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“American intervention”: two words that represent a very loaded topic. Revisiting any part of our history shows that debate over intervention is present at every turn. From the beginning of our country’s history, President George Washington famously believed that the US should avoid any foreign entanglements. Then, during the 1800s into the 1900s, as the U.S. was strengthening its economic influence, it involved itself aggressively in other countries. After World War I, America adopted an isolationist policy for a time, but by World War II it had switched gears again to join the fight against the Axis powers. Throughout the 1900s, U.S. involvement in foreign affairs turned controversial with its fight against communism during the Cold War. Though the Korean War is considered a success as it stopped communism from taking root in the country, the Vietnam War is mostly viewed as a mistake

Such a complicated past in foreign policy has proven that when addressing this question, there is no easy answer. Now, as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine, we are entering a new period of history that has raised the question once more. Yet, for me, the answer seems quite clear.

Throughout the centuries America has taken extreme steps to protect their economic exploits across the globe. Though it is clear that the U.S. is an economic powerhouse in our current global stage, its journey to get to the top wasn’t the most ethical. From overthrowing Hawaii’s Queen Liliuokalani when she wouldn’t succumb to U.S. economic desires, to leading several military coups against leaders — such as Guatemala’s democratically elected president — that were simply uncontrollable, the U.S. was everywhere. Considering the variety of ways America has influenced other countries’ affairs, often in a negative manner and for its own benefit, I have started to doubt the wisdom of intervention. I mean, why should one country be allowed to have that much power over the rest of the world? So for a very long time, I thought America should keep to itself instead of back-handedly controlling the world.

But recently, with the conflict between Russia and Ukraine steadily worsening, I have been forced to rethink. Specifically, I find myself thinking a lot about bullies. In school, if there is a child being bullied, I would consider it wrong for any bystanders who have the power to help the child in need to just stand idly by; some would even go as far to say that those bystanders are just as bad as the bully. And I can’t help but think of bullying when I think about our current global crisis. For those who may be unaware, though Russia recently invaded Ukraine, the tension between the two countries is one that has been building up since the fall of the Soviet Union. After the USSR fell, Ukraine became its own country, but Russian President Vladimir Putin never let go of his desire to rebuild the old Soviet Union empire; in his words, Ukrainians and Russians “were one people — a single whole.” 

That is why he has already invaded Ukraine once before, back in 2014, and annexed Crimea in the process. Experts think the reason he has chosen to continue his mission now is because of the strengthening relations between Ukraine and NATO. Though Ukraine will not be joining NATO anytime soon, it is working to gain admission into the European Union and is the fourth-largest recipient of U.S. military funding; in some ways it has become an informal member of NATO, which threatens Russia. As a result of his fears, Putin decided to invade Ukraine to take back what he believes is Russia’s rightful territory, and make sure NATO doesn’t inch closer. 

There is no doubt that this is an extremely complicated situation. But breaking it down to its core, the way I see it is that Russia is using its power to bully Ukraine and as a result, we are witnessing hundreds of innocent and unnecessary deaths. There are many debates going on pertaining to what the U.S. should do. The Biden administration has remained firm on keeping U.S. soldiers out of Ukraine, which is something the majority of Americans agree with. However, 83% of Americans have also said they favor increased economic sanctions against Russia. So people do think America should intervene, but are afraid of getting involved in yet another overseas war; and honestly, who can blame them? However, though I do understand people’s hesitation to escalate involvement in Ukraine, I believe that if all else fails, we might not have any other choice.

Though the sanctions on Russia have been brutal and have effectively cut Russia off economically, many experts, such as Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, believe they won’t be enough to halt Putin’s plans. Don’t get me wrong, I think the U.S.’s recent barrage of economic attacks on Russia, including the ban on Russian oil that Biden announced just on Tuesday, is the right response to the actions of a leader like Putin. But what makes me doubt solely using sanctions is that past experiences show that sanctions cause meaningful change only about 40% of the time. More importantly, Russia has been preparing for such an economic war since 2014, when it faced a similar series of sanctions after annexing Crimea. 

Fearful of the West’s power to incite another financial crisis, Putin has spent the last eight years restructuring the Russian economy to be able to withstand Western financial pressures. Specifically, he has enacted measures such as reducing Russia’s use of dollars, building up Russia’s currency reserves — currently at $631 billion — and organizing budget cuts to keep debts low and ensure Russia can survive economic isolation. Though these currency reserves are currently imperiled by international efforts to remove Russia from SWIFT, the international banking communications system that facilitates modern finance operations. Only time will tell if these unprecedented economic sanctions will have any effect on the war. But the issue is it may be time that we do not have; and I think the U.S. knows this. We have already started arming the Ukrainian government and populace, but a full arsenal can only take them so far. Best case scenario, the sanctions prove to be enough, and all’s well that ends well. But looking at Putin’s preparation and the lack of effectiveness sanctions have demonstrated in the past, it is hard for me to believe that only economic sanctions will be enough to stop Putin’s ambitious dreams. I feel that eventually, we will be forced to make a choice.

Whether I approve of the way the U.S. has gained its power or not, the reality is that it has become one of the strongest countries in the world. And as Uncle Ben famously said, with great power comes great responsibility. Because the U.S. has the power to stand up to the bully that is Russia, if it did choose to just stand by, I would argue that it would be partly to blame for Ukraine’s fate. To simplify a very complicated situation, I have found it easy to just think about what I believe in. Ignoring the tangled alliances, past tensions and all of the drama, at the core of this crisis it becomes clear that we have two choices: either get our hands dirty to help save innocent lives, or keep a distance knowing we could have helped. I have never been the biggest fan of American intervention because it is usually for its own selfish gains; but here, it isn’t about exploitation, it’s about peace and enforcing the values we espouse. Whether it be standing up to a bully on the playground or a global superpower that has the ability to nuke the world, standing up for what is right is never easy. But if we want to be the leader of freedom that the world thinks we are, empty words are not enough; we have to take action.

Palak Srivastava is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at psrivas@umich.edu