Two days before the Russian invasion of his country, on Feb. 22, 2022, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was welcomed to the White House. As he greeted President Biden and senior administration officials, Mr. Kuleba later recalled, he felt like a patient surrounded by doctors presenting him with a diagnosis of stage-four cancer.
The consensus among the U.S. and its European allies was that there was nothing they could do to prevent the inevitable. Their intelligence services predicted a Russian takeover of Kyiv and a collapse of the Ukrainian state within days. The U.S. by then had already closed down its embassy and evacuated all American personnel.
The Western military supplies that had been shipped to Kyiv in previous weeks, such as Javelin antitank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, were the kind of arms that small bands of Ukrainians would need for an insurgency after the Russian occupation. Ukraine’s requests for the heavy weapons that it needed to wage a conventional war to prevent such an occupation had been turned down.
Ukraine was not completely on its own, of course, and the U.S. was already laying the groundwork for serious economic sanctions on Russia. But Western engagement was carefully calibrated—and designed to avoid any appearance that the Western alliance had tried and failed to avert the downfall of Ukraine by military means.
A year later, the war in Ukraine has become, to a large extent, the West’s own. True, no American or NATO soldiers are fighting and dying on Ukrainian soil. But the U.S., its European allies and Canada have now sent some $120 billion in weapons and other aid to Ukraine, with new, more advanced military supplies on the way. If this monumental effort fails to thwart President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions, the setback would not only undermine American credibility on the world stage but also raise difficult questions about the future of the Western alliance.
“In many ways, we’re all-in, and we’re all-in because the realization has dawned in Europe that showing weakness to President Putin, showing no response to his atrocities, only invites him to go further and further,” said Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, a Dutch politician and member of parliament. “We have also realized that it is not only the safety and security of Ukraine that is at stake but also our own.”
The Russian military’s mixture of unexpected ineptitude and shocking cruelty has pulled the U.S. and allies deeper and deeper into the conflict. With one self-imposed constraint falling after another, Western goals have gradually moved from preventing the obliteration of Ukraine to supporting its military victory over Russia. It’s a more ambitious commitment that carries much higher risks—but also strategic rewards—for the Western alliance.
By repelling the initial Russian onslaught, the Ukrainians have punctured the myth of Russia’s military invincibility and proved that helping Ukraine isn’t a quixotic endeavor. Just as importantly, the horrors inflicted by Russian troops in Bucha, Mariupol, Izyum and other parts of Ukraine have jolted public opinion in North America and Europe, spurring heretofore reluctant governments into action.
“Nobody thought the Russians would start a medieval war in the 21st century,” said Sen. James Risch, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “This conflict is going to change the face of Europe as much as World War II did.” [Continue reading…]