed to ensure that the United States does not go to war, nor get inadvertently entangled in this war. For example, implementing a “no-fly zone” is a recipe for disaster.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pressed for the United States and the West to implement a no-fly zone over Ukrainian skies. As notable experts warned in a recent open letter, war with Russia would be almost inevitable if the United States were to commit to a no-fly zone.
There are also escalation dangers to the United States by sending weapons to Ukraine. Russia has threatened to attack these weapons shipments sent from NATO countries.
Given that all NATO members are guaranteed collective security protection under NATO’s Article 5 treaty clause, such possible attacks upon weapon shipments bring a real possibility of the United States forced into war.
While the Biden administration rejected the call for a U.S.-led no-fly zone, American policymakers are approving more military supply shipments to Ukraine. To ensure that the United States does not become entangled in this war, it is crucial to limit, if not entirely eliminate, U.S. military involvement in this war.
In order to accomplish these two national interests, the United States will need to support the “Finlandization” of Ukraine.
Finlandization refers to a Finnish policy of neutrality during the Cold War, where the Soviet Union maintained a degree of political influence over Finland. Putin has lambasted NATO expansion throughout his presidency, and especially the prospect of Ukraine joining the alliance.
The policy of Finlandization would satisfy both parties — Russia would have a neutral Ukraine on its border and Ukraine would be able to maintain its sovereignty. In other words, if Ukraine is to have any sort of independence, the United States must set aside its ambitions to extend NATO to Kyiv.
Achieving these two interconnected national interests of ending and avoiding war through the strategy of Finlandization will impact American citizens in two main ways.
First, by supporting a negotiated settlement to the war and refraining from being entangled in the conflict, American soldiers will not need to die in the streets of Ukraine. The United States would avoid contributing more blood to this already bloody war.
Second, Washington would avoid spending money on military assets for Ukrainians. Inflation is currently at a forty-year high in the United States. Spending billions of dollars on military weapons — dead-end spending — will not help with this inflation.
Instead, such funds should be reserved for possible domestic spending, and used to help Ukrainian refugees flee as safely as possible.
These benefits to American citizens may seem selfish. However, this is the nature of international politics. As Kenneth Waltz stated in Theory of International Politics, the world is a system of “self-help.”
What Russia is doing in Ukraine is heinous. The red stripe on its national flag will be forever stained by the blood of Ukrainians. The United States should ensure that this bloodshed does not include the United States and will not extend indefinitely.
Ukraine must not be beholden to the whims of either Russia or the West. The United States must maintain its independence from the political entanglements of other nations and must show support for the independence of these other nations.
While a negotiated settlement may not result in Ukraine being fully independent from Russia, achieving some freedom is better than not having any at all.
Benjamin David Giltner is a first-year graduate student at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service. He is pursuing a track in national security and diplomacy.
This essay was an honorable mention in the 2022 John Quincy Adams Society/The National Interest Student Foreign Policy Essay Contest.