A year since Vladimir Putin ordered his forces to invade Ukraine, the war is far from over. However bravely Ukrainians fight on, and however muddled the performance of Russia’s military, Ukraine cannot prevail without continued and substantial Western assistance. Since the invasion, that has swelled to over $150 billion in American and European spending, and the weapons supplied to Ukraine now include the latest Western tanks and antiaircraft systems.
The United States and its major allies have been steadfast in their resolve to support Ukraine in its fight, and their people have largely accepted the enormous cost. In the United States, the political resistance has been limited largely to a few voices on the far right and far left. But questions will become only more common as the war drags on. As Representative Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the House, a Republican and a strong supporter of Ukraine, has warned, “There should be no blank check on anything.”
Outside Europe and the United States, support for the Ukrainian cause is much less solid, making efforts to punish Russia for its aggression less effective. To strengthen that support, as the second year of this terrible and unnecessary conflict begins, it is useful to examine why it is in the interest of the United States and other democracies to expend so much wealth, and to take so great a risk in confronting a nuclear power.
The first reason, and the one that prompted an immediate response from the West, is the moral and ethical obligation of the world’s democracies to help a nation whose freedom is threatened by an authoritarian power. National self-determination has long been a guiding principle of American foreign policy. Various U.S. administrations have honored it imperfectly, as is the case with so many guiding principles. But it remains valuable in finding a way forward. In sending an armored column toward Kyiv and seeking to overthrow its government, Mr. Putin clearly violated that principle, and threatens to return Europe to the instability of previous eras, when nations frequently invaded each other and altered the continent’s borders by force.
Russians might argue that the United States is hardly the innocent in its global dealings, whether invading Iraq on false pretenses, or covertly working to overthrow governments in, among others, Chile and Nicaragua. Certainly, there is much to criticize and debate in America’s foreign policy during and since the Cold War. There are also those, notably the political scientist John Mearsheimer, who further argue that the United States provoked Mr. Putin by failing to respect Russia’s national interests and, at one point, pushing to bring Ukraine (and Georgia) into NATO.
The wisdom of incorporating former Soviet bloc countries into NATO remains a topic of considerable disagreement among historians, but it is important to remember that it was not NATO that rushed to expand. Rather, many countries that had suffered Moscow’s repressive and often brutal control urgently sought the protections of the Western alliance against what they anticipated and feared would be a resurgence of Russian ambitions. As for Ukraine, the prospect of joining NATO anytime soon had dissipated long before the Russian invasion.
It was Ukrainians who rose up in the “Orange Revolution” against elections rigged to produce a pro-Russian outcome in 2004, and Ukrainians who took to the streets again in 2014 over President Viktor Yanukovich’s last-minute decision not seek closer relations with the European Union. The danger Mr. Putin saw was not to Russia’s sphere of influence, but to his personal sphere of power; a democratic, pro-Western Ukraine threatened to spread ideas that would directly challenge his monopoly on power. It is no coincidence that Mr. Putin’s growing aggressiveness toward the West developed in tandem with his growing authoritarianism at home. As his regime grew ever more repressive, his need for foreign threats, real or concocted, increased proportionately, to justify tightening the screws on domestic opposition.
In the end, nothing the United States or its allies have done or have failed to do in the three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union even remotely justifies Mr. Putin’s attempt to bend Ukraine to his will by brute force. He has to be stopped, and Ukraine has to be allowed to choose a democratic, independent future. That is what U.S. leaders should stress in justifying continued support.
A conflict that ends with a stronger Ukraine will send a message that the United States does have the resolve and capability to help counter the excesses of autocrats and bullies. The Biden administration’s regular declarations of full support for Ukraine, even when military aspects of that support are under discussion, demonstrate that America has not, as Mr. Putin thought, forever lost its ability to lead. America’s readiness to stand up to Mr. Putin has united most of the world’s major democracies behind a common cause.
It is hard to imagine, for example, that without a strong commitment from Washington, Sweden or Finland would have applied to join a NATO that only three years ago President Emmanuel Macron of France described as “brain-dead,” or that Germany would have agreed to send German tanks to repel Russia. And while key allies such as Britain, France, Germany, Poland and others may not match America’s level of support, they have shown a readiness to absorb far greater economic consequences stemming from sanctions on Russia.
Still, with so much uncertainty about the outcome on the battlefield, it remains unclear even what “victory” might mean for either side. A return to the dividing lines of a year ago would perpetuate tensions along more than 1,000 miles, and it is unlikely that Russians would ever renounce their claim to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula they’ve occupied since 2014 and regard as incontestably Russian land.
Only diplomacy can achieve anything resembling a viable peace settlement. Ultimately, that should be the goal of all support for Ukraine. It is the only way Russians can start to reverse their economic and social alienation from Europe, and the only way Europeans can reaffirm the postwar order that brought them decades of relative stability, prosperity and security.
But serious diplomacy has a chance only if Russia accepts that it cannot bring Ukraine to its knees. And for that to happen, the United States and its allies cannot waver in their support.
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