How did Ukraine come to obsess us? Looking at our politics and media, one might think we had few other overseas concerns. Impeachment has fixated absurdly on Ukraine when there are bigger, worse presidential abuses begging to be examined. A psychiatrist might diagnose us with “Ukraine on the brain.”



And what can we actually do about Ukraine’s unfortunate situation? Damn near nothing, which is precisely what we are doing. We deliver, after a clumsy presidential bribery attempt, modest military aid with the admonition not to use it. Trump does nothing to anger Putin. Congress does — by veto-proof margins that sanction Russian oligarchs and support Ukraine — but not Trump.



For a while, Ukraine eclipsed Iran as a U.S. preoccupation. Under “maximum pressure,” we punish buyers of Iranian oil and pistachios, but Iran does not budge; it fights back with asymmetric jabs. Instead of pulling U.S. forces out of the Persian Gulf, as Trump promised, he sends more in.



U.S. policy toward both countries is incoherent but dominated Washington even as national security strategy, on paper, specifies China as the long-term problem. But we got stuck on two powder-keg countries that are peripheral national interests. We were never prepared for war over either, but missteps and bluffing can spiral into war. A middle ground of threats without consequences is elusive and risky.



We went bonkers on Ukraine, magnifying its importance and making one wonder if Washington can define our vital national interest. In the 1960s, we went bonkers over Vietnam, misperceiving it as a branch of China, which was a branch of the Soviet Union. All untrue; they had gone their separate, nationalistic ways, at times shooting at one another. We kept seeing a monolith after it no longer existed. Under Stalin, it was one, but it had fractured by 1960. Washington took a decade to figure that out and act on it.



Why all the attention focused on Ukraine? History and geography make Ukraine a magnet for conflict. A millennium ago, the Kievan Rus’ was the first Russian state and stretched across East Europe with Kiev its capital. With no natural barriers, it fought Mongols, Poles, Russians and Turks. Moscow took over Ukraine in the 18th century and treated Ukrainians as “Little Russians,” a status many Ukrainians resented.



Stalin’s brutal farm collectivization starved millions of Ukrainians to death. In 1991, a Soviet air force officer in my seminar at the U.S. Army War College suddenly became a Ukrainian air force officer. At first, he did not believe me when I told him of Stalin’s deliberate famine. It took members of the local Eastern Orthodox Church to convince him.



Ukraine is fragmented. In the east, a Russian population demands Russian language rights. With Russian encouragement and soldiers, it broke away from Ukraine in 2014. Russia grabbed Crimea, also mostly Russian-speaking. Ukraine’s west was once part of Poland and Austria. Its people are perhaps the strongest Ukrainian nationalists. Ukraine as a whole now faces westward in economics and politics and would love to join the EU and NATO.



As Henry Kissinger noted, for Russia, Ukraine can never be just another country. Ukraine joining NATO would thrust Western (i.e., American) power deep into Russia’s security space. Even talking about it was unclever. Losing the important Russian naval base of Sevastopol to NATO — thus challenging Russia in the Black Sea — made Putin’s 2014 takeover of Crimea inevitable. A new bridge across the Kerch Strait connects Russia directly to Crimea without passing through Ukraine.



Economics and crime — intertwined in that part of the world — further heighten Ukraine’s importance. The main pipeline for Russian natural gas to Europe passes through Ukraine, but Moscow sometimes cuts the flow and built a new pipeline under the Baltic Sea to West Europe, bypassing Ukraine altogether.



As in Russia, sleazy characters seized Ukrainian firms, especially those connecting Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine is a conduit for moving looted gains into overseas banks. Transparency International rates Ukraine about as corrupt as Russia, which is to say, Wow!



The sordid mix draws Americans. Paul Manafort earned millions helping a corrupt Ukrainian president. Hunter Biden got easy money to lend his name to a crooked Ukrainian gas company. But did this tarnish Joe Biden? Calling either or both Bidens to testify would confirm White House misuse of Ukrainian corruption to get dirt on Biden.



John Bolton’s book draft — leaked by someone in the White House — has caused a great stir. It reveals little totally new but bolsters previous accusations. More serious: Trump raging at Ambassador Marie Yovanovich, and his order to “take her out” suggests violence. Far-fetched? Why did she flee in fear?



Trump said he doesn’t “give a [expletive] about Ukraine.” Pompeo seconds. So, pull out all U.S. aid and support, placing Ukraine at Putin’s feet, pleasing him. But Trump can’t. Congress won’t let him. So, on the battlefield and in U.S. politics, Ukraine stalemated.