On the night of February 21, 2014, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia. His flight followed months of protest against his government for backing out of an agreement with the European Union—protests Yanukovych had tried to repress with ever-greater force. Fearing a loss of influence and the rise of a less friendly government in Ukraine, the Kremlin ordered Russian troops to seize the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and moved swiftly to annex the territory. Moscow then sent troops and matériel to local militia groups in eastern Ukraine hostile to the Kyiv government, fueling a six-year war that continues today.

As the fighting began, three scholars asked more than two thousand Americans to locate Ukraine on a map. Just one in six were able to do so. This might just be an example of Americans’ comically weak grasp of geography were it not for the second part of the study, which asked respondents whether Russia posed a threat to the United States, and whether the United States should intervene militarily in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The scholars found that the less people knew about Ukraine’s location, the more they believed that Russia posed a threat to US interests and the more they favored military intervention.

—Timothy Frye, Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021), 8.

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