A strange and potentially catastrophic development in U.S. foreign policy has been the elevation of Ukraine to the status of a vital American interest. Ukraine was not even an independent country until the end of 1991; before then, it was merely a component of the Czarist Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. America got along just fine ignoring Ukraine and its affairs. There has been no formal treaty, or even a meaningful congressional and public debate, to make Ukraine a crucial US ally, yet that is how Washington now views that country.
Indeed, protecting Ukraine and promoting its interests has become a veritable obsession with the foreign policy blob. And woe be to anyone who dares question the logic or wisdom of that course. When I published an article in the National Interest pointing out Ukraine’s acute deficiencies as both a security partner and as a supposed democratic model, it drew the wrath of the Atlantic Council, the leader of Ukraine’s de facto lobby in the United States. One article appearing on the Atlantic Council’s website predictably resorted to evidence-free, drive-by smears that I was serving as a willing agent of Russian disinformation.
The determination of US officials to support Kiev has deepened markedly during Joe Biden’s administration. Washington’s longstanding effort to thwart completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany invariably emphasized the alleged danger of democratic Europe’s increased energy dependence on Russia, but the core of that objection was that gas flowing from Russia would now bypass Ukraine and drastically reduce revenues to Kiev. Even the July compromise agreement between Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that signaled Washington’s reluctant retreat on the Nord Stream 2 project included a huge, ongoing financial subsidy to Ukraine. Washington and Berlin committed to supporting a $1 billion fund for Ukraine to diversify its energy sources, of which Germany will have to provide an initial $175 million grant. Berlin also guaranteed that it would reimburse Ukraine for gas transit fees it will lose from being bypassed by Nord Stream 2 until 2024, with a possible 10-year extension. Biden certainly looked out for the financial interests of Washington’s pet client.
But the administration’s solicitous concern about Ukraine goes far beyond economic matters. Biden has expressed Washington’s "unwavering support" for the country’s security, and US officials have repeatedly supported Kiev in its ongoing territorial tensions with Russia over Crimea and the Donbass. The administration is backing up its rhetoric with new security assistance programs, as well as joint military exercises with Ukrainian forces. Even without a formal agreement or meaningful debate, US leaders have made Ukraine America’s de facto front-line ally in a growing confrontation with Russia.
That posture is unsurprising given the fawning attitude toward Kiev evident from the testimony of establishment diplomats during the House hearings leading to President Trump’s first impeachment. In a subsequent New York Times opinion piece, one of the witnesses, William Taylor, who had served as interim US ambassador to Ukraine, elevated that country’s importance to absurd levels. "Ukraine is defending itself and the West against Russian attack. If Ukraine succeeds, we succeed. The relationship between the United States and Ukraine is key to our national security…." Indeed, he insisted, in "the contest between democracies and autocracies, the contest between freedom and unfreedom, Ukraine is the front line."
There are strong indications that the Biden administration also has pressured its NATO allies to accord Ukrainian affairs a very high priority, even though the country is not an Alliance member. That point was apparent from statements in NATO’s June 2021 summit communiqué. One key passage stated:
We reiterate our support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, Georgia, and the Republic of Moldova within their internationally recognised borders. In accordance with its international commitments, we call on Russia to withdraw the forces it has stationed in all three countries without their consent. We strongly condemn and will not recognise Russia’s illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea, and denounce its temporary occupation. The human rights abuses and violations against the Crimean Tatars and members of other local communities must end. Russia’s recent massive military build-up and destabilising activities in and around Ukraine have further escalated tensions and undermined security. We call on Russia to reverse its military buildup and stop restricting navigation in parts of the Black Sea. We also call on Russia to stop impeding access to the Sea of Azov and Ukrainian ports. We commend Ukraine’s posture of restraint and diplomatic approach in this context…. We are also stepping up our support to Ukraine.
That statement essentially endorsed every one of Kiev’s positions on an array of contentious issues and did not offer even a small leaf from an olive branch to Russia.
In another passage, the NATO members affirmed that "We will continue to focus our dialogue with Russia on the critical issues we face." There was no doubt which issue had top priority. "The conflict in and around Ukraine is, in current circumstances, the first topic on our agenda." Yet another passage singled out Ukraine for special mention. "We reiterate the decision made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance with the Membership Action Plan (MAP) as an integral part of the process; we reaffirm all elements of that decision, as well as subsequent decisions, including that each partner will be judged on its own merits. We stand firm in our support for Ukraine’s right to decide its own future and foreign policy course free from outside interference."
The communiqué seemed eager to embrace "in your face" language toward Russia regarding Ukraine. "We welcome the cooperation between NATO and Ukraine with regard to security in the Black Sea region. The Enhanced Opportunities Partner status granted last year provides further impetus to our already ambitious cooperation and will promote greater interoperability, with the option of more joint exercises, training, and enhanced situational awareness. Military cooperation and capacity building initiatives between Allies and Ukraine, including the Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian Brigade, further reinforce this effort. We highly value Ukraine’s significant contributions to Allied operations, the NATO Response Force, and NATO exercises."
Such comments nearly erase the distinction between Kiev’s status and that of an official NATO member. Washington had pushed this process for years. Indeed, George W. Bush launched the initial lobbying effort to admit Ukraine and Georgia to the Alliance.
Washington’s continuing obsession with Ukraine is extremely dangerous. Vladimir Putin has made it clear that giving Ukraine NATO membership crosses a red line as far as Russia’s security is concerned, and US leaders need to take his warning seriously. The Kremlin may well conclude that the ongoing US effort to treat Kiev as a de facto NATO ally despite the lack of formal membership is a distinction without a difference and poses a serious threat to Russia. Ukraine is not the frontline state in a battle between "freedom and unfreedom," as Ambassador Taylor simplistically insisted, it is an unworthy ally and an ill-advised strategic snare that could entangle the United States in a wholly unnecessary, catastrophic war.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.