The vast majority of Americans usually pay little attention to Ukraine’s perils and politics. But the massing of Russian troops on its borders, with some reportedly advancing into separatist regions there, carries grave implications that already are affecting ordinary Americans and will intensify should the crisis deepen.
Gas prices are climbing, and retirement accounts are under siege as stock markets tumble. The specter of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine is raising fears the conflict will spread, triggering a massive humanitarian crisis, significant economic disruptions, and Russian cyberattacks on the United States.
“We’ve got the most naked act of aggression by a nation-state on a state that poses no threat to it since the Second World War,” said Paul Kolbe, director of The Intelligence Project at the Harvard Kennedy School and former CIA station chief for Central Eurasia. “I see the potential for months or years of conflict.”
More than 4,000 miles from Boston, Ukraine sits at a critical geopolitical crossroads that has seen bloody conflicts throughout history, including both world wars of the 20th century. As such, its future is of vital importance to Americans and the West, Kolbe and other analysts said.
A Russian invasion that spreads beyond the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized as “independent” this week, “will be extraordinarily dynamic and extraordinarily violent,” Kolbe said, and “will further embolden an already reckless regime” if the West does not respond forcefully.
On Tuesday, President Biden announced a first wave of sanctions against Russian banks and oligarchs in response to what he called the beginning of an invasion. Russia this week sent additional troops to the eastern Ukrainian territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, where fighting has flared between Russian-speaking separatists and the government since 2014.
Biden said the United States is prepared to impose more sanctions if Russia goes further. In a Quinnipiac University poll last week, 55 percent of respondents said that they expect the crisis will lead to war between Russia and Ukraine.
Biden and other leaders condemned Putin for the invasion, saying that it amounted to a flagrant violation of international law, and that a broad war would exact a heavy toll on the Ukrainian people.
As the world awaits Putin’s next move, war almost certainly would mean that Americans pay even more at the pump. Oil prices have risen to nearly $100 a barrel, a benchmark not seen in more than seven years. Stocks have been dropping, and the price of food and goods, already rising from inflation, could climb even higher.
Bank of America researchers have predicted oil prices could jump an additional $20 per barrel if the crisis escalates.
The West’s response will be a critical signal to the rest of the world, particularly authoritarian regimes, said Paula Dobriansky, who served as undersecretary of state for global affairs under President George W. Bush and as envoy to Northern Ireland.
“What we do in Ukraine will have reverberations as to how we are perceived and what other aggressors and authoritarians will do in other parts of the world,” said Dobriansky, a senior fellow in the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Ukraine does matter in terms of what actions we take. And not just by what we say, but by what we do.”
Also watching will be the many Ukrainian-Americans who have relatives in that country, which was part of the Soviet Union until Ukraine regained its independence in 1991 following the dissolution of the Communist superpower.
Americans with family in other former Soviet satellites — such as Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia — also are likely to worry that Russia’s long-term aims extend beyond Ukraine.
And then there are American families with service members currently stationed in Europe, including 4,700 paratroopers who have been deployed to Poland to support US allies in eastern Europe.
Beyond the human element, Dobriansky said, Americans should be concerned that global accords are respected and enforced.
“We should care about international law. When we sign or support treaties, agreements, and protocols, we also believe firmly in upholding them,” she said.
Breaching them, she added, must carry consequences. For example, the Budapest Memorandum, signed in 1994 by the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom, agreed to respect Ukraine’s borders and political independence. In return, Ukraine gave up its sizable nuclear arsenal.
So far, Dobriansky said she has been heartened by the West’s response. Germany, for example, has halted certification of the Nord Stream II natural gas pipeline with Russia, an important supplier of energy to western Europe.
“It is very significant that there has been real unity of purpose in terms of concern about the kind of threat that has been posed by Russia,” Dobriansky said.
“Further aggression by Russia certainly will come at the risk of enhanced costs for Russia, in terms of potential Russian casualties, and also at a cost for the Russian economy, which is in very dire straits,” she added.
Igor Lukes, a Boston University history professor who specializes in central Europe, believes that Putin “has gotten himself into a pickle,” and that at least part of his motivation to threaten Ukraine is to divert Russia’s attention from its problems.
“Russia is under a failing dictator who needs to serve his public an unending stream of positive surprises and victories,” Lukes said. “I have been impressed by how NATO and the West have handled the crisis.”
Lukes, who as a teenager witnessed Russian tanks roll into Prague in 1968, said he admired US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s forceful appearance last week before the United Nations, where he laid out the possibly devastating consequences of a full-fledged Russian attack.
“The United States, which normally slumbers through crises and then kind of wakes up and makes moralistic judgments, got ahead of the problem,” Lukes said Friday.
Most Americans won’t feel the effects of a war immediately, Lukes said, but the long-term consequences could be profound if Putin is not checked.
“Whatever happens to Ukraine, life will continue in Kansas and California and New York and Florida,” Lukes said. “But it could be gradually a very different kind of life, because the United States would no longer be able to enjoy . . . a free, unrestricted world in which it could sell its products and ideas on a global scale.”
Lukes reflected on the contrast between Blinken’s speech and European acquiescence in 1938 to the Nazi annexation of German-speaking areas in Czechoslovakia, a move hailed by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain as a way to prevent war.
“If people like Chamberlain, in the summer and fall of 1938, had spoken this way in Berlin or Munich or any other venue where they could address the leaders of Nazi Germany,” Lukes said, “you wonder if history would have been the same.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.