By Herman Pirchner Jr.
December 4, 2023
Since the start of the latest Israel-Hamas war, coverage of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has virtually disappeared from the front pages and day-to-day thoughts of many. For some, it is almost as if that struggle has ceased.
Yet the fight rages on. British estimates of Russian casualties stand at a staggering 900 a day. (Ukrainian losses are far lower, although they are arguably more significant since they still represent a greater percentage of that country’s much smaller population.)
Adding to Ukraine’s suffering, international observers continue to document the Russian war crimes committed in occupied Ukrainian territory — a figure that surely numbers in the thousands. They include murder, torture, rape, and the involuntary relocation to Russia of an estimated 200,000 Ukrainian children.
This is, of course, why international polling consistently shows that something like 90% of Ukrainians are unwilling to trade peace for land. For them, peace is simply not possible without the full return of the Russian-occupied territories.
To put it another way, Ukrainians do not want to doom their children and grandchildren to Moscow’s rule. This is so for good reason: Even if no war crimes were being committed against Ukrainians, life under Russian occupation would be grim.
There would be, as there is now, repression of non-Russian Orthodox confessions. Russian Orthodox churches are exempt because they are under the control of KGB successor organizations, which in the Soviet era enhanced the control widely practiced under the czars. In that tradition, Russian agents within the Russian Orthodox Church have been arrested by Kyiv since the start of the war for aiding the Russian war effort.
In addition, the creation of modern-day gulags in occupied east Ukraine and the jailing of those in Russia who make even the slightest criticism of Russian policy are omens.
Even more bone-chilling is a paper allegedly issued by four prominent advisers to Russian President Vladimir Putin calling for Russia’s approach to Ukraine to include “ideological processing of the GDR style (East German Stasi style) and the displacement of nationalist elements” and the destruction of its “transport, energy, industrial infrastructure” — policies that would be designed to turn Ukraine “into an agrarian outskirt.”
Looking at these grim alternatives, it is not hard to see why the Ukrainians fight.
To be sure, the outcome of the war is not certain. But Ukrainians think that if they are properly armed, they will prevail. It is incumbent upon the U.S. to make sure they are able to do so.
This is not just because of the clear moral reasons to oppose Russia’s unprovoked aggression. It is also the case because any Russian gains made through the repeated use of nuclear blackmail and war crimes, combined with the lack of Western resolve, are likely to embolden other U.S. adversaries such as China, Iran and North Korea to advance their own territorial ambitions by force.
As for Russia itself, an irresolute Western response guarantees that after this war, Russia will likely be emboldened to wage other wars to secure more territory that it covets. That’s the fear of Russia’s increasingly nervous neighbors, such as Latvia, whose president, Edgars Rinkevics, has warned that “Russia is dreaming about restoring the Russian Empire not only with an eye to controlling the Baltic States, Moldova or Kazakhstan but also when it comes to Finland.”
They are right to be concerned. Top Russian officials have repeatedly signaled their designs on adjoining territories. Indeed, Dmitri Medvedev, Mr. Putin’s longest-serving top aide, former prime minister and current deputy chairman of Russia’s National Security Council, has announced in the past that Russia will treat Poland “as a historical enemy” and referred to the Baltic States as Russian “provinces.”
Of course, Russian officials have often said such things, and some might take comfort in the idea that the Kremlin will likely be too weak to even attempt further aggression.
The same, it should be said, was thought of a disarmed Germany after World War I and of a greatly weakened Soviet Union after its 1920 peace settlement with Poland. Yet less than two decades later, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, then allies, began World War II with a joint invasion of Poland.
The history should be instructive. Giving Ukraine what it needs now may be costly. But the costs of not helping are likely to be much greater still.
Herman Pirchner Jr. is president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.