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Why the U.S. cares about the war in Ukraine


Six months ago, Russia invaded Ukraine. What Moscow thought would be a quick operation to seize control has turned into a deadly, protracted war. The U.S. has responded with sanctions and billions of dollars of weaponry. But with inflation here at home and no end in sight to the war, NPR's Jackie Northam explores a question - should the U.S. still care about the outcome in Ukraine?

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The searing images and reports of atrocities in Ukraine in the early days of the war sparked outrage in the U.S. and a demand that the Biden administration take action. In March, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs took a poll which found Americans strongly in favor of U.S. support for Ukraine. It took another poll earlier this month.

DINA SMELTZ: Actually, what we found was that support is pretty solid still. It hasn't changed too much since last March.

NORTHAM: Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow at The Chicago Council and the author of the report. She says about 2,000 people from across the U.S. were polled. At least 70% support continuing a range of economic and military assistance to Ukraine, short of sending troops.

SMELTZ: We found that when we put it in terms of American households, that they might have to pay higher gas and food prices if we continue to assist Ukraine, they said we should stick with Ukraine for as long as it takes rather than urge them to cede some territory, to create a cease-fire.

NORTHAM: Smeltz says many felt Russia's invasion was morally wrong and nearly three-quarters backed increasing American military aid to Ukraine. The U.S. has already supplied or promised roughly $13 billion of security assistance. Peter Rough, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, says the money spent is little compared to what's at stake in Ukraine.

PETER ROUGH: I think the prosperity in the U.S. is directly connected to peace in Europe. The trans-Atlantic economy is the largest in the world. It's about $1.5 trillion in annual trade.

NORTHAM: Rough says to that end, the U.S. needs to be part of the coalition to push back Russia. To put it in more practical terms...

ROUGH: Think of the Mercedes plant outside of Tuscaloosa or BMW near Spartanburg, S.C. Those exports and investment sustain millions of jobs, and they really do depend on the U.S.-led order reigning supreme in Europe.

NORTHAM: George Beebe with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft agrees the U.S. can't allow Russia to take Ukraine by force. But he questions how long Congress will want to keep pumping billions of dollars into a war that at the moment neither side is winning nor losing.

GEORGE BEEBE: The United States can't provide economic and military aid to Ukraine for years and years to come. Over time, people are going to be questioning whether we might be better served by finding some sort of exit from all of this.

NORTHAM: Beebe, who was a longtime Russia specialist at the CIA, says the U.S. hasn't seriously grappled with how it wants the war in Ukraine to end. It could continue military support with no end in sight. Or, he says, the U.S. may have to set its sights on something more realistic than a win-lose situation - Ukrainian neutrality.

BEEBE: The Ukrainians obviously have given that more serious considerations than we have. So if it's something that the Ukrainians are willing to consider, I think it's something that the United States needs to be willing to consider.

NORTHAM: But U.S. diplomacy so far is aimed at strengthening Ukraine's hand in the war and rallying countries to do the same. U.S. officials say if they thought Russia was serious about diplomacy, the U.S. would help facilitate talks if Ukraine agrees. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.