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The Case for Defending Ukraine
Appeasing Putin jeopardizes Ukrainian sovereignty and undermines the liberal international order.
This is the second in a two-part discussion about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and the role the United States should play. The previous installment, “The Case for Restraint on Ukraine” by a former State Department official, was published yesterday.
As Russia amasses more than 130,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders, the world is facing what might become the most consequential war in the middle of Europe since World War II. The Biden administration has warned that an invasion may happen at any moment. Over a dozen countries are urging their citizens to leave Ukraine immediately, while foreign embassies are evacuating their staff from Kyiv.
The current crisis is not only about Ukraine’s sovereignty. It is about protecting the values that the U.S. stands for against Russian attempts to erase the rules-based international order. By issuing non-starter ultimatums on the U.S. and its allies—demanding that they take Russia’s so-called security concerns into consideration and change long-standing NATO policies—Russia is directly challenging America’s influence in Europe.
Until now, the West has largely underestimated or turned a blind eye towards the Kremlin’s malign activities. In many instances this approach has been motivated by the economic benefits of cooperation with Russia: the German government is still reluctant to scrap the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, despite Russia’s use of its energy resources as a geopolitical weapon. American leaders have done little better. Barack Obama held off on providing some lethal weapons to Ukraine to avoid provoking Putin. Although his successor Donald Trump ultimately authorized the purchase of anti-tank Javelin missiles to Ukraine and Georgia, his ambiguity and reluctance to criticize Putin further encouraged the Kremlin to play the game by its own rules.
Now, Russia is once again mobilizing in response to the growing desire of the Ukrainian people to be out of Russia’s sphere of influence and become a functional democracy. Popular support for Ukraine’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration remains high, despite Kremlin propaganda consistently pushing the narrative that former Soviet Bloc countries are simply being used by the U.S. as instruments to wage war against Russia.
Putin realizes that he has lost the battle for the hearts of the Ukrainian people, and sees the current crisis as his last chance to reverse Ukraine’s foreign policy direction by force.
The stakes could not be higher. If the government in Kyiv falls, thousands of Ukrainians and Russians will likely be killed. Europe will be flooded by refugees. Energy prices will surge and the global economy will be shaken. In turn, this would embolden Xi Jinping to challenge the United States at a time when Europe is unable to unite its efforts to counter China.
Still, many people assert that taking a hard line against Russia is unnecessary. In a recent article for Persuasion, a former State Department official argues that “taking over Ukraine would reduce Russia’s capacity to threaten Europe,” due to the amount of effort that controlling Ukraine and supporting proxies in occupied territories would require.
But despite its struggling economy, history has shown that once Moscow is allowed to get away with an act of aggression it is only a matter of time until it strikes again. Following the August War of 2008, when Russia occupied 20% of Georgia’s territory, the Kremlin was rewarded with a “reset” by the Obama Administration. As a result of this appeasement, Russia launched a bigger military offensive with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which took the lives of over 13,000 Ukrainians. Just as Russia did not stop at Georgia after 2008, there is little evidence to suggest that it intends to stop at Ukraine after 2022.
In order to prevent an invasion, the author suggests that the U.S. and Russia could agree to “a new European security architecture that effectively neutralizes Ukraine and puts an end to further enlargements of NATO.” In fact, we’ve been here before, when the Ukrainian parliament adopted a “non-bloc” resolution in 2010. In 2014 Ukraine was officially a neutral state, and Kyiv did not have any intention to join NATO. But this clearly didn’t diminish Putin’s ambitions to divide and rule Ukraine. Russia went ahead with its military aggression and annexed Crimea. These events proved that “neutrality” is simply a de facto codeword for Ukraine becoming subordinate to the Kremlin and losing its sovereignty.
Thankfully, unlike last year’s decision to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan, which was largely seen as a betrayal of the Afghan people, the Biden administration is leading with a proactive foreign policy that attempts to protect Ukraine from Russian aggression. The U.S. invested more than $400 million in military aid for Ukraine in 2021 and has sent about $2.5 billion in assistance to the country since 2014. In conjunction with extensive diplomatic attempts to change Russia’s calculus without making any concessions, the U.S. is giving political and military support to Kyiv.
At a time when Vladimir Putin publicly acknowledges that he does not recognize Ukrainian sovereignty, this is the only morally and politically correct response to the crisis. By continuing to supply Ukraine with lethal and defensive weapons systems—while enacting heavy sanctions on Moscow—the U.S. can increase the penalty for Russian military incursion and enhance Ukraine’s deterrence. In contrast to the 2008 war, this time Putin will know that the costs will be heavy if he decides to invade. This may force the Kremlin to think twice before launching an assault.
Ukraine’s battle is against authoritarianism, and its fate is directly linked with the future of the European security order. Russia is directly threatening NATO’s “open door” policy found in Article 10 of the Alliance’s founding treaty. It is both the US’s duty—and in its interests—to uphold and defend the principles that have played an essential role in establishing peace and security in the post-Cold War era.
Abandoning Ukraine when a Russian military incursion seems imminent would mean admitting that Vladimir Putin’s regime can expand its sphere of influence. This would be the ultimate betrayal of the Ukrainian people, who are fighting to exercise their sovereign right to be part of the Western democratic world. Ukrainians are ready to defend their country. The West should help them in this noble fight.
Natia Seskuria is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).