Listen to The Daily: Why does American military assistance to Ukraine matter?

President Vladimir V. Putin’s decision to send Russian troops to encircle the Ukrainian border was inspired by a fear: that Ukraine is allying too closely with the West, buying American arms and taking advice from U.S. military officials. But why is that military assistance so important to Ukraine — and so threatening to Russia?

It’s a long story, one spanning over a thousand years of conflict and contested territory. The word “Ukraine” means border land, and the country has long been a frontier between competing empires, between Western Europe and Russia. For most of the 20th century, Russia won out, controlling Ukraine as part of the Soviet Union. But in 1991, Ukraine declared independence from Russia, taking a step toward the West.

In the time since, the United States and Western Europe have encouraged the development of an independent, democratic system in Ukraine to prevent the re-emergence of a Russian empire and limit the expansionist imperial power of Moscow. In response, Russia has sought deeper economic ties with Ukraine, attempting to reintegrate a land and people many Russians feel are indistinguishable from their own.

This geopolitical tug of war came to a head in 2014, when a popular revolution pushed out Ukraine’s Russian-backed president — and a source of continued Russian influence. Since then, the United States has continued to support Ukrainian independence, providing military assistance to the Ukrainian forces guarding against Russian invasion at the border.

Listen to this episode of The Daily from 2019 to learn more about the history of American military assistance in Ukraine — and how that aid may have the power to tip the scales in a broader battle between authoritarianism and democracy.