Beyond the impeachment drama: Why Ukraine matters to America

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York City on September 25, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The impeachment of President Donald Trump has thrust relations between the United States and Ukraine into the spotlight. This has amplified the ongoing debate over America’s ties to the former Soviet republic, with some questioning the wisdom of the current US commitment to Ukraine in its struggle against Russian aggression.

Fox News has played a prominent role in this discussion. During one November 2019 segment, Fox News presenter Jesse Watters stated that the impeachment investigation was “about a transcript of a phone call with a country no one cared about.” “No one can find Ukraine on a map,” he argued. “If you ask the American people anything about Ukraine, they don’t know a thing about it.” Meanwhile, fellow Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson has openly questioned why he should care about the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. In one widely shared clip, he even claimed that if pushed to choose, he would rather side with Russia.

Such opinions are not limited to Fox News, nor are they purely a product of the impeachment media circus. In a late 2018 opinion piece for USA Today, Cato Institute senior fellow Doug Bandow argued, “Ukraine isn’t important for US security.” Former high-ranking government officials have also pondered this question. Charles Kupchan, the former Director for European Affairs on the National Security Council under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, has claimed the United States has no major interests in Ukraine. Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked his colleagues at a 2017 G7 summit, “Why should US taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?” Unconfirmed comments on this subject attributed to President Trump himself have been considerably more outspoken.

These arguments have not gone unchallenged. Numerous politicians, civil servants, and commentators have made the case for Ukraine’s strategic importance, not least former US Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor during impeachment hearings in November 2019. The American diplomat argued that US support for Ukraine was vital in order to defend the basic tenets of international law. “If we believe in the principle of sovereignty of nations on which our security and the security of our friends and allies depends, we must support Ukraine in its fight against its bullying neighbor. Russian aggression cannot stand.”

Others have echoed this view, arguing that Russia’s aggressive behavior poses a challenge to the entire international security apparatus established since the Second World War. Many have also reminded US audiences of the American security assurances given to Ukraine within the terms of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which saw a newly independent Ukraine unilaterally give up the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal. While the Memorandum did not legally commit the United States to defend Ukraine, the grave implications for nuclear nonproliferation of the country’s current fate are painfully obvious.

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These geopolitical justifications are important arguments for why Ukraine matters, but they are not the only reasons why Americans should care about Ukraine. For both practical and ideological reasons, Ukraine’s future trajectory will inevitably have an impact on wider American interests.

On a practical level, Ukraine is one of the relatively few countries with a well-established aerospace industry and it has established partnerships with the United States in a range of areas. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian companies have been involved in aircraft manufacture for various American programs, as well as contributing to space exploration and exploitation. The success of these aerospace companies has caught the attention of foreign investors, including competitors of the United States. Illustrating this point, Ukrainian helicopter and plane engine manufacturer Motor Sich is currently at the center of a dispute between the United States and China over the purchase of this prominent defense company.

Aerospace is just one of many tech sectors where Ukraine has a rising profile. Over the past decade, Ukraine has emerged as one of the world’s fastest-growing IT outsourcing hubs, with American companies among the country’s top clients. Ukrainians have played key roles in the creation of apps at the heart of everyday American life such as PayPal and WhatsApp. Ukraine’s IT excellence should come as no surprise, given that Ukrainians rank among the most educated nations in the world. This makes the country a potentially valuable US partner in today’s knowledge-based economy.

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Ukraine’s fight for freedom and democracy is perhaps the most important reason why the country’s fate should matter to the US. It is also arguably the hardest to quantify. The current conflict with Russia traces back to the 2013-14 protests that flared up when Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yanukovych chose to renege on his commitment to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. Following a heavy-handed crackdown on protesters, the movement spiraled into a struggle for the future direction of the country, with many seeing it as a choice between democracy and European integration versus authoritarian isolation and a return to the Russian orbit.

Following a massacre of protesters in February 2014, Yanukovych fled to Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin then ordered the invasion of Crimea, marking the start of the military phase of a confrontation that continues to this day. Ukraine’s fate remains in the balance. As the undeclared war with Russia enters its seventh calendar year, Ukrainian popular support for Euro-Atlantic integration (including NATO and EU membership) has reached record highs, while enthusiasm for a Russian reunion has plummeted. Nevertheless, Ukraine relies heavily on international support in order to turn decisively westwards while fending off Russia’s hybrid hostilities. Without strong support, Ukraine’s historic transformation could fail. This would prove hugely damaging to the cause of fledgling democracies around the world, while emboldening Russian attempts to undermine the post-1991 world order.

Given the situation within the European Union, the timing of the current American debate over US support for Ukraine could hardly be worse. There are growing signs of “Ukraine fatigue” among EU member states, with numerous countries led by France now calling for an end to confrontation with Russia. Brexit also looks set to deprive Ukraine of a key EU supporter.

With international support no longer as assured as it was when the conflict with Russia first began in 2014, Ukrainians are understandably nervous. Americans who question the value of bilateral ties with Kyiv should ask themselves where Ukraine will go if the United States abandons its support. They must also consider the broader implications for America’s international interests.

Mark Temnycky is an AIPS accredited journalist who covers politics and sports in Europe. He is a contributor to the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert blog and has been published by news outlets such as Forbes, EurActiv, and EUobserver. He has been featured in the National Library of Ukraine, Radio Svoboda, and Kyiv Post.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.