- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 26, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - Ukraine isn’t typically a U.S. foreign policy priority, experts say. President Barack Obama is more occupied with Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and more. His administration rejects the notion that the situation in Ukraine represents some kind of epic East vs. West power struggle.

Still, there are reasons why Americans should care about what’s happening there, starting with location, location, location.

1. IT’S ALL ABOUT THE NEIGHBORHOOD. Sure, it would be nice for Ukraine to have a stable, democratic government simply because that’s a good thing, and no one wants to see more bloodshed. But the U.S. is more concerned about Ukraine because of its location, perched between Russia and the rest of Europe, where the U.S. has lots of friends. “The U.S. has an interest in a wider, stable, secure Europe,” says Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who’s now at the Brookings Institution. “If Ukraine goes into chaos, that’s likely to pull those European countries in - and we may get involved later on, too.”

2. BIG QUESTIONS ABOUT THE MARCH OF DEMOCRACY. The overthrow of Kiev’s democratically elected (but corrupt and repressive) government by protesters seeking a more just Ukraine raises unsettling questions. “Ukraine doesn’t fit this ideal model of how democratic change progresses,” says Olga Oliker, associate director of RAND Corp.’s international security and defense policy center. “What does it mean to try to create more democratic systems in nondemocratic ways?”

3. LOOKING OUT FOR A FRIEND. Ukraine’s actually been a good friend to the U.S. since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. It was once home to the world’s third-largest nuclear weapons arsenal, and voluntarily surrendered the stockpile to Russia. It sent troops to help out in Iraq in 2003-05 and dispatched peacekeepers to Kosovo and Lebanon. It agreed to cancel a planned $45 million nuclear deal with Iran in 1992. “On a lot of foreign policy issues, they’ve been fairly helpful, and I would argue that that is one reason why we ought to care about what is going on,” Pifer says.

4. RUSSIA. The unrest in Ukraine could complicate U.S.-Russian relations. The Obama administration dismisses the idea of competing spheres of influence as wildly outmoded and deliberately has tried not to insert itself too deeply in the situation. But Russian President Vladimir Putin very much wants to tilt Ukraine his direction. “The U.S.-Russian relationship has been very combative lately and scratchy,” says Andrew Weiss, a Clinton administration expert on Ukraine and Russia who’s now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Ukraine adds one more layer on top of the problems that already exist.”

5. PEOPLE. BUSINESS. MONEY. People: There’s obvious concern among the estimated 1 million to 1.5 million people of Ukrainian descent in the U.S., with large concentrations in Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Sacramento, Calif., and the New York City area. Business: Ukraine, an economic mess, is not a big U.S. trading partner. But there’s plenty of commercial potential in a country of 46 million people. Money: Ukraine is in dire need of billions of dollars in financial assistance. The main lender is likely to be the International Monetary Fund. But Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday the U.S. plans to provide $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine and will consider additional direct assistance.


Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nbenac

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