America has crossed a threshold in Ukraine, both in its short-term involvement and its long-term intent. The U.S. was initially cautious during the fall and winter as Russia, a nuclear country with veto power at the U.N. Security Council, amassed more than a hundred and fifty thousand troops along the Ukrainian border. It didn’t want to poke the Russian bear—or provoke Vladimir Putin personally. Two days after long convoys of Russian tanks rolled across the border, on February 24th, the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, still claimed that America’s goal—backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid—was simply to stand behind the Ukrainian people. The White House sanctioned Russia—initially targeting a few banks, oligarchs, political élites, government-owned enterprises, and Putin’s own family—to pressure the Russian leader to put his troops back in their box, without resorting to military intervention. “Direct confrontation between nato and Russia is World War Three, something we must strive to prevent,” President Joe Biden said, in early March.
Yet in just over nine weeks, the conflict has rapidly evolved into a full proxy war with Russia, with global ramifications. U.S. officials now frame America’s role in more ambitious terms that border on aggressive. The goal—backed by tens of billions of dollars in aid—is to “weaken” Russia and insure a sovereign Ukraine outlasts Putin. “Throughout our history, we’ve learned that when dictators do not pay the price for their aggression, they cause more chaos and engage in more aggression,” the President told reporters on Thursday. “They keep moving. And the costs, the threats to America and the world, keep rising.”
Having basically run out of appropriated funds, Biden has asked Congress for thirty-three billion dollars—for new military, economic, and humanitarian support—in the latest of several packages for Ukraine. “The cost of this fight is not cheap,” the President acknowledged. (As Politico noted, the new aid is about half the size of the entire Russian defense budget—and also more than half of the U.S. State Department’s annual budget. Over the next five months, U.S. aid to Ukraine will average more than two hundred million dollars a day.) The investment, Biden said, was a small price “to lessen the risk of future conflicts” with Russia.
For Putin, the war in Ukraine always seemed to be, at least in part, a proxy fight with nato and its U.S. leadership. Ahead of his invasion, he publicly expressed deep paranoia about the military alliance and its further expansion into countries once aligned with the Soviet Union. He also brokered a five-thousand-word agreement with the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, to form a de-facto alliance of authoritarian regimes. They jointly opposed nato enlargement.
Biden tried to resist that framing. At the start of the invasion, the U.S. invoked the principles of sovereignty, a democratically elected government, and territorial integrity. During the past week, however, Ukraine’s existential crisis has increasingly appeared to be America’s war, too. On April 24th, Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin took a train with blacked-out windows into Kyiv to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky and symbolically reinforce American support. The stealthy trip reflected the increasingly ambitious U.S. goal. “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” Austin told reporters, near the border in Poland. Blinken said, “We don’t know how the rest of this war will unfold, but we do know that a sovereign, independent Ukraine will be around a lot longer than Vladimir Putin is on the scene.”
On Tuesday, Austin assembled defense leaders from more than forty countries—well beyond the nato framework—at Ramstein, a U.S. base in southwest Germany, to coördinate support for Ukraine. Austin, a retired general involved in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, announced the formation of a new coalition of “nations of good will” that will meet monthly to “intensify” an international campaign to win “today’s fight and the struggles to come.” In appealing for more aid, Biden said, “We have to do our part as well, leading the alliance.”
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The shift may have been inevitable, given the barbarism of the war, which has claimed thousands of civilian lives, and Russia’s challenge to the conventions and obligations of modern statecraft. “If this is left to stand, if there is no answer to this aggression, if Russia gets away with this cost-free, then so goes the so-called international order,” General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on CNN. “And if that happens, then we’re heading into an era of seriously increased instability.” On Friday, the Pentagon press secretary John Kirby choked up at a briefing as he discussed Putin’s “depravity.”
The U.S. has become more deeply engaged for at least four reasons. Diplomacy between Ukraine and Russia has stalled amid revelations of atrocities committed by Russian troops, notably the execution of civilians in Bucha. Moscow’s early participation in peace talks never seemed credible anyway; Putin is too greedy and historically ambitious. Russia has staked claims to southern Crimea, the eastern Donbas region, and the lands between them along the strategic Black Sea. Putin is not yet ready—or, perhaps, not yet under enough pressure—to negotiate seriously.
The U.S. has also been emboldened by the stunning underperformance of the Russian military, the largest in Europe. U.S. intelligence had originally feared that Kyiv could fall within seventy-two hours. But Ukraine held the capital, and Russian forces retreated. Washington is no longer hesitant to poke the bear. Yet time still “is not on Ukraine’s side,” Milley reportedly told the coalition of defense leaders at Ramstein. His concern was reinforced on Thursday, when Russia struck cities across Ukraine just an hour after the U.N. Secretary-General, António Guterres, speaking at a press conference in Kyiv, described the country as the “epicenter of unbearable heartache and pain.” Guterres’s trip to Kyiv followed talks with Putin in Moscow. The U.N. leader, who toured Bucha, took a clear side in the conflict. “The war is an absurdity in the twenty-first century,” he said. “The war is evil.”
The growing U.S. involvement also reflects broader fears—long held among countries on or near Russia’s borders —that Putin’s aggression will not stop with Ukraine. On April 22nd, a senior Russian military commander announced that Moscow sought “full control” over eastern and southern Ukraine in part to open the way to neighboring Moldova, a tiny, landlocked country that is supportive of the European Union but dependent on Russian energy. In congressional testimony on Thursday, Blinken cited the urgent need “to seize the strategic opportunities” and address “the risks that are presented by Russia’s overreach as countries reconsider their policies, their priorities, their relationships.” Moscow’s flagrant rhetoric about nuclear weapons has also increasingly alarmed U.S. officials. “Nobody wants to see this war escalate any more than it already has,” Kirby said, on April 27th. “Certainly nobody wants to see—or nobody should want to see—it escalate into the nuclear realm.”
The Biden Administration has public support for its expanding role—for now. Despite war weariness after two decades in Afghanistan and Iraq, roughly two-thirds of Americans believe that the U.S. has a “moral responsibility” to do more to stop the killing of civilians in Ukraine, according to a Quinnipiac poll published in mid-April. In a country polarized on most other issues, a majority from both parties agreed. Three-quarters of those polled also fear that the worst is yet to come. And more than eighty per cent believe that Vladimir Putin is a war criminal. Yet the public’s moral outrage “stops at the water’s edge when it comes to committing the U.S. military to the fight,” Tim Malloy, a Quinnipiac University analyst, noted. Only nineteen per cent of Americans believe the U.S. should do more even if it risks getting into a direct war with Russia.
That conviction may soon be tested. The U.S. role has evolved—from a reactive response to Russia’s unjustified war to a proactive assertion of American leadership and leverage. Perhaps in desperation, Putin’s rhetoric has become bolder. On Wednesday, he warned that he could launch a “lightning-fast” response to any nation that intervened to thwart or threaten Russia. “We have all the instruments for this, such that no one can boast of,” he said, in an apparent reference to Moscow’s nuclear and missile arsenal. “We’re going to use them if we have to.” The war could now play out in many disparate ways. Each carries its own dangers—for the U.S. as well as Ukraine.