In Ukraine, America Must Focus on Winning the Long Game

By Nicholas Kwasnik

Refugees from the conflict in Ukraine cross into Poland, March, 2022.
Image Credit: Ministry of Internal Affairs Ukraine/Wikimedia Creative Commons

In light of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, America must be clear-eyed about what is actually at stake. The U.S. has three national interests in Ukraine: commodity prices, its alliances with European NATO members and its power projection abroad. 

To defend these interests, Washington should not seek war with Russia. Instead, it should encourage Russians to emigrate to America and assist European states in developing their militaries.

First and foremost, the U.S. must manage commodity prices affected by war in Ukraine. High and volatile commodity prices greatly inconvenience Americans, especially the poorest already bearing the worst of soaring food costs. 

Ukraine is a major wheat producer. In response to the Russian attack, wheat prices rose 40% in February. America’s European allies also face soaring electricity and energy costs and a possible recession. European contraction would mean job losses for U.S. exporters. 

Also at stake is America’s relationship with Europe, whose leaders increasingly fear that the U.S. may not defend them in a conflict. While Ukraine is not a NATO member, the war there has further stressed European governments. By demonstrating its commitment to its European allies in this crisis, Washington can secure its relationship with them. 

Third, the image of America’s power is vulnerable. The U.S. enforcing its will abroad — and the threat of it doing so — contributes to the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency by demonstrating the greenback’s security foundation. 

While China has tried to develop mechanisms to bypass the dollar in international trade, these occurred before the Russian invasion. Therefore, China’s actions to become increasingly “dollar-independent” will likely continue regardless of U.S. actions.

War with Russia will not protect any of these interests. The likelihood of nuclear escalation makes war a non-starter. Even if military intervention remained non-nuclear, it would only further spook investors and send commodity prices soaring, worsening the economic situation for the poorest in America and across Europe. 

Moreover, such an operation means overcoming the logistical and political nightmare of amassing thousands of soldiers in Eastern European states, forcing allies into the conflict, and entering Ukraine.

Many European states would dislike the U.S. forcing them to arms. Furthermore, those states where fighting would occur — Poland, Lithuania, Estonia — would not appreciate mass devastation on their territories and would likely require hundreds of billions of dollars in aid in the aftermath. 

Perhaps most unappealing is the fact that war is financially unviable. Raising taxes is also a non-starter in the current political climate. Thus, Washington would try to raise the necessary dollars through debt. 

Unfortunately, it cannot afford the risk of spooking investors. Already, the Federal Reserve sends interest on its government bonds back to the Treasury and has monetized more government debt than ever before. 

An increasingly stronger Euro into which investors can move should the U.S. government make more questionable financial decisions also limits options. Fearful investors would demand higher interest rates on government debt, which the U.S. cannot afford.

Any significant increase brings it perilously close to a default, which would unnecessarily put the dollar’s reserve currency status — what lets Americans constantly live beyond their means — in jeopardy.

Instead, Washington should create opportunities for young and skilled Russians to migrate to America. About 200,000 scientists leave Russia each year. An independent poll in the summer of 2021 found that about one-in-five Russians wanted to emigrate; that number is likely even higher now given Putin’s most recent wave of repression. Moreover, 92% of those who wanted to leave had a university degree and 14% had a Ph.D. 

Creating special visas for them would provide the U.S. with economically valuable talent. It would also demonstrate the superiority of an open and liberal society to which people want to migrate over Russia’s closed and authoritarian one that people desperately want to leave. 

Furthermore, while Putin has a disdain for the urban middle class, his state and economy still require well-educated diplomats, engineers, lawyers, and other professionals. Despite Russian attempts to raise the country’s fertility rate, it remains far below replacement level. 

The U.S. snatching up Russia’s most skilled citizens and the Kremlin’s policies failing to replace them will, in the long run, limit Putin’s options and thus create a safer world for America.

Another tangible action that the U.S. could undertake to protect its interests is encouraging European countries to build up their militaries. Washington can provide them training and loosen arms export restrictions, which would strengthen trans-Atlantic cooperation and free up American soldiers. 

With their own independently sustainable deterrents, European states will not have to rely on U.S. forces. In addition, training allied armies and exporting them weapons is more economically beneficial than deploying troops abroad. European states may purchase weapons from American firms and boost quality employment in the U.S. 

Most usefully, deploying fewer soldiers in Europe will provide America with direct cost savings or at least free them for deployment into more pressing areas.

Some may push for deploying more troops to Europe. However, better prepared, equipped and trained European forces with direct connections to the countries they protect will be far more useful than an extra few thousand Americans in defending the continent.

Ukraine is important to U.S. national interests, but war with Russia is not the right way to defend them. Such a war would be a human and financial catastrophe. 

Instead, targeted immigration programs for highly skilled Russians already attempting to emigrate will provide domestic economic benefits and international political clout. Furthermore, assisting European states in building their militaries will strengthen trans-Atlantic cooperation and potentially stimulate U.S. arms exports.

When it comes to responding to Russia in Ukraine, America must look beyond the current chaos and focus on winning the long game.

Nicholas Kwasnik is a freshman who will double major in Economics & Finance at William & Mary. He is the Vice President of the campus chapter of the John Quincy Adams Society. 

This essay was an honorable mention in the JQAS/The National Interest 2022 Student Foreign Policy Essay Contest.

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