The US never considered Ukraine a vital interest until Putin changed it

President Joe Biden and NATO allies in Europe are trying to help Ukraine fight off Russian aggression – but not so much that Russia will retaliate militarily against them.

These leaders’ deliberations and calibrations are all taking place against a fundamental background question: Is Ukraine a vital interest to my country?

The answer to that question – what’s a vital interest? – has guided the formation of Western foreign policy for generations now. It’s a commonly held belief among political analysts that countries should prioritize and defend what are known as their vital, strategic or core national interests.

The claim seems eminently sensible. If moral concerns over human rights are excluded from the equation, it surely makes no sense to spill blood over non-vital, non-strategic, peripheral interests.

It follows that, if Ukraine is a vital interest, the United States and its European allies should help it resist the Russian invasion and prevail. If Ukraine is not, then they shouldn’t, to any significant degree in any case.

Yet when the situation is viewed through my perspective as a historian and political scientist, what seems obvious at first glance turns out to be far more complicated upon closer inspection.

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