CONTEXT: I originally posted this as an answer to a Quora question, but I think it is a significant enough issue to post here. I apologize for the less frequent posting, I have been extremely busy with my studies over the past few months. You can find the original answer here.
The flurry of news regarding Ukraine and Russia can be confusing at times, so I write this to explain why a conflict between two nations on the other side of the world is of concern to the United States.
The first is basic power dynamics: The United States is the world’s only superpower, which means that it is in the United State’s best interest to make sure that rising countries either rise to operate inside the system as it exists or fail to rise. Russia is not playing by the rules of the system as it is set up. Although the Kremlin denies it, Russia is basically stealing land from a sovereign country. If the system of international norms that insists that it is wrong to invade a country just to annex its territory breaks down, the United States loses power (and lets face it, that is a much less desirable world to our sensibilities anyway).
The second issue is the struggle for control of Eastern Europe. In 2011, Vladimir Putin announced the formation of the as an attempt to re-establish some of the economic connection lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is no question that in the long run, Ukraine would be a part of such a union. Far more importantly, however, Ukraine has simply always been a part of Russian ambition. Whatever regime controls Russia, be it Czars, a Communist Party, or a powerful president, whenever they are at the height of their power they control Ukraine. It makes geographical sense, just look at Ukraine on a map:
In a simplistic sense, Ukraine is important to Eastern Europe because it is most of it! Imagine a scheme to politically control Eastern Europe without control of Ukraine. Before Yanukovych was overthrown, Ukraine was safely in Russia’s pocket. It was not even in dispute. Russia was calling the shots. But after the Maidan Protests forced Yanukovych to leave office, suddenly Russia’s geopolitical maneuverings were thrown into jeopardy. Ukraine could suddenly side with the West. Now the European Union (and by extension, the United States) was deeply invested in ensuring that Ukraine could remain pro-Western.
The third issue is trade. This was the source of the conflict that started the protests to begin with. Ukraine is massively important to European and Russian economic considerations because of the vast trade potential. With nearly 45 million people, Ukraine represents a massive market. Of course, to anyone familiar with geopolitics, it should come as no surprise that fuel plays a massive role in Ukrainian trade calculations also. Pipelines from Russia supply most of Eastern Europe with natural gas through Ukraine. Control of Ukraine represents control of these pipelines, which is significant power:
Russia has, in the past, used influence over these pipelines for political purposes, such as in 2009 (). Thus, control of Ukraine should also be seen as control of natural gas flow.
The fourth issue is the international system itself. Ukraine gave up nearly 2,000 nuclear weapons upon achieving independence in return for assurances that its sovereignty would be protected by the other nuclear states (). The Ukraine crisis can be seen as a test of whether or not there actually is an international community. If Ukraine’s sovereignty can be protected in spite of an aggressive, destabilizing, nuclear neighbor, then it can be safely said that the international community is effective in overcoming conflict. But if Ukraine’s surrender of nuclear weapons results in Ukraine’s complete acquiescence to and domination by Russia, then the world is defined purely by power struggles and the international community does not have weight in and of itself.
The more chilling implication of the latter outcome is that the argument for non-proliferation loses all teeth. Iran will no longer look foolish for desperately seeking to acquire a nuclear arsenal and North Korea’s nuclear policy will be similarly defensible. Ukraine will be another example like Libya, where the surrender of nuclear programs leads to vulnerability to foreign intervention.
These four issues are not an exhaustive list, Russian sources often argue that there is a clash of civilizations between East and West, Conservative and Liberal over these issues. Western sources spin the Russian moves as authoritarianism versus democracy. Others argue the issues are about self-determination of populations or other ideological issues. But the above four issues are the framework within which other concerns can be explored.
Map of Eastern Europe, http://goeasteurope.about.com/od/introtoeasteuropetravel/ig/Maps-of-Eastern-Europe/Map-of-Eastern-Europe.htm
Map of Ukrainian Gas Pipelines: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/ukraine-crisis-gas-prices-across-3202458