When Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine on Friday February 24th, 2022, I was an intern at the Kentucky State Senate. I could not wait to get to work the week after to ask the senator I worked for his opinion about the historic situation unfolding in eastern Europe. Little did I know, his answer was one I would never forget. I asked him, “What do you think about everything happening with Ukraine?” He answered my question with one of his own, “Have they taken us to war yet?” Us? After initial confusion, his answer became clear to me and I went silent. The realization that my country was close to large-scale war hit me in the chest. What I originally thought would be a long discussion ended there. Since then, his answer became only clearer as our government has sent Ukraine over $100 billion, countless weapons, offered intelligence support, and has rhetorically war-mongered on behalf of the nation on the international stage.
The United States should pursue a policy of “strategic neutrality” in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine. In contrast to the status quo policy, this strategy would see the U.S. approach the war from a position of diplomatic neutrality, rooting for neither side to claim victory but for the conflict to end as soon as possible. This would mean America would provide no military, economic, or logistical assistance to either party in the conflict, besides humanitarian aid like food and medical supplies to impacted citizens. Like the status quo, America would increase defense postures in NATO territory near to the conflict, namely the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary, and Romania—while urging these states to invest more in their own defense. It may not initially seem timely to push these states to increase their own defense efforts during wartime, but what better time to do so than when the primary threat to European security is closer to NATO territory than ever before?
The Baltic states include Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Additionally, Finland recently became a member-state.
This would ensure the United States is not dragged into fighting a war that it had no commitment to nor direct interests in before it began. It would also provide America with time and additional resources to bolster defense where it needs to: in the NATO regions closest to the conflict. If Russia is truly expansionist and defeats Ukraine, preparedness could be the difference between more conflict in Europe or the imposition of an insurmountable NATO defense from further Russian aggression. Furthermore, this would have allowed the United States to avoid the proxy war in which it is currently engaged. It may have even given the country the ability to position itself as a peacemaker in the war to the international community, instead of a belligerent superpower.
The success or failure of this policy would be measured against the accomplishment of these goals. By aggressively standing behind Ukraine, America has lost any air of impartiality, and with it the moral high ground and the ability to rally international opposition to Russian abuses in the war. Russian soldiers are fighting Ukrainian soldiers and citizens armed with American guns, defense missiles, training, and in a few months, tanks. Throughout American history, these signs have not been a positive forbearance on what is to come. U.S. involvement in both world wars and the Vietnam War was precipitated by tangible support given to one side of the conflict. Many scholars attribute the attack on Pearl Harbor to American military and economic support for the allied powers. This status quo policy brings us closer to war, not farther from it.
The success of the status quo policy on the war will be measured by a Ukrainian victory. The success of the pragmatic alternative of “strategic neutrality” would be measured by the United States avoiding war and holding true to its regional commitments, as well as the flexibility it could provide America in international diplomacy and defense of NATO territory in Europe.
This alternative policy raises a major question: would Ukraine stand a chance against Russia without U.S. assistance? This is important to answer because it could determine how much time NATO has to ramp up its defense and whether America should continue giving aid. The Ukrainian military has proven capable not only of defending from Russian offensives but of mounting productive counter-offensives and reclaiming some territory, at least partly because of western weapons and aid. Many military experts claim Ukraine would have been overwhelmed early if not for the assistance. This idea, while paternalistic, may have some merit.
The enduring and eternal principle was encapsulated by Stokely Carmichael when he said, “it is not technology that determines a war, but the will of a people that determines a war.” Carmichael delivered this message to Black people in 1968, who would have had to face the might of the U.S. military if his plans came to fruition. How much more applicable is that principle to Ukrainians that comprise a sovereign state and have had a strong national sentiment prior to and since the Russian invasion? A state whose citizens have laid down their lives to protect their freedom and national sovereignty. Ukraine, by its very will, has proven it is not a helpless victim in need of American intervention.
Additionally, the Russian military has proven itself to be ineffective in combat. While failing an attempt at regime change by attacking Kyiv, Russian forces showed ineptitude in logistical support and sustained heavy losses. In combat in east Ukraine today, Russia is now purposefully using formations of soldiers as bait to find Ukrainian positions, resulting in heavy Russian casualties. Putin has ordered 300,000 reserves to be added to the military and increased military conscription. Many of these young men are trained for mere weeks and then sent to the front line in bloody battles of attrition. Troops under such conditions cannot have high morale. Many have taken to TikTok and other social media sites to protest their tragic situation. The effects are clear: Russia is estimated to have suffered between 50,000-150,000 casualties and Ukraine 15,000-100,000. By many accounts, Ukraine is planning to increase its counter-offensive efforts. Volodymyr Zelensky vowed to take back all conquered territory, including Crimea.
The war is not over though. Russia has also increased military spending and production, as well as centralized control over the invasion by placing its highest-ranking general in charge of day-to-day operations in Ukraine. Also, the Wagner Group has seen some gains in southern Ukraine, though bloody. Yet the overall tide of the war bodes in Ukraine’s favor. The United States could still take strategically neutral actions moving forward in this war; it seems to have already equalized the conflict.
One cost of a strategically neutral policy could be a diminishing reputation with American allies in Europe. This cost is small. The United States already facilitates most of the security of their entire continent via NATO. European nations may protest some if America withdraws from this proxy war, but Ukraine was purposefully left outside of NATO due to its territorial conflicts with Russia that made it the hotspot for conflict that it is. Europe deferred economic and tactical control of its defense to America, not the opposite. This does not mean that American interests, and the opinion of most of its citizens, are irrelevant to the conduct of American foreign policy. Europeans may complain, but sometimes partners cannot be monolithic.
Also, Europeans are far from the only actors America must contend with in today’s interconnected world. There are Arab, African, South American, and Asian states that view this war as a regional conflict, not a worldwide crisis. They range in their responses, but nearly all have maintained their economic connections with Moscow, refusing to bow to western demands to sanction Russia. India, for example, has bought Russian oil at double its normal amount at low prices. To many of these states, all of which are increasingly important to the world political and economic order, America is an aggressor in Ukraine. Some have even told the west that NATO expanding eastward is what provoked Russia to invade Ukraine. These perspectives on American engagement are important too and must be balanced against European opinions and collaboration.
The war in Ukraine is not being fought in a vacuum. It is not a revival of Cold War politics. We face a new situation in a brand new world. A world where the United States will soon not be the dominant power over everyone else in it. Many American leaders have a hard time facing this. For decades, the world has been theirs to plunder, abuse, destabilize, and control. They have twisted the definitions of democracy, freedom, autonomy, and American interests to achieve these unjust goals. The cost has been astronomically high: millions of lives, trillions of dollars, and global disdain for our country.
American intervention in Ukraine is just one more example of our country’s tendency to mind everyone’s business except for our own. For only America claims it’s spreading democracy while some citizens within its borders do not have the right to vote. Only America attempts to feed people around the world while there are people starving in its own slums. Only America wastes trillions of dollars fighting overseas wars while people stateside have no homes in which to sleep. Only America would trade jobs for its own citizens in exchange for exploitative financial hegemony over the Third World. It’s time for American power to finally be used to help American citizens, not to sell them out and foster hatred for them around the world.
But we have a Manifest Destiny that covers the world!!