Will Ukraine Become a Proxy War Between U.S. and Russia?

Marko Drobnjakovic/AP

AA Font size + Print

The main reason the U.S. cares about the violence in Ukraine? Vladimir Putin. By Matt Vasilogambros

The deadly protests that have broken out in the streets of Kiev are no longer just a Ukrainian issue. They might soon be an American one, too.

As is the case in several conflicts across the world, Ukraine is just the next proxy battle between the United States and Russia.

To understand the role the U.S. plays here, it’s first important to understand both sides of the ongoing conflict. For the last three months, protesters have defiantly stood against a Ukrainian government that refuses to strengthen ties with the European Union. Meanwhile, opposition leaders have capitalized on a growing pro-West sentiment in the western part of Ukraine that has paralyzed the country and brought a violent showdown that has gained the attention of the world.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych represents the mostly Russian-speaking eastern and southern parts of the country, and has been cozy with the Kremlin on many economic and energy issues. Protests began in November after Yanukovych backed away from a trade deal with the European Union. Instead, the country got a $15 billion bailout from Russia. Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, historically has been pro-Kremlin.

Now, protests demanding a new election seem to be escalating toward a civil war that threatens to break the country in two. On Tuesday, clashes between riot police and demonstrators left 25 people dead and hundreds more injured.

As parts of the capital city of Kiev remain in flames as the result of Molotov cocktails, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters Wednesday that the U.S. is coordinating with the E.U. on a path forward.

We have made it clear we would consider taking action against individuals who are responsible for acts of violence within Ukraine,” Rhodes said. ”We have a tool kit for doing that that includes sanctions.”

Sanctions likely involve freezing the assets of Ukrainian leaders, while also restricting travel. Vice President Joe Biden is also working the phones. On Tuesday, he called Yanukovych to express “grave concern” over the crisis and condemned the violence, one of several calls Biden has made recently. On Wednesday, President Obama, speaking in Mexico to reporters, said, “The United States condemns in the strongest terms the violence that’s taking place.”

But sanctions are not a done deal just yet. While sanctions are on the table, the threat might be dropped if the Ukrainian government backs down—releases prisoners, pulls back from protest encampments, and opens a dialogue with opposition leaders. So far, the official reaction from the Obama administration comes off as one concerned with the democratic process and the humanitarian violations. But there’s a deeper motivation afoot.

Leave it to hawkish Republicans in the Senate not to mince words about the situation. A turnover of power in the country—or at the very least the weakening of Ukrainian leadership—would deal a major blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, some Republicans say.

Sen. John McCain, in an interview with CNN on Tuesday, didn’t skirt the issue. “Watch out for Vladimir Putin because he will try to make mischief because he believes that Ukraine is part of Russia,” the Arizona Republican said.

Sen. Marco Rubio in a statement went down the same path, saying in part, “Ukraine’s future lies in Europe, not Vladimir Putin’s Russia.”

The Russians are also fully aware that what happens in Ukraine affects their standing in the region too. Putin has been on the phone with Yanukovych in the last few days. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also blatantly blamed the West for the violence. “I cannot leave without mentioning the responsibility that lies with the West encouraging the opposition to act outside of the law,” he said Wednesday.

Obama and members of his administration won’t mention Russia and Putin in the same breath as the Ukrainian conflict. But it’s clear that Moscow is one of the biggest reasons why it’s a priority for the U.S.

Close [ x ] More from DefenseOne

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from DefenseOne.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Software-Defined Networking

    So many demands are being placed on federal information technology networks, which must handle vast amounts of data, accommodate voice and video, and cope with a multitude of highly connected devices while keeping government information secure from cyber threats. This issue brief discusses the state of SDN in the federal government and the path forward.

  • Military Readiness: Ensuring Readiness with Analytic Insight

    To determine military readiness, decision makers in defense organizations must develop an understanding of complex inter-relationships among readiness variables. For example, how will an anticipated change in a readiness input really impact readiness at the unit level and, equally important, how will it impact readiness outside of the unit? Learn how to form a more sophisticated and accurate understanding of readiness and make decisions in a timely and cost-effective manner.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • A New Security Architecture for Federal Networks

    Federal government networks are under constant attack, and the number of those attacks is increasing. This issue brief discusses today's threats and a new model for the future.

  • Information Operations: Retaking the High Ground

    Today's threats are fluent in rapidly evolving areas of the Internet, especially social media. Learn how military organizations can secure an advantage in this developing arena.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.