ANALYSIS: The U.S. Shouldn’t Interfere While Putin Loses in Ukraine

He has behaved as if he’s blind to the true stakes and likely consequences of the conflict he sought.

By Mark Hannah

In his speech announcing the invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin referenced the United Nations charter, praised “the high values of human rights and freedoms,” and claimed his war represents the only “opportunity to protect Russia and our people.” This from a man regarded by many American commentators as an archrealist who makes hardheaded observations about the world as it is and cunningly employs power to reshape it according to Russia’s interests. In Mike Pompeo’s appraisal, the Russian president is a “very talented statesman” and “very shrewd.”

In reality, Mr. Putin’s latest war of aggression is motivated by a toxic mix of nostalgia and fantasy that seems likely to prove self-destructive. Mr. Putin has so far behaved like a man blind to the true stakes and probable consequences of this conflict. And the U.S., which is currently recovering from its own bout of military overreach, has the opportunity to revive a spirit of clear-eyed pragmatism that has been absent from major national security decisions in recent decades.

If Mr. Putin’s actions are driven by an exaggerated view of his country’s power—and its insecurity—President Biden’s response must continue to be informed by a realistic appraisal of the ways the U.S. can (and can’t) defend its security interests and help the Ukrainian people.

This might seem like common sense, but not everyone sees it that way. Hillary Clinton recently called the war in Ukraine a “flash point in a larger global struggle between democracy and autocracy.” It is tempting to frame conflicts like these as existential struggles between competing political philosophies. Americans will—and should—always root for democracy. But reducing complex, distant conflicts to simplistic binaries obscures the actual grievances and motivations of hostile actors.

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This post is part of Independent America, a research project led out by EGF senior fellow Mark Hannah, which seeks to explore how U.S. foreign policy could better be tailored to new global realities and to the preferences of American voters.