Why is Ukraine so present in American politics?

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People in the upper echelons of American politics, from Paul Manafort to Hunter Biden, also have ties to Ukraine.

Ukraine continues to appear in American politics for two reasons, according to a number of foreign policy experts:

  1. It is a proxy battle between Russia and the West.
  2. The United States tends not to prioritize this – until it has to, and then it becomes a big deal.

Here’s why it seems like everyone is suddenly talking about Ukraine.

A Very Brief History of Ukraine in American News

Ukraine and Russia became independent countries in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Since then, Ukraine has been at the center of the showdown between West and East.

In 2014, Russia quickly and fairly easily took control of Crimea, a peninsula previously under Ukrainian rule. It was a remarkably aggressive move. President Barack Obama responded with sanctions and by expelling Russia from a group of world leaders, the Group of Eight. But overall the United States was caught off guard and did not respond forcefully, said Susanne Wengle, who studies the post-Soviet region at the University of Notre Dame.

There have been regular skirmishes since in Ukraine, and the United States has always backed pro-Western groups – support that turned into military aid after Crimea.

In 2019, Trump called out Ukraine’s newly elected president — ironically, an anti-corruption reformer — and threatened to withhold a massive military aid package for the country if he didn’t dig into his political rival, Biden. . The quid pro quo demonstrated by House impeachment investigators ultimately resulted in Trump’s impeachment by the House (and his acquittal by the Senate).

Now Russia is massing troops on Ukraine’s border and seems intent on invading the country, perhaps in response to increased US and Western support for Ukraine. And Biden is trying to decide how to respond.

How Ukraine became a proxy battle between the US and Russia

As Russia has regained its military power, it has tried to adapt by expanding its territory and pushing back against what it sees as Western encroachment. No price is as attractive for Russia as Ukraine.

It is a country of special historical importance for Russia, a strategic buffer between Russia and Europe, and it is linguistically and culturally close to Russia, said Maria Snegovaya, who studies Russia at the University GeorgeWashington.

For the United States, Ukraine is a country in the Russian sphere with a real chance of breaking free, said Andrew Lohsen, a former State Department official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “In a region where there are not too many countries that still seem able to make this transition to a market economy and an open society, Ukraine is one of the few that remains in play,” he said. he declares.

American presidents generally want Ukraine to succeed, said Jenny Mathers, an international policy expert at Britain’s Aberystwyth University: “In Ukraine, the United States sees a nation struggling to make its own decisions and chart its own course, and it’s a very powerful story. for Americans.

This created this standoff between Russia and the United States over the future of Ukraine. “It’s a country stuck between Russia and the West,” said Wengle, of Notre Dame.

But Russia cares much more about Ukraine

In recent years, the United States has shifted its foreign priorities to China. It was one of the main reasons Biden championed an end to the war in Afghanistan — to focus on the rise of China.

As a result, several experts we spoke to said the United States has largely let go of differences with Russia. Ukraine is unlikely to be high on an incoming president’s foreign policy list, said Emily Holland, assistant professor of Russian maritime studies at the Naval War College. “It was largely ignored,” she said.

Russia is trying to take advantage of the distracted position to advance its own interests – often doing so by using Ukraine.

Several experts we spoke to pointed out that now is a better time than ever for Russia to act: Biden is weak at home, his polls are down, and the nation is focused on the coronavirus, the economy, and the next few months. midterm elections. And Biden just pulled America out of a war, with big political consequences for him.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on January 21 that President Biden was not “dismissive of proactive deterrence” amid escalating tensions with Russia. (The Washington Post)

Expect Ukraine to continue to be in the news

Holland said Ukraine is known to be remarkably corrupt and there are plenty of Ukrainian oligarchs with money to advance their interests in Washington.

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Biden’s son Hunter Biden have ties to the country. Manafort was an adviser to the Ukrainian prime minister and pro-Russian forces there. And Trump has tried to allege a quid pro quo between Vice President Biden’s actions in Ukraine and Hunter Biden’s work on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.

Lohsen, a former State Department official, sees Russia’s encroachment on Ukraine as the beginning, not the end, of his attempts to expand in a way that attracts U.S. attention. And that means Ukraine will likely continue to make headlines.

“Ukraine is the symbol of a country trying to choose its own destiny, and it is caught in the middle of competing geopolitical forces,” he said.

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