By VICTOR RUD
President Biden recently declared in Warsaw that Russia’s war against Ukraine is a test for America and the world. But waning public support for Ukraine aid means that a war that Russia openly, proudly, repeatedly declares as genocidal; the resulting global hunger, energy security, economic angst and societal unrest; and a jackbooted “international order” are not enough to move the mind. That last year’s military aid to Ukraine is comparable to our spending on video games, or is but 10 percent of stolen COVID funding (some by Russia and China), apparently means little.
What, then, do we think China, North Korea and Iran are thinking? Extrapolating from a century of our dealing with the Kremlin, they already see our deterrence credibility in the single digits. It’s not about military capacity but the American electorate’s comprehension, political unity and tenacity of will. And strategic acumen? Our political revolving door, mercantile DNA, low frustration threshold, and our inability to learn from our experience — and hence, to anticipate the future — has been red meat for Russia’s Vladimir Putin and other tyrants. It’s a desiccated record on both counts.
Last year Russian TV intoned, “The existence of Ukraine harms peace and security in Europe even more than American imperialism.” That’s code for Ukraine as the core postulate in Russia’s total warfare doctrine against America. It goes back at least to 1997. That was two years before Putin became president. With his ascendancy, we were befogged. “I think we can do a lot of good with him,” was President Clinton’s take at the time. “Very straightforward and trustworthy,” President Bush enthused. And Ukraine? An annoyance to world leaders. For decades we looked the other way, also in Moldova, Chechnya and Syria. “Stop Blaming Putin and Start Helping Him” was a Russia expert’s 2004 op-ed.
After World War I, Ukraine became the first victim of communist aggression. We denied Ukraine’s independence, dismissed its warnings about Russia, and excluded it from Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Generations later, we again sought to derail Ukraine’s independence and to preserve the USSR intact. Ukraine’s independence in 1991 set the tombstone for the USSR, halted America’s strategic retreat and recouped for America a global pre-eminence that we hadn’t seen since World War II. It also stopped the hemorrhaging of an estimated $13 trillion spent on the Cold War, which we unabashedly celebrated “winning.” Three decades later, many remain immunized against absorbing the consequences of a Kremlin clawback of the nation that “made America great again.”
Ukraine is battling the Kremlin that catalyzed Islamic terrorism against America. Two successive airplane crashes into the White House was a Russian Spetsnaz scenario. Ten years later, after his sojourn in Russia’s Dagestan region, Ayman al-Zawahiri left for Afghanistan to plot 9/11 as
Osama bin Laden’s lieutenant. Dagestan was also the base for the two Boston marathon bombers. Our two-decade war on terror cost us another $8 trillion. Are we so oblivious that we’re not connecting the dots?
In 1993, a young U.S. Navy lieutenant warned: “Regenerating Russia as the superpower successor to the Soviet Union will be a threat to the security of Ukraine and Europe. The United States will have assisted in creating a regime that is a serious threat to the democratic community of states. Were Russia to embark on a campaign to reconstitute, what options would the West have? Ukraine provides the United States with a potential regional counterweight to Russian territorial expansion.”
The next year, we required that Ukraine surrender its nuclear arsenal to Russia, in exchange for “security assurances.” It also imploded a massive nuclear industrial base that included the USSR’s largest intercontinental ballistic missile plant. Add to it our destruction of much of Ukraine’s conventional weaponry. “For the safety of the Ukrainian people,” said then-Sen. Barack Obama. Our assistant secretary of Defense intoned at the time that this would make Ukraine secure. Putin demurred, “If you have the Bomb, no one will touch you,” and invaded Ukraine the next year. Think that through for North Korea and Iran.
Ukraine is a founding member of the United Nations and recognized by the world. Taiwan is recognized by but a few countries — Tuvalu, population 10,000, for example. The U.S. withdrew recognition of Taiwan generations ago. Russia has occupied Ukraine’s territorial waters and rights to the Black Sea equaling the area of South Korea. If Ukraine’s territorial and maritime integrity isn’t recovered, China’s self-assurance about Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific region will rocket to arrogant and catastrophic certainty.
In 1932-1933, Moscow broke the back of Ukraine’s resistance by starving the nation. Rafael Lemkin, the father of the U.N. Genocide Convention, condemned the Holodomor and also the focused elimination of the nation’s intellectual, cultural and religious strata as “classic genocide.” Suppression of Ukraine guaranteed the USSR’s viability for generations, with near cataclysmic results for the world. Even after WWII, the U.S., together with Great Britain, implemented “Operation Keelhaul,” the forced repatriation in post-war Europe of hundreds of thousands of Holodomor survivors — the “truth tellers” — back to the Soviet Union and a cruel death.
Capitalism lapped national security as we simultaneously extended diplomatic recognition to the genocidal regime. We legitimized the state that declared a global war against capitalist America, promptly providing it with the capital and technology to do so. (Our strategic aphasia continued with China.) Today, Russia’s calls for another genocide of Ukrainians are vitriolic, the technologies of American business imbedded in Russian weaponry.
The 20th century was the battle for a “rule-based international order.” Foreign lands must not be occupied or annexed. We fought the wars to make sure that we were not. No nation paid a higher price for that “order” than Ukraine, suffering greater losses in WWII than any other. No surprise, given that Nazi Germany’s purpose for WWII in Europe was the occupation and colonization of Ukraine. It would be an execrable hypocrisy if the country that paid the highest cost were exempted from that order. A few days ago, Harvard’s Graham Allison opined that a divided Germany scenario in Ukraine was implicitly good. What of the UN Charter, the Helsinki Accords, the Budapest Memorandum, ad infinitum?
In Serbia, NATO flew nearly 30,000 sorties and in 78 days stopped the slaughter. Fifty-one NATO and allied nations (including Ukraine) joined us in Afghanistan. Ukraine has been battling alone since 2014 — an invasion, annexation and ongoing occupation that we countered with furrowed brow and sonorous cliches. Our capitulation in Geneva in 2021 to the “Minsk process” trashed the “international order,” a green light for Putin’s invasion on Feb. 24, 2022.
Finally stirred from our torpor, we’ve thrown an invaluable lifeline to Ukraine and bought some time. But not for long, as we continue with the pipette titration of aid, braked by Putin’s nuclear histrionics. Having been so feloniously wrong about the Kremlin for generations, what is the basis for our confidence that now our approach is the more prudent one? Beijing, Pyongyang and Teheran see our forswearing key aid as proof that nuclear blackmail works. That means a nuclear free-for-all that would shower glowing cinders. That’s arson, not prudence.
Our lifeline for Ukraine is also a lifeline for ourselves — to redeem an infamy, recover strategic sobriety, secure our global deterrence credibility, and to prove the tyrants wrong.
Victor Rud is the past chairman of the Ukrainian American Bar Association and now chairs its Committee on Foreign Affairs. He is a senior adviser to Open Ukraine, a nongovernmental organization in Ukraine, and the senior adviser to the Centre for Eastern European Democracy in Toronto. The opinions expressed here are his alone.