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Opinion If Putin is allowed to invade Ukraine, America’s credibility would lie in tatters

Volunteers and veterans with the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces check weapons and magazines during a training session at an abandoned youth center on Feb. 5 in the outskirts of Kyiv. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

A new Politico-Morning Consult poll shows most Americans support the people of Ukraine in the face of Russia’s aggression. 63 percent want to impose crippling sanctions on Russia if Vladimir Putin invades; 58 percent support allowing Ukraine to apply for NATO membership; 49 percent say NATO should not stop Ukraine from joining the alliance to prevent a Russian invasion; and 48 percent support sending U.S. troops to Eastern Europe to bolster NATO allies in the region.

Only small minorities oppose most of these policies. But a significant number of Americans tell pollsters they are just not sure what to think. Many understandably wonder: Why is this the United States’ problem? It’s a fair question. And the answer is: Because if the United States allows Russia to invade and overthrow a European democracy, the consequences of our inaction would reverberate across the globe.

China is watching. If Putin can invade Ukraine, Taiwan may be next. In October, following President Biden’s disastrous August retreat from Afghanistan, China flew a record number of fighters and bombers into Taiwan’s air defense zone — the largest Chinese air force incursion ever against Taiwan. A few weeks ago, as Putin massed forces along Ukraine’s border, China made another major incursion. If the United States fails to deter Russia less than a year after surrendering in Afghanistan, Beijing may calculate that it has a short window of weak U.S. presidential leadership to invade and crush Taiwan’s democracy. The result could be a war in the Pacific.

North Korea and Iran are watching as well. If Putin invades, both countries will have every incentive to accelerate their development of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. They both know that after the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine inherited an arsenal of nearly 2,000 strategic nuclear weapons. But in December 1994, the United States brokered an agreement called the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances in which Ukraine agreed to give up those weapons along with its intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers. In exchange, Russia pledged to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine,” while the United States and Britain promised “to provide assistance to Ukraine … if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression.”

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In 2014, Russia violated that agreement when it invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. Now, Putin is threatening to finish the job. If he is allowed to do so, no nation will ever give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for U.S. security assurances again. To the contrary, the lesson from Pyongyang to Tehran will be that the only path to security is to develop and deploy nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them.

This could spark a global arms race. Saudi Arabia has pledged to develop its own nuclear arsenal if Iran becomes a nuclear power. Indeed, Amos Yadlin, former head of Israeli military intelligence, has warned that “the Saudis will not wait one month” to go nuclear. Other countries could follow suit. Nuclear nonproliferation as we know it would be dead.

And United States’ credibility would lie in tatters — as would the credibility of NATO. The transatlantic alliance is already reeling from Biden’s debacle in Afghanistan. But the founding purpose of NATO was to deter Russian aggression in Europe. If allies can’t agree to take steps necessary to do that, then it’s fair to ask: Why does NATO still exist?

The consequences of NATO’s failure to deter Russia would resound across every alliance. NATO remains the touchstone of the U.S. commitment to its allies around the world. Every U.S. treaty alliance is measured against NATO. There is a reason 17 nations — including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Jordan and Israel — are designated under U.S. law as “Major Non-NATO Allies.” U.S. law also requires that Taiwan be treated as a Major Non-NATO Ally, without formal designation as such. Those commitments will be rendered meaningless if NATO’s credibility is destroyed. The web of U.S. security alliances that has guaranteed peace and stability internationally would be decimated.

Since the end of the Cold War, democratic self-government has spread throughout the world. Of those still living in autocracy, most live in just two countries: China and Russia. It is no coincidence that those are the two countries that pose the greatest threat to peace. The unprecedented expansion of liberty over the past three decades has produced unprecedented prosperity at home and abroad. All of that is at risk if the last remaining autocracies are emboldened by the failure of the world’s democracies to deter their aggression.

That’s why we should care what happens in Ukraine. Standing by and allowing Russia to invade without cost or consequence would project weakness. And when our adversaries believe we are weak, they are more likely to test our resolve — and more likely to miscalculate. And that could have consequences far beyond Kyiv.