If we chose to cede Ukraine, we should do so honestly, by strengthening economic sanctions on Russia but ending the pretension that we’ll do anything else. At a moral level, it’s fair to ask why we should do more: If European nations don’t care enough (the UK included) to invest in their own defense, why should Americans? Nevertheless, our clarity of purpose is critical. In U.S. foreign policy, false resolve is far worse than honest disinterest. Clear disinterest in one area allows us to maintain our credibility elsewhere, but when we abandon our word, American credibility is gutted everywhere.
Of course, we’ll have to be equally honest if we escalate against Russia. For a start, we’ll have to drop the platitudes and accept that confronting Russia carries real risks. Believing Russia’s existential interests are at stake in Ukraine, and leading a proud but pained nation that craves respect (read David Greene and Angela Stent), Putin is ready for a fight. And let’s be clear, while we could ramp up sanctions (a full-spectrum denial of Russian financial access to Western markets, for example) or provide arms to the Ukrainian government, those options carry consequences. Were Ukraine to deploy any U.S.-provided arms east of the Dnieper River, our involvement in the war would cross a modern-day Rubicon. Russia might well launch a full-scale invasion toward Kiev; and, again, the old credibility question would once again rise to the fore. In that scenario, our only means of deterring Russia might be the large-scale deployment of American military forces to western Ukraine.