As has happened so many times before in European history, an aggressor’s bombs, missiles and tanks are wreaking horror and havoc on a weaker neighbor. The toll of killed and wounded is rising; fleeing civilians are clogging highways. This time, the victim is Ukraine, a member state of the United Nations inhabited by more than 43 million people. The perpetrator is Russia, whose repressive ruler, President Vladimir Putin, insists — contrary to black-letter international law — that Ukraine has no sovereign rights he is bound to respect. Once again, civilized life in this strategically vital continent is being overwhelmed by blood and fire. The conflict may be contained — for the moment — in Europe’s eastern reaches. But Russia’s war could all too easily spread, with destabilizing repercussions worldwide. And once again, the United States is called upon to respond.
The United States has no mutual defense treaty with Ukraine and, thus, no legal or prudential obligation to protect it militarily. Many Americans may wish, instinctively and understandably, not to get involved in a European war, even indirectly, by levying sanctions on the aggressor, Russia. Such measures could trigger disruptions in energy and financial markets, creating costs for people in the United States, when we already suffer from problems ranging from a pandemic to inflation to racial injustice. Certainly, this country, its service members — and their families — paid a high price, financial and human, in, and for, Middle Eastern wars that ended without clear victory. President Biden must keep his promise to limit the pain to his own people.
And yet, as an encouragingly bipartisan range of members of Congress advocated Thursday, Mr. Biden can and must counter Mr. Putin robustly, even at some risk to the United States and allied nations, which are also isolating Russia economically and diplomatically. This country has a stake in the peace and stability of Europe, a continent of nearly 750 million people that is anything but peripheral: Americans share with it a long-standing commitment to democracy, innumerable familial ties and more than $1 trillion in annual commerce, upon which millions of jobs depend.
Preventing this continent from falling under the sway of a hostile hegemon — as it almost did in 1914, 1939 and during the Cold War — has been a vital U.S. interest for decades. This is the vital interest for which the United States invested in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other institutions. And it is precisely the vital interest that unchecked Russian aggression would sooner or later undermine, with, as Mr. Biden declared Thursday, “consequences for America [that] would be much worse.” Indeed, the consequences could be more damaging and more lasting than any turmoil stemming from the economic sanctions, limited troop deployments and other measures Mr. Biden has announced, including a new package Thursday that will freeze Russian bank assets in the United States and curtail Russian access to high-tech imports.
Deterrence, to be sure, has failed; the roar of explosives across Ukraine proves that. Raising the costs to Mr. Putin of this adventure may still have an impact, but not unless those costs are truly punishing to Russia’s economy and to the business oligarchs who dominate it in corrupt collaboration with the Russian president. The immediate and long-term impact of the sanctions Mr. Biden added Thursday could be substantial; the mere threat of them caused Russia’s currency, the ruble, to plunge in value. Russia’s crucial revenue source, the oil and gas industry, retained access to the Brussels-based SWIFT interbank payment facilitation system. Key European allies, without whom there could be no SWIFT ban, objected to expelling Russia from the system, a move that would have potential blowback against Western economies themselves. Mr. Biden says the bank asset freezes will offset this omission, and there is a plausible case that he’s right. Meanwhile, SWIFT cancellation should remain an option and he should buttress the message of resolve sent by troop deployments to NATO’s eastern flank with a request for a supplemental defense appropriation from Congress.
“Security,” “territorial integrity” and “international law” are buzzwords — abstractions. In practical human terms, however, they connote something precious: time and space for people and nations to develop freely. That includes the people of Russia, whose legitimate security concerns the United States does not threaten and has offered to discuss. Thousands of them courageously took to the streets to protest Mr. Putin’s war, an astonishing sign that his propaganda has not conquered all Russian hearts and minds. In the three decades that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the transatlantic community may have taken peace and freedom for granted. Now comes Mr. Putin, a former mid-level intelligence official of that vanished empire, who still bitterly laments its passing, to explode Western complacency. In his characteristic manner, he claims, grotesquely, that Russia must make war on Ukraine because it threatens Russia, when his real ambition is imperial restoration and his real fear is that a neighbor’s exemplary democratic success would undermine his own kleptocratic rule.
He must not get away with it. If the United States — firmly, calmly and in concert with like-minded nations — stands with Ukraine, there is a chance he won’t.