Foreign ministers of virtually every democratic nation in the world and most officials in the Biden administration would say that we should certainly back Ukraine in its struggle to exist as a nation following the barbarism of Russia’s invasion in February of 2022 – an invasion that really began in 2014. What is less certain in Berlin, Paris, Brussels or Washington is whether Ukraine should have its territory that was annexed, beginning in 2014, restored. This despite the 1994 accord underwritten by Ukraine, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S. – the Budapest Memorandum – whose language specified a guarantee of Ukraine’s “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity.”
In much of the Western world, many have not reflected sufficiently on the ramifications of either a Ukrainian or a Russian victory. And in the U.S., a surprising number of social-political “conservatives” question American involvement, even indirectly, in the war. Ukraine, they say, is not an important U.S. security concern. But they are dead wrong, and for reasons that are inescapable.
Despite his courage in publicly countering woke irrationality in his own state of Florida, few will forget Governor Ron DeSantis’ recent statements that downplayed the Russian invasion of Ukraine, suggesting that defending Ukraine is not a national security priority for the U.S. Even fewer might forgive him for his supremely unwise – and erroneous – description of the war in Ukraine as a “territorial dispute.” Perhaps, one wonders, the same might be said of the two Koreas.
Earlier this month, in an essay that appeared in The American Conservative, Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire, argued against American involvement in the ongoing war. Because, in Bandow’s view, “Ukraine appears unlikely to defeat Russia,” because “the war’s costs are horrendous,” with no end to the conflict in sight, and because “supporting the war . . . risks Ukrainian exhaustion and deadlock or defeat,” Washington therefore “should not encourage, let alone empower, Ukraine to fruitlessly fight on,” regardless of how valiantly. Moreover, “[p]rolonging the war risks expansion and escalation involving the U.S.” Ah yes, that old nagging foreign-policy problem of risks in the face of the totalitarian threat (to which we shall return). Perhaps relatively free nations should simply allow Ukraine to disappear and not be bothered with her.
Bandow’s argument rests on ten shaky, if not outright false, assumptions, which together call for a forthright and sober response: Here I quote:
- “Ukraine is not an important, let alone a vital, U.S security concern.”
- “Washington masquerading as an avenging angel is more likely to endanger than protect” American interests.
- The U.S. is “responsible for far more civilian deaths than Moscow in recent years – literally hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Libyans, and Yemenis.”
- “There are humanitarian interests at stake, but no more than in many other conflicts which Washington ignores or sometimes fuels . . .”
- “Washington’s priority should be ending the war” and both “Moscow’s as well as Kiev’s [sic] security concerns.”
- “American policy continues to be dominated by . . . repeated lawless military interventions around the world.”
- Vladimir Putin “has not attempted to reconstitute the Soviet Union.”
- In recent years, “no nation has more often engaged in illegal military action . . . than has America.”
- “Greater U.S. involvement in the Russo-Ukrainian war could further deepen America’s political divisions . . .”
- “[A]bsent the allies actions, he [Putin] almost certainly would not have done so [invaded Ukraine].”
If we leave aside some of the exaggerations, even falsehoods, contained in these statements, we find that this mode of “American conservative” thinking – if we may call it that – mirrors foolishness at multiple levels of foreign policy prescription. Broadly speaking, it denies the nature of the world in which we presently live – a world that is far less free than in the 1990s – and it denies the nature of American responsibilities in that world. In short, it is both a recipe for disaster and an abdication of humane duties by relatively free societies to those who are suffering egregiously. In retrospect, perhaps the Allies really were foolish to allow all that bloodshed in the years 1939-1945, even though there was no guarantee whatsoever of defeating German Nazism. Surely Neville Chamberlain, given his policy of appeasement and his role in the Munich Agreement of 1938 which ceded parts of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, was right in his wish to prevent (or stop) the bloodshed (real or potential), at any and all costs, until his resignation in 1940 – by which time alas Poland, the low countries, and then France had fallen.
Let us be clear about U.S. responsibilities in and to the world. The U.S. cannot police the globe. Nor should it attempt to do such, for no nation or society can perform such a role. Nor should any coalition of nations attempt to do such, for that matter, based on human freedom, the rule of law, and the general constraints of international law. And it is true that American foreign policy has not always, or even often, engendered trust abroad; our recent track record offers ample evidence of this sad fact.
At the same time, unlike perhaps any conflict since the Second World War with the exception of Korea, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forces Americans to reflect on human decency and the deeper meaning of Ukraine. Not until Vladimir Putin’s February 2022 invasion and the crimes against humanity unleashed since then did many of us in the West come to realize the extent to which present-day Ukraine has been shaped by American ideals – for example, the movement toward democracy, civil society, religious liberty, entrepreneurship, and the rule of law. And indeed it was an indication of this general movement, fueled by Putin’s paranoia over NATO, that caused the Russian dictator to invade and annex in 2014. Observing the West’s passivity to that initial encroachment, Putin was naturally emboldened in 2022. Ukraine, in Putin’s deluded thinking, simply has no right to exist, especially given her warming up to the West and desire to be a part of the NATO alliance.
The outcome of the war, as Anne Applebaum and Jeffrey Goldberg write with clarity and precision in the June edition of The Atlantic, will determine the future of Europe. If Russia is allowed to occupy Ukraine, Ukraine will cease to exist, as Putin himself has promised. Moreover, Moldova, which borders Ukraine, will be next. And it is only logical that the three Baltic states that are now members of NATO – Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia – would in time follow. The fact that several former Soviet satellite states are now members of NATO is particularly galling to Putin. The Russian dictator, it needs remembering, has publicly lamented the break-up of the Soviet Union, declaring this collapse to be a “genuine tragedy,” indeed “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [21st] century.”* Is it any wonder that Poland, under the leadership of President Andrzej Duda, has been the most outspoken member of NATO in criticizing Russia and supporting Ukraine in the war effort? One can well imagine how Duda would respond to several of Bandow’s assertions – for example, “Ukraine is not an important, let alone a vital, U.S security concern”; “American policy continues to be dominated by . . . repeated lawless military interventions around the world”; or, Vladimir Putin “has not attempted to reconstitute the Soviet Union.” As Duda and his Eastern European colleagues well know, the Cold War never ceased; it merely went underground.
But something deeper than the delusion of a revived Russian empire – significant as this nightmarish vision might be – is at stake here as well. One might well argue that not merely democracy itself and Ukraine’s future are at stake in the war. Rather, the war concerns how, at the most basic level, we define human civilization and whether we can distinguish between human barbarism and human dignity. As Ukraine’s President Zelensky has framed it, it is a battle “to show everybody else, including Russia,” the absolute need “to respect sovereignty, human rights, [and] territorial integrity; and to respect people, not to kill people, not to rape women, not to kill animals, not to take that which is not yours.” In the words of one mayor in southeastern Ukraine, Ukrainians are “the frontline of the struggle for the civilized world.” This is no exaggeration. Again, we in the U.S. have forgotten our particular responsibilities to Ukraine that resulted from the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. Perhaps with time, we assume that we need not honor these any longer.
Bandow’s essay is titled “Stop Enabling Bloodshed in Ukraine.” Bandow proceeds to write as if it were the U.S. that was responsible for (a) the invasion of Ukraine, (b) the ca. 500,000 dead or wounded thus far, (c) the deportation of ca. 20,000 Ukrainian children to Russian territory, (d) the millions of refugees caused by the Russian invasion, and (e) the untold numbers of war crimes and crimes against humanity that Russian forces have committed. Of course, Bandow doesn’t tell us how the bloodshed is to be stopped (bloodshed for which Vladimir Putin and Russian forces are responsible), but he does infer that Ukraine is unwise – or perhaps unjust? – in refusing to be exterminated and that the U.S. should remove itself from any support of Ukraine.
This policy prescription, alas, will only make the world safe for more totalitarian thuggery, terrorism, and inhumanity. Uniquely, for better or for worse, the U.S. – in concert with its European allies (even a few indolent allies) – has the power to determine the outcome of the war. Will we honor our moral-political commitment, spelled out in the Budapest Memorandum alongside (improbably) Russia itself and the U.K., to guard Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity? Even a cease-fire at this stage would leave large regions of Ukraine’s eastern territory under Russian control – regions that have become, in the words of Applebaum and Goldberg, a veritable “crime scene,” a space “where repression, terror, and human rights violations take place every day.” Is it not justice – and justice alone – to demand that Ukraine retain sovereign control of territory within its internationally recognized borders? Is it not justice that Russia’s leaders conclude the war to have been a mistake? Anything less is to encourage Putin to foment further evil (which is why deterrence is so important).
And is it not the morally right thing to do to require justice for the millions of victims of the war – for millions of refugees, for people who have lost house and home, for people who have lost family members, life, and limb, and for the thousands of children who have been taken from their parents and homes and deported? Who can justify an unjust conclusion to this conflict? And for what demented reasons?
Under the current dictatorship, Russia is the world’s largest terrorist organization. Added to the evil that has visited Ukraine, Russia is the source of aggressive perversion that has encouraged and supported dictatorships and rogue nations around the globe – in South America, in Africa, in the Middle East, and in Asia. While it is a fact that not everyone cares about this war, for those who do find themselves caught in a dictatorship or who worry about its advance, Ukraine is profoundly significant.
Relatedly and finally, it needs reiterating that what happens in Ukraine today will directly influence geopolitical developments in Asia tomorrow. China is watching closely and taking notes, in order to see whether costs or rewards follow Russia’s invasion. And as noted by Roger Wicker, the senior Republican member of the Armed Services Committee, “Our Indo-Pacific allies are also watching closely – even helping in Ukraine.” In the view of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, “Ukraine today could be Asia tomorrow.” Assuredly, the Russo-Chinese “friendship” is critical to any plans that China has for an invasion of Taiwan. George Weigel has stated the truth plainly: “Rebuffing Putin’s aggression and sustaining Ukrainian sovereignty will make the world, and Americans, safer, while demonstrating to China that the mature democracies that are the backbone of a decent global order have not decayed into fecklessness.” Can we in the degenerate and self-absorbed West – can we in the U.S. – recognize the “day of visitation,” and hence the moral significance of Ukraine? Perhaps . . . unless, of course, a certain brand of “American conservativism” blinds us to our moral obligations. Ukraine’s fate, most assuredly, will determine the West’s – and America’s – authority in the world. Of that, we can be certain.
*These words appear, for example, in his annual state of the nation address in April of 2005.