WFU Expert: What does invasion of Ukraine mean for U.S foreign policy?

portrait of Will Walldorf

Diplomacy could not prevent the Russian invasion of Ukraine and that is tragic, said U.S. foreign policy expert C. William Walldorf, Jr.

As the world witnesses widespread destruction and civilian casualties in Ukraine, Walldorf explains the international consequences of the attack and why Americans should care about what is happening. Is peace possible? Will sanctions work? 

Walldorf is an associate professor of politics and international affairs as well as Shively family faculty fellow at Wake Forest.  He authored the 2019 book, To Shape our World for Good: Master Narratives and Forceful Regime Change in United States Foreign Policy. He is also the author of the award-winning Just Politics:  Human Rights and the Foreign Policy of Great Powers.

This spring, Walldorf is the resident professor for the University’s Wake Washington program. “Ukraine has been an ongoing part of classroom discussions this semester,” he said.  “Washington, D.C. is a fascinating place to be amidst a major international crisis like this.”

What impact will Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have on the U.S.?  There will be both international and, potentially, domestic implications.  Internationally or strategically, a seizure of Ukraine by Russia (if it comes to that) will not significantly alter the balance of power in Europe. Ukraine is not a NATO ally and we have no real strategic interests there. Having said that, Putin’s move here will inevitably increase tensions in Europe.  It signals that Putin expects a hostile future with NATO.  That will indeed be the case. Efforts at nuclear arms reduction and joint security cooperation in Europe with Russia (something that was on the table) are for the most part dead now.  NATO (and probably US troops) will be deployed on a more permanent basis in East-Central Europe — that will certainly impact military families in the United States.  If Ukraine falls and NATO decides to fund an insurgency in Ukraine, countries that are supply lines for the aid we provide, like Poland, could become Russian targets, which would broaden the crisis since Poland is a NATO member. Again, that will impact everyday Americans potentially and military families most directly. Finally, the sanctions imposed on Russia will create pain in the broader global economy, especially around energy that will continue to impact things like prices we pay for gas at the pump for some time to come. On the domestic side, Ukraine will likely become a big topic in the 2022 and 2024 elections. Depending on how things go, it could be a boon for President Joe Biden and his party, especially in light of recent comments by former President Donald again praising Putin that seem to be, at least for now, out of step with the more visceral reaction most Americans have had against the invasion, especially in light of images of Putin targeting civilians in Ukraine.  

Is the threat of nuclear war a reality?  Most experts consider the threat of nuclear war to be very low.  I agree with that assessment. Putin signaled he was putting at least some part of the Russian nuclear program on high alert. There are questions whether Putin would use low-yield nuclear weapons in Ukraine, but that seems unlikely. Overall, Putin’s talk of nuclear weapons seems to be mostly posturing. Given the extreme devastation nuclear war would create, it is highly unlikely these weapons would be used. The United States does not have strong enough interests in Ukraine to escalate to that level.  

Are economic sanctions likely to be effective?  Are there examples where economic sanctions have been effective in the past?  Economic sanctions are causing considerable pain in Russia right now.  The ruble has declined substantially in value, the stock market in Russia has plummeted, interest rates have doubled overnight. Policy elites and oligarchs will feel the pain, as will everyday Russian citizens. Unfortunately, sanctions do not have a very good track record when it comes to bringing about major changes in a state’s foreign policy.  While causing great pain, I’m afraid the same will be the case here. Russian leaders will find ways to insulate themselves, China may help with maintaining ties that lessen the effects of sanctions, and at this point, the US and its NATO allies do not appear prepared to sanction energy imports from Russia because of the great pain that this would bring to Europe in particular.  Short of force, sanctions may be the best option for now, especially if targeted well against Russian elites, including Putin, but they are unlikely alone to alter Russian policy.

How much can the U.S. influence the outcome of this conflict? Is peace possible? Given both the fact that the United States and NATO will not put troops on the ground to defend Ukraine and the limited impact of sanctions, the United States will probably not be able to affect the outcome very much. This is a fight primarily between Russia and Ukraine. While the Russian military has not performed up to the level expected to this point, that means that in all likelihood Ukraine will fall if Russia and Ukraine cannot come to a negotiated settlement — Russia will replace the government and be faced with a long, difficult occupation of Ukraine going forward. Alternatively, Ukraine and Russia may come to an agreement whereby the current government pledges to never enter NATO, eastern parts of Ukraine become autonomous or perhaps part of Russia in exchange for Russia ending the invasion.  Either way, Ukraine would essentially move into the Russian orbit (under the Russian boot so to speak). Ukraine as we know it — including its nascent democracy — would essentially disappear.  

What, if anything, could have prevented this?  This will be a question of very intense debate for years to come.  Blame for the war falls primarily to Putin, but the West is not without some role in it too.  Putin has used nationalism as a way to distract Russians from the pain that the dysfunctional, corruption-riddled Russian economy has brought to everyday citizens. Ukraine is a convenient target here, though it also could become a political liability for Putin if this war turns into another Afghanistan with protracted war and insurgency in Ukraine. Some blame falls to the West too.  It expanded NATO with little consideration for the security implications for Russia starting in the 1990s. It also made commitments to Ukrainian membership in NATO in 2008 that most then and now knew could not be fulfilled anytime soon. Putin has real security concerns about NATO encroaching on Russian borders — western capitals were largely tone deaf to this. Overall, some deal to move Ukraine to a neutral status might have been possible six or eight months ago, but once the crisis started and Russia mobilized troops late last year both sides were so dug in (with Russia in particular making preposterous demands) that reaching a settlement was very tough. There was a deal to be made there, in short, but no one — Russia, the United States, or Ukraine — wanted to go there or felt like it could go there, especially at the point of a bayonet.  

What is the future of NATO? Prior to this crisis, NATO was divided and the American public looked retreatist after Afghanistan. Biden looked weak too because of Afghanistan.  This all factored into Putin’s calculus to move now — it looked like a good time to strike.  His actions have probably had some unintended consequences, one of which is the strengthening of NATO.  The alliance has a new sense of mission. The biggest change here so far has been the sudden shift in German security policy.  Germany appears to be abandoning, or at least adjusting, its long post-World War II tradition of extreme antimilitarism with increased defense spending, provision of military aid to Ukraine, and general anti-Russian posture. While Russia has threatened Finland and Sweden about severe consequences if they move to join NATO, there is a very good chance that both countries will move in that direction, especially if peace is not brokered and Putin settles the Ukrainian crisis on the battlefield, which will have horribly destructive implications for the civilian population in Ukraine.  

How will the situation affect US foreign policy moving forward?  This is a very good question and one that is up in the air in many ways. The United States has been in a period of deep introspection about its place in the world for about a decade.  Much of that debate has been good.  Many U.S. citizens and policymakers now have a healthier appreciation for the limits of U.S. power and the U.S. capacity to shape international events to its liking.  A deeper appreciation for diplomacy and working with other nations (which has been on full display in Biden’s response to the Ukrainian crisis) rather than acting unilaterally has settled in.  We have seen, as well, a healthy rebalancing of commitments away from the Middle East toward new challenges in Asia and Europe. I anticipate that these trends will continue and perhaps be accelerated by the crisis in Ukraine. We are learning that there still is quite a bit of utility in the NATO alliance for the United States (something that has been questioned by more nationalistic politicians, like former President Donald Trump). I anticipate (and hope) that regardless of this, the United States will — in keeping with its more restrained impulses right now — find ways to allow its partners in Europe to step forward and carry more of the defense burden along NATO’s eastern front.  It is a good thing, for instance, that Germany is altering its security posture.  That along with a deeper sense of threat for Europe from the Ukrainian crisis should mean that added troops in East-Central Europe will be European and not primarily U.S. forces. That will be a good thing and a healthier level of U.S. commitment than the past, where most of the burden fell to the United States.  

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