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Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine, A Framework for Considering An American Response

by R. Anthony Arnold
February 2022

Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine represents the culmination in a series of events that began in 2014 with Russia’s successful annexation of Crimea. Since then, especially starting in early 2021, there’s been a running debate in American political circles of: “What should we be prepared to do to stop Russia?” This debate, which simmered at a relatively low level for most of this time, has suddenly become a much urgent one.

Currently, it’s being conducted in a challenging way, by our elected officials, a disturbing sign for those of us who hope our response to this crisis will be well-reasoned and properly calibrated to the facts. This method of debate is likely to lead to confusion among us citizens, who need factual coverage so that we can form accurate assessments, one of which being that Ukraine isn't in Russia's "sphere of influence", therefore our hands are ties; and another being that America's past failings and abuses in human rights should not prevent us as a country from interventions that stave off attacks on our friends and save lives.

You've probably heard that Ukraine exists within Russia’s “sphere,” meaning it’s largely up to Russia to determine what happens. Ignoring the arguments about an independent nation’s right to self-governance or autonomy, which are plenty strong on their own, the argument falls apart well before we reach that point, because it's based on a false premise.When we refer to a major power’s sphere, we’re using our situation in America as a reference point.

The problem is that we're unique. The last time that the continental United States was threatened by a hostile foreign power was either the Mexican-American war in the middle of the 19th century, or the Spanish-American war near the end of the same century, depending on how large a threat you consider the latter. While there have been wars since then, there weren't any that posed a threat to our autonomy.

So, due to a combination of historical accident, good fortune, and our own interference, the United States has been the only major power in our region for well over a century now. One can easily see this if you look at a list of countries in possession of nuclear weapons. For America, alone, possesses the one and only nuclear weapon in all of the Americas.

None of this is true for Europe. Right now, there are 4 major powers in the region, each of whom has a claim to their own separate, and often overlapping, spheres. Russia, Germany, France, and the U.K. Historically, that number actually represents a reduction in great powers, as past events used to consider nations like Belgium, Italy, or Spain in that group, as well. This means that historically, there’s been much more shifting, growth, contraction, and tension than we are likely to appreciate.

When applying this to Ukraine, why are they automatically slotted into Russia’s sphere?

European history has often revolved around the fact that, at any given time, multiple countries all laid claim, due to history, culture, or geography, to the same areas. There simply is no unified history of spheres that works for Europe.

But even if we accepted the argument, we should think about what that allows. Let’s look at one of our neighbors.

Canada is in our sphere, and there have been people who have asked, rhetorically, “What would we do if China was attempting to sway Canada against us?” The idea is to suggest that we wouldn’t behave any differently, if we were confronted with something like NATO encroaching on our borders.

Do I think we’d be mad? Yes. I’d imagine we’d respond by attacking Canada’s dairy industry, which relies on us for trade. We’d attack other imports and exports, and maybe even do things like reducing the number of Canadian students going to American universities. We’d use some combination of carrots and sticks in an effort to re-level the field.

I don’t think that we’d launch missiles at Montreal, roll tanks into Vancouver, and send soldiers into Toronto. And even if our President wanted to do so, our institutions would have tremendous power to limit, if not outright stop him. Being in a country’s sphere doesn’t mean they have the right to do anything they wish. There are limits.

The second argument that I’ve heard most often is people pointing at our past failings as a democracy, inside of our own borders. How then can we have the right to tell others what they can’t do, if we are guilty of similar offenses?

Prior to World Wars 1 and 2, one of the ongoing horrors of that time was the mistreatment and terrorizing of the American Indians. For a timespan lasting centuries, there was a continued effort to demolish, denigrate, and dehumanize people living inside of our own borders.

Did that mean that the U.S. had no business intervening in World Wars 1 or 2? Should the mistakes and blood spilled in the past mean that we forever forfeit our ability to try to stand up for what’s right in the future?

If the argument is that previous poor judgment should cause us to question judgment in the future, then I agree. We should learn hard lessons when the government lies to us, as a justification for war; and we should always be hesitant to embrace official reasoning without first applying our own common sense and reasoning.

But mistakes from decades ago, in one area, don’t mean we must stand by and be idle bystanders. The plight and abuse of Black Americans prior to and in the 20th century didn’t represent a sufficient reason to watch Jews die in the Holocaust, for instance.

There is however, at least one strong argument against intervention.

It’s the argument that the lives and freedom of Ukrainian citizens aren’t worth what it would cost in American lives. The reason you won’t hear that argument made is because we don’t apply it across the board.

For instance, I think we’d defend New York from attack by a foreign power. I think, for historical reasons, we’d defend the U.K., Germany, or France, if London, Berlin, or Paris came under attack. By making it clear that we would defend some places, and not others, we’re attaching a real value to the lives of some people, and not others, which is understandably discomforting. But it’s an honest observation to say some places matter more than others to us, and Ukraine may not clear the bar necessary for us to risk our lives.

It’s that observation that we need to base our future discussions of this issue around. We need to have hard conversations about the relative worth of life, about who we extend our protection to, and why we do it. It may also be necessary to be clear on our reasons, which may range from morality, and the presence of good and evil, to the reality of geopolitics and the relationship between foreign and domestic affairs.

None of this can happen, until we step into the reality of what now confronts us, and move away from empty, cliche-filled debates about “spheres of power” and “historical failings”.