The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The crisis over Ukraine is far from over. Some lessons are clear already.

Ukrainian service members patrol along the border fence in Senkivka, Ukraine, on Feb. 14. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Another tense weekend has come and gone in Europe, with Russian troops menacingly massed on Ukraine’s border — fortunately still on the Russian (and Belarusian) side. Hope for some sort of diplomatic escape from war is dying, but not yet dead. A central figure in the drama, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, visited Kyiv Monday and was scheduled to go to Moscow Tuesday. On the eve of his trip, Moscow released video of the Russian foreign minister telling President Vladimir Putin that diplomacy is “not exhausted.”

Whether Mr. Putin does find a face-saving way to stand down or — as seems more likely — orders the bloody military assault of which the Biden administration has warned, this crisis has already taught the United States and its allies around the world certain lessons. It’s not too early to acknowledge them, and to prepare the corresponding actions.

The overarching lesson is that democracy’s survival is intertwined with geopolitics. This is true because of the simple fact, demonstrated over and over again in the 20th century, that democratic principles do not flourish in the abstract; they must be institutionalized in secure territorial space. That is the answer to those who ask what interest the United States has in Ukraine: It is our interest in preventing a forcible anti-democratic takeover of that large space, and its population, thus setting a precedent for the intimidation or takeover of others. Yes, democracy does begin at home, and U.S. democracy needs domestic reform and strengthening; what’s also needed, though, is a critical mass of like-minded nations. Too many have already succumbed to internal decay or outside pressure.

No matter how much the Biden administration might want to pivot to Asia and focus resources on a contest with China, the world’s other powers cannot be depended on to accommodate that. The Atlantic alliance, buttressed by new partners in the Indo-Pacific region, remains necessary and appropriate in the 21st century. Mr. Putin gripes that he must make military threats to counter NATO expansion. This is mostly propaganda to justify the new Russian empire, based in anti-democratic ideology that he has been pursuing for years. The best answer is alliance cohesion. And to a remarkable extent, that is what the Biden administration has achieved, forging a consensus for supporting Ukraine and punishing a Russian invasion with sanctions, despite the U.S. president’s own verbal miscues and the inevitable attempts at autonomous diplomacy by European allies.

In fact, it’s quite possible that Mr. Putin may trigger the very result he purports to prevent — greater NATO expansion — as previously neutral countries such as Finland and Sweden join. It would be even better if a current member — Germany — takes this situation as its cue to ramp up defense spending, which still falls short of NATO targets. German energy dependence on Russia has also been exposed for what it is — inconsistent and unsustainable — and Berlin must adjust. All democracies, in fact, should subject their climate policies to geopolitical vetting, ensuring that the green transition does not create short-term reliance on oil and gas from autocracies.

Mr. Putin has taught the world that hard power — coercion — still matters. In fact, he believes it is all that matters. He’s wrong about that, though. U.S. foreign policy must prove it.

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