What’s at stake for the world in Ukraine
Saltivka residential area after the battle of Kharkiv on May 19, 2022

What’s at stake for the world in Ukraine

Amid growing ambivalence over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and wrangling over aid for Ukraine, there’s an echo of something Neville Chamberlain said in the autumn of 1938. As Nazi Germany made territorial demands on Czechoslovakia and the British prime minister prepared to travel to Munich for a peace conference, he described the crisis as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”

Yet there’s one major difference today: After 24 months of war, we know enough about Ukraine and Russia to support one and resist the other.

Russia Let’s start with Russia, for there would be no war – and no need to send military aid to Ukraine – had Russia not invaded Ukraine.

Here’s some of what we know about Vladimir Putin’s Russia:

We know that before Russia launched an all-out invasion with the aim of erasing and absorbing democratic Ukraine (2022), it orchestrated crippling cyberattacks against democratic Estonia (2007), invaded and occupied parts of democratic Georgia (2008), and shut off natural gas bound for Ukraine, Bulgaria, Hungary and Greece – democracies all – in the dead of winter (2009). We know Russia simulated nuclear attacks targeting democratic Poland (2009), violated the INF Treaty (2014), and invaded eastern Ukraine, annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and armed Russian separatists in Ukraine (2014). We know Russia rescued the brutal Assad regime in Syria (2015), carried out a chemical nerve-agent attack in Britain (2018), and harbored, aided and/or abetted organizations that conducted a cyber-siege of America’s energy supply and food supply (2021).

We know that Russia is ruled by a former KGB intelligence officer who masters in the manipulation of truth and the manufacture of alternate reality: As he ordered his army to take Kiev and topple Ukraine’s government 24 months ago, Putin spread the lie that Ukraine was “not a real country,” that Ukraine was “entirely created by Russia,” that Ukraine was governed by “a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis,” that Ukraine was “stockpiling the latest weapons.” More recently, Putin has spun an up-is-down version of history, claiming, “It was they who started the war in 2014. Our goal is to stop this war.”

Fed and fueled by such propaganda, Putin’s army has waged a brutal war of war crimes against Ukraine. An estimated 100,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed during Russia’s war on Ukraine. War-crimes investigators report that Russian military personnel, security forces, intelligence agencies and military contractors have committed 58,000 war crimes in Ukraine. The first of these, it must not be forgotten, is the very way the war started: Both the 2014 assault on Crimea and the 2022 full-scale invasion of the whole of Ukraine constitute a war of aggression by Russia against Ukraine, a sovereign independent country that had neither attacked nor threatened Russia.

However, that’s literally just the beginning of Russia’s war of war crimes. Much of what Russia has perpetrated against Ukraine is too gruesome to describe in this space. But here’s the PG-13 version: We know Russia has abducted 700,000 Ukrainian children and forcibly relocated 1.6 million Ukrainian civilians with the intent of Russifying them and depopulating Ukraine. We know Russia has imprisoned Ukrainian civilians in “filtration camps,” targeted population centers, targeted civilian energy, food and water supplies, and targeted hospitals, schools and places of worship. We know Russian soldiers have tortured and massacred civilians, engaged in mass looting of Ukrainian property and cultural artifacts, desecrated dead combatants, and conducted a campaign of mass rape as part of a “deliberate tactic to dehumanize the victims,” as U.N. officials report.

The irony – obvious to everyone outside the propagandists defending Putin’s war of annihilation – is that by concocting phantom enemies, rewriting history, trying to rebuild a dead empire, waging a war of aggression and engaging in genocide, Putin is the one who’s imitating the Nazis.

Finally, amid its war on Ukraine, we know that Putin’s Russia has issued threats about using nuclear weapons and has moved nuclear weapons into Belarus.

This is the Russia we know.

Ukraine Putin expected a lightning two-day war and the swift installation of a puppet regime. But that didn’t happen. The reason: Ukraine’s leader and Ukraine’s people.

As the Russian army rumbled toward Kiev, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was offered a chance to evacuate. His defiant response – “I need ammunition, not a ride” – galvanized Ukraine. It’s no exaggeration to say that Ukraine remains free because Zelensky remained in Ukraine.

In two years of war, Ukraine’s tenacious and clever defenders have generated 300,000 Russian casualties, destroyed thousands of Russian tanks, hundreds of Russian aircraft and dozens of Russian warships, and liberated 54% of Russian-occupied territory.

How has Ukraine – with a prewar GDP of $153 billion, a prewar army of less than 300,000 personnel and a prewar defense budget of just $5.9 billion against Russia’s $1.7 trillion GDP, 1.4-million-man army and $61.7 billion military budget – achieved these seemingly impossible results? To be sure, support from America and Europe has helped. But that assistance would be worthless without Ukrainian commitment, tenacity and creativity. (Just compare Kiev and Kabul.)

Ukraine’s army of citizen-soldiers didn’t crumble and Ukraine didn’t collapse when Putin unleashed his tanks and missiles. This reality obliterated the very premise of Putin’s war – that Ukraine was an artificial construct, an appendage of Russia.

Instead of surrendering, Ukrainians reconfigured Soviet-era rockets into anti-ship missiles, reengineered Western weapons to fire from Soviet-era warplanes and leveraged digital technologies. Armed with laptops and cellphones, Ukraine’s wireless warriors hacked into Russian government agencies and television stations, weaponized video of Russian war crimes, crowdsourced weapons procurement and used text-messaging to encourage Russian soldiers to surrender. Ukraine’s tech-savvy troops even developed a smartphone app that enables soldiers to order an artillery strike like a civilian would order an Uber, cutting the ordnance-on-target time from 30 minutes to two.

Perhaps most transformative has been Ukraine’s ability to develop and modify unmanned systems – off-the-shelf drones and homebuilt drones that have taken out scores of Russian tanks, 3D printed weapons light enough to air-drop from consumer-use drones but lethal enough to cripple tanks, de-manned speedboats that have enabled a country that basically has no navy to decimate Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, homemade kamikaze-drones that have allowed Kiev to take the fight into Russia. “Ukraine has transformed modern warfare,” concludes Adm. Rob Bauer, head of Norway’s armed forces.

Indeed, for two years Ukraine’s defenders have outwitted, outmaneuvered and outfought Russia’s behemoth military – one of America’s chief adversaries. “We are deterring Russia from destroying us and from destroying you,” Zelensky points out.

This isn’t the first time Ukraine has helped America shoulder the burden of international security. Ukraine contributed troops to peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo, deployed personnel to the NATO-led stabilization force in Afghanistan, and sent units to support the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq, where 18 Ukrainian soldiers were killed.

In short, when the free world has asked for help, Ukraine has stepped forward. This is the Ukraine we know.

Support We know at least one more thing: If Russia stops fighting, the war is over. If Ukraine stops fighting, Ukraine is over. And so Ukraine keeps fighting.

Through these terrible 24 months of war thrust upon Ukraine by Russia, Ukrainians haven’t asked U.S. troops to fight for their country. Yes, Ukraine has asked for weapons to defend itself. Yes, America has sent more aid than any single country. But the EU has sent more total aid to Ukraine. EU nations plus Britain have sent more military aid than the United States. And as the Institute for the Study of War notes, Ukraine’s democratic partners in Asia, Europe and Britain have committed a combined $178 billion to Ukraine – more than America’s overall aid for Ukraine.

Put another way, America’s allies recognize that there’s no room in the free world for free riders. Uncertain and unsure for too long, tired and timid, seemingly worn out and worn down, the free world has been reminded by Russia’s war of aggression and Ukraine’s war of self-defense that freedom is never free, that freedom has real enemies and real costs, that broken men in this broken world aren’t deterred by communiques, commerce or conferences. As President Eisenhower jarringly reminded the free world during the Cold War, “The pact of Munich was a more fell blow to humanity than the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.”

Helping Ukraine isn’t charity. In fact, most U.S. “aid for Ukraine” actually stays in the United States, as it is used to backfill (and modernize) U.S. arms inventories and fund U.S. defense industries.

Nor is helping Ukraine an exercise in wide-eyed idealism. Supporting Ukraine in resisting Putin’s bid to reconstruct the Russian Empire and redraw the map serves U.S. interests. “This is really about our cold, hard national interests,” Gen. David Petraeus explains. “Russia would never stop if they achieved their objectives in Ukraine. Moldova and Lithuania – a NATO member – would be next.”

There’s nothing new or provocative about arming peoples willing to defend themselves. As President Truman argued when Moscow tried to add Greece and Turkey to its empire at the beginning of the Cold War, “It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” And as President Reagan explained at the end of that first struggle against Moscow, “Support for freedom-fighters is self-defense” and “tied to our own security.”

Those statesmen learned from history that unprovoked aggression left unchecked breeds more aggression, that appeasing dictators only whets their appetite, that Chamberlain was wrong, that what happens in “faraway” places can have a terrible impact on the homeland.