WASHINGTON — Russia’s advance on Ukraine is a different kind of conflict from what Americans have witnessed through most of the past half-century. It’s a return to a kind of aggression — one country seeking to take over another — that many American policymakers and voters believed had become passe. And it’s taking place in a region, Eastern Europe, that in important ways had receded from many Americans’ mental maps of the world’s potential conflict zones.

The prospect of ground warfare and a brutal assault on a sovereign nation at the edge of America’s European alliance is raising worries about whether the United States pivoted too sharply to Asia and the Middle East in recent decades; whether America’s historical bonds with Europe remain strong enough to protect U.S. interests now; and whether U.S. strategists focused too heavily on the new forms of warfare that have dominated recent international clashes, including cyberwar, drone assaults and targeted assassination.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “invasion” of Ukraine — a term President Joe Biden quickly adopted Tuesday — is taking place 5,000 miles from Washington. It can be viewed as a largely regional conflict, a violent expression of the Russian leader’s ahistorical contention that, as he put it in a bellicose article last summer, “modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era” and has no independent legitimacy.

“One fact is crystal clear,” Putin said in that justification for his forthcoming assault. He argued that “Russia was robbed” when Ukraine broke off from the wreckage of the Soviet Union after its 1991 collapse.

But Russia’s move to recognize two Russian-backed separatist enclaves within Ukraine as independent countries and the subsequent move of Russian forces into those areas of Ukraine has rocked Western Europe and threatens to hit Americans where they live — in the form of possible surges in energy prices, rattled financial markets and the possibility of cyberattacks on American institutions in response to U.S. economic sanctions against Russia. In addition, any ground conflict could expand into countries that the United States is obligated to defend as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s post-World War II alliance.

More about Russia’s war on Ukraine


“This is a shock to the American system, something that is so far out of our consciousness,” said Michael O’Hanlon, director of research for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. For the past three decades, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of its empire, “it seemed unthinkable to have bloodshed on the European continent after World War II and the Cold War. We thought we were out of this sort of classic ground war. Now, we’re likely to see things again now that we thought we only saw in World War II movies.”

Ground wars seem all-too 20th century to many military planners. The prospect of combat troops potentially fighting house-to-house in cities and villages across Ukraine, a nation of 41 million people, is difficult to comprehend today. Many Americans, raised on the aerial assaults and drone warfare of the Persian Gulf conflicts and the wars on terrorism fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, came to think of a war aimed at taking another country as something out of the past. Most wars in recent decades have been civil wars, fought between factions within a country, rather than wars of aggression against a foreign, sovereign nation.

“The notion that one country would try to gobble up another, particularly a neighbor, is truly alien,” said Daniel Benjamin, president of the American Academy in Berlin and previously the Obama administration’s coordinator for counterterrorism. “There’s been no threat like this in Europe since the 1970s.”

The prospect of a massive ground war in Europe — potentially the largest offensive since the United States, its European allies and the Soviet Union crushed the Nazis in 1945 — is Putin’s effort to reverse an outcome of the Cold War, pulling Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit. But to Americans, the Russians’ aggression is not just evidence of “Putin’s twisted rewrite of history,” as Biden put it Tuesday, but also a potentially bloody reminder that Europe remains disputed terrain and a natural battleground for the competition between nuclear powers.

For years, and especially during the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump — both of whom sought to reorient foreign policy away from Europe and toward China and the rest of Asia — Europe has seemed to recede both as the focus of U.S. policymakers and as a concern for the American public.

“This is not something anybody under 40 has had to think about much except after 9/11,” O’Hanlon said, referring to the 2001 terrorist attacks. “Most Americans have no idea who the secretary-general of NATO is or what that means, or which countries we have a lot of troops in.”


Many Americans, including many diplomats, academics and politicians, came to view Europe as “a peaceful kingdom bedeviled only by the bureaucrats in Brussels, a great cultural theme park to visit,” Benjamin said. “For many years, terrorism was the premier security issue for us and China became a bigger and bigger concern. But Europe’s important, Europe matters.”

Still, Democratic and Republican policymakers worry that popular opinion may limit U.S. options, as many Americans, exhausted after decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, have concluded that the country should instead focus inward.

But if some Americans don’t think they have a dog in this fight, many of Putin’s constituents, awash in state-controlled propaganda, apparently believe otherwise. Because state media have persistently presented news of conflicts between Russia and other countries as the result of Western interference, “the majority actually hold the United States accountable for what’s going on,” Denis Volkov, an independent pollster in Russia, said on a podcast earlier this month. “It’s not even about Ukraine. The majorities say that it’s the United States who is influencing the Ukrainian government.”

Ukraine was the second-largest of the 15 not-very-independent states that made up the Soviet Union. It’s where the empire grew much of its food, built and kept many of its weapons, and stored a chunk of its nuclear arsenal. So when Ukraine split off on its own in 1991, the blow to Russia was keenly felt.

Putin may assume that he can get away with a war against Ukraine because the Western alliance looks frayed to him, according to several longtime U.S. foreign policy officials. A new government just took over Germany in December. France faces elections in seven weeks. Britain’s prime minister has been fighting through domestic scandal and disarray in his own party. And Biden is suffering through low approval ratings, persistent inflation and the continuing social and political divisions over the pandemic.

Nonetheless, there’s evidence that a root bond between Americans and Western Europe remains strong, 32 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of the Soviet empire.


Many Americans are unaware of how extensive the U.S. military presence in Europe has remained. About 80,000 U.S. service members are stationed on the continent, down from 250,000 in the mid-1980s. And young Americans by and large no longer spend hours in high school history courses learning about the Fulda Gap, the German lowlands through which Western experts expected Soviet tanks to flow in the event that the Cold War turned hot.

But if that kind of anxiety about a monumental confrontation between Russia and the West subsided quickly after 1989, most Americans nonetheless retain strongly favorable views of key allies, according to Gallup polling through four decades. Americans have highly favorable views of Germany (84% favorable in 2021), France (87%) and Britain (91%), numbers that have remained sky-high for many years.

In contrast, only 22% of Americans told Gallup last year that they had a favorable view of Russia, down from 30% in 2016 and 47% in 2010.

“There are some elements of our national character that Putin gets right,” O’Hanlon said. “He may think we’ve turned against each other and focused on Asia and lost our toughness. But we made a very concerted effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, and if Putin thinks he can divide the United States from Western Europe, he’s crazy.”

Through the most recent Republican and Democratic administrations alike, U.S. officials have concluded that the American public’s appetite for foreign military involvements is markedly diminished.

“For some time now, Americans have been asking tough but fair questions about what we’re doing, how we’re leading — indeed whether we should be leading at all,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a March 2021 speech.


But a Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey from last fall found that 64% of Americans prefer for the country to remain active in world affairs rather than steering clear of such involvement. That 64% figure has remained fairly steady over nearly half a century of polling, rising to 70% early in the Trump administration after dropping to a low of 58% in 2014, when U.S. forces were fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Still, it’s one thing to believe the country should stay involved in world affairs and something else to see a role for U.S. military action in faraway conflicts — and especially a potentially long and deadly ground war.

For at least a century, Americans have found reason after each searing land-war experience to decide that such conflicts might be a thing of the past.

After both world wars, after the Korean and Vietnam wars, and after the Desert Storm attack on Iraq, Americans across a wide swath of ideologies broadly assumed that hand-to-hand, boots-on-the-ground warfare was outdated. Surely, planners argued, new technologies such as drones and new battlefields in space, in the skies and in cyberspace made ground combat an inefficient and less appealing choice for potential aggressors.

As the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down, U.S. administrations focused defense budget cuts on the Army and ground forces on the theory that new forms of war would dominate future conflicts.

But reality has a way of defying projections of linear human progress.


“One reason I hate the idea of this war is I’m not sure how it ends,” O’Hanlon said, referring to the Ukraine conflict. “It’s hard to be completely confident it stays localized. It’s so dangerous, so unforgivable for Putin.”

Although the NATO allies’ approach so far — punishing Russia with economic sanctions — seems to assume that the conflict will remain constricted to Ukraine and near environs, any number of events could widen the war: Cyberattacks easily spool out across national boundaries; refugees by definition export political crises to new countries; and Putin has repeatedly drawn analogies between his dismissal of Ukraine’s independence and his similar beliefs about some of the Soviet Union’s other former satellite states.

In 2004, NATO expanded up to the Russian border by adding seven countries, including the former Soviet Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. In 2008, when NATO discussed taking Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance sometime in the future, Putin reacted sharply.

“It’s easy for Putin to convince the typical Russian that he had no choice but to do this because he says America rubbed the Russians’ face in the sand” by expanding NATO right up to Russia’s western borders, O’Hanlon said.

The conflict in Ukraine will inevitably raise fears in those other former Soviet states that the Russian leader will come after them next, and any virus of anxiety in those NATO member countries will spread almost instantly to the rest of the 30-nation alliance.

Although many Americans will view the news of the coming weeks as noise about “a faraway place that we shouldn’t care about,” Benjamin said, that attitude may well be a luxury the country cannot afford. “Russia has always had the power to ruin your day — and the desire to do so.”