A Year Later, Ukraine Still Matters

As Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine enters its second year, there’s growing dissent, particularly among the American Right, about our commitment to support Ukraine. No one wants a confrontation with Russia, or to risk another Vietnam.  We have bigger security concerns from China.  Moreover, it’s not as if Ukraine is a flourishing democratic republic.  It's a sputtering one, really.  In 2021, Ukraine was listed as the 122nd least corrupt country (Mexico was the 124th).  A year into the war seems like a good time to review these objections and make a sober analysis on whether it’s worth the billions of dollars we’ve already pledged and will pledge to support Ukraine. 

It’s clear who the good and bad guys are in this war.  If Russia’s evolving casus belli of NATO expansion, Nazis, biolabs, and killer mosquitoes, seem like desperate alibis of a thief, it’s because even some Russians don’t like to face the real reasons for war.  No one actually believed NATO posed a threat to Russia.  The key trigger for Putin is that Ukraine is moving towards a freer societyPutin sees this as harmful to his vision of a revitalized Soviet Union.  Ukraine recently fought not one but two revolutions to oust a Kremlin lackey as president.  They also have free speech, free elections, and a free press.  Freedom and people with autonomy are a threat to Putin’s power.  That’s why he imprisons and poisons businessmen and activists that get too powerful.  If conservatives’ angst against social justice warriors stems from what they perceive as SJWs’ willingness to use slander and obfuscation to silence others’ views, then Putin is a social justice warrior on steroids, using FSB thugs, cruise missiles, and armies.

His army’s efforts to “russify” occupied Ukraine are evidence of this.  As one Russian soldier said to a Ukrainian, “I will beat the Ukrainian out of you.” The kidnappings, mass graves, torture chambers, rapes, and book burnings, all reveal that Ukraine wasn’t a physical threat to Russia, but an ideological one.  Not an ideology that breeds violence, but one that’s in the nascent stage of rejecting obedience to Motherland Russia.  A parallel can be found in history.  In the 1930s, Stalin launched his manmade famine to cleanse Ukraine of everything Ukrainian because of what he saw as pockets of capitalism.  The similarities are uncanny.

The world is better without Russia’s army pillaging Eastern Europe.  All Americans who care about freedom should want to see Russia defeated.  Even with this, is it enough to warrant our lethal and humanitarian aid? There are plenty of injustices in the world.  I don’t believe it’s our job to be the world’s policeman and social worker.  We shouldn’t be moved by pure emotion, even under horrific circumstances.  The question is whether it falls under the responsibility of the American government. 

There are good reasons to believe the chance of direct conflict with Russia rises substantially if Russia wins in Ukraine.  Putin’s ambition has always been to restore Russian greatness he saw associated with the USSR.  All his actions -- centralizing power, the invasion of Georgia, the annexing of Crimea, to name a few -- make sense if you view it through this paradigm.  If Putin swallows Ukraine, it puts Russia in close proximity to former Soviet states, many of which are now members of NATO. If Putin were to attack any of them, it would trigger Article 5 and force the U.S. to respond militarily.  At present, I don’t believe Putin would challenge NATO.  But a lot of that deterrence is dependent on political willpower, which can change rapidly with new administrations.  The only way Putin wins in Ukraine is if the West appeases him -- this would further convince him of the efficacy of brute force.  A freshly appeased Putin, coupled with apologetic leadership, might convince him he can get away with further territorial or political expansion -- just like every other appeased dictator in history. 

If one thing is consistent about Russian history it’s that unprovoked attacks on neighbors seem integral to it.  And if there’s one thing we know about dictators, it is that they need an “other” to fight in order to prevent their downfall, especially when times are tough.  Even if Russia wins, it will not be in good shape.  Feeling the shaky ground; drunk on the hubris of victory; and sensing a fractured West; it seems much more likely Putin turn to his one blunt instrument of force than any fundamental character transformation.  In this world, the European continent seems like a fuse hovering over an open flame.

Short of full-scale war, Russia will undoubtedly canonize nuclear blackmail as a diplomatic tool,  something that Russia state-controlled media already does almost on a nightly basis.  But the difference is if Russia wins in Ukraine, they will come to the conclusion that it actually works, (something that won’t be lost on rogue states like Iran and North Korea).  It is hard not to see Putin taking advantage of this, along with his all too familiar subversive activity.  European countries, freshly wounded, will likely bend. 

This shouldn’t be viewed exclusive of our other major security concern, China.  China would love to replace U.S.-backed international order.  If Ukraine loses, that order is undermined, and the China model looks more attractive to countries around the world.  Almost certainly they will leverage the precarious situation in Europe with their Russian ally to gain opportunities in the Pacific.  This is supported by the fact that China has considered giving lethal aid to Russia.  It makes the likelihood of China invading or blockading Taiwan more likely.  The stakes are much higher when the U.S. and NATO have two major security threats to worry about.  Our resolve will be put severely in question. It is now known that America’s shameful withdrawal of Afghanistan played into Putin’s calculation when deciding to invade Ukraine.  If support for Ukraine folds, it is hard not to imagine Xi won’t come to a similar conclusion.  Conversely, if Russia is defeated, Xi is sent a strong message.

Dissenters that exaggerate the corruption of Ukraine and minimize how bad Russia is don’t have a leg to stand on.  These newly minted fiscal hawks shriek of the deficit when in fact Ukrainian support is costing us a small fraction of the budget.  How much more will we spend over years and decades in the event of a second Cold War?  A small amount to destroy the conventional capabilities of a pariah state, while not placing a single American in harm’s way, seems like a wise investment. 

One lesson that should be learned from the war is how weak authoritarian states are. Over 20% of Russians don’t have running water.  The Russian army has hardly achieved a single major tactical victory.  The only thing standing in the way of complete Ukrainian victory is political will and clear strategic goals.  The valor of the Ukrainian army and its people, armed with the buoyant thought that freedom will never be snuffed out in their country, should steel our resolve.  There is always a risk of escalation.  But as Ronald Reagan said when speaking of the Soviet Union, “every lesson of history suggests the greater risk lies in appeasement.”

Image: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

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