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Ukraine Must Remind Us to Invest in Prevention

The debate over military intervention — and the reasons to invest in non-military alternatives. 

Words: Mike Brand
Pictures: Alice Kotlyarenko

President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address focused heavily on foreign policy and Ukraine. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine just a week earlier, Biden spoke about the strength of the Ukrainian people, new sanctions against Russia and Russian oligarchs, and a commitment to provide additional security and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.

Biden also reiterated that the US would not get involved militarily in the conflict. “Let me be clear, our forces are not engaged and will not engage in conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine.” However, he did repeat his promise to defend NATO allies. Biden said, “As I have made crystal clear the United States and our Allies will defend every inch of territory of NATO countries with the full force of our collective power.”

Lines on a map play an important role in international relations. In many cases, it can mean the difference between apathy and action. President Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine, and the world condemns him but governments are unwilling to intervene to protect Ukrainian civilians from being slaughtered. However, if Putin were to cross into NATO territory, the US, UK, and EU would respond militarily with, as Biden said, “the full force of our collective power.”

Why should the lives of Ukrainian citizens matter any less to the international community than the citizens of Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania? And what about the citizens in other countries that face the risk of mass atrocities or are suffering from ongoing atrocities? Civilians in places like Syria, South Sudan, Myanmar, or Afghanistan?


In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked NATO countries how many Ukrainians had to die before NATO would implement a no-fly zone. “Tell me how many. I’ll go to count and wait for this moment. I hope the sky will be shut down. If you don’t have strength and courage to do that, then give me the planes. Wouldn’t that be fair?”

The situation in Ukraine should serve as a stark reminder that despite the US spending nearly $800 billion a year on its military, far more than any other nation, most problems will not be solved by our military.

Zelenskyy’s question reminded me of another calculation made 28 years ago during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in which nearly one million people, mostly Tutsi and some moderate Hutus, were killed. In Samantha Power’s seminal book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” the now-USAID Administrator wrote about how the US government viewed the situation in Rwanda. A US military officer told Roméo Dallaire, the UN Force Commander in Rwanda, “We are doing our calculations back here and one American casualty is worth about 85,000 Rwandan dead.”

What is the life of a Ukrainian worth? How many innocent lives have to be lost? How many people have to be displaced from their homes before action is taken?

The war in Ukraine has just begun, but many signs point to it becoming a protracted conflict. More civilians will be killed and millions will be forcibly displaced from their homes. The longer the crisis goes on, the risk of mass atrocities goes up. We have already seen evidence of Russian bombs targeting civilian areas. If systematic attacks against civilians continue, these actions by the Russian military could constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and potentially even genocide.

In the past, Biden had been a proponent of military interventions and no-fly zones. During his time in the Senate, Biden advocated for military intervention in the former Yugoslavia and was a vocal advocate for establishing a no-fly zone over Darfur, Sudan. But, in both cases, the risk was not nearly as high as engaging in hostilities with Russia. Therefore, despite these atrocities, for now it appears the world’s most powerful military alliance will continue to sit on the sidelines. Zelenskyy’s request for a no-fly zone has been rejected by NATO as the implementation would require NATO to shoot down Russian aircraft if they entered Ukraine’s airspace.

There is concern that escalating the war with a no-fly zone could lead to more casualties. While it is a valid concern, the counterfactual argument may not fully consider how many Ukrainian civilians could be killed if the world stands by and does nothing. On the other hand, a potential nuclear war would undoubtedly lead to many more civilians killed. Instead, the US, UK, and EU are using non-military coercive measures to try and penalize Putin and Russia for this invasion. Governments have sanctioned Russia and corrupt Russian oligarchs. In the short term, these sanctions are unlikely to make much of a difference to those in power and may not be enough to get Putin to change course. On the other hand, these sanctions will likely be devastating to ordinary Russian citizens. Meanwhile, Ukrainians continue to suffer.


The situation in Ukraine should serve as a stark reminder that despite the US spending nearly $800 billion a year on its military, far more than any other nation, most problems will not be solved by our military. By comparison, the other tools in the foreign policy toolkit remain woefully underfunded. For example, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the government body responsible for enforcing US sanctions remains “overworked and understaffed.” Effective sanctions require effective targeting and OFAC needs more resources in order to implement sanctions.

Beyond Ukraine, there are many countries that are at risk of mass atrocities or are experiencing ongoing atrocities. Yet, the US only budgets $5 million a year for its Atrocities Prevention Fund. We must invest much more in prevention by expanding funding for diplomatic and development tools aimed at preventing mass atrocities and violent conflict.

In 2019, Congress passed the Global Fragility Act. This bill represents a potential paradigm shift in US foreign policy by creating a whole-of-government strategy to prevent violent conflict. The law required the administration to create a Global Fragility Strategy and pilot new programs to reduce the risk of violence in at least five priority countries over a ten-year period. Implementation of the Global Fragility Strategy and the selection of priority countries was due in 2020, but the Trump administration failed to deliver. Now in 2022, the Biden administration must create a new Global Fragility Strategy, release the priority countries, and begin implementation.

While the Global Fragility Strategy will not help protect Ukrainian civilians today, it could help prevent and mitigate atrocities in other high-risk countries and save countless lives tomorrow. We must make the investments now because as we are seeing in Ukraine, a failure to prevent violent conflict often means sitting on the sidelines watching atrocities unfold and waiting to provide aid to survivors.

We must do better.

Mike Brand is an adjunct professor of human rights and genocide studies at the University of Connecticut, a Senior Fellow at George Mason University’s Raphaël Lemkin Genocide Prevention Program, and an atrocities prevention and peacebuilding advocate. 

Mike Brand

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