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Opinion How NATO and the West can up their game on Ukraine — right now

Residents and volunteers prepare a rear post with trenches in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 28. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images)
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Alexander S. Vindman, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and former director for European affairs on the National Security Council, is a doctoral student and senior fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

For a decade, the West has failed to do enough to ensure continued deterrence in the face of Russian aggression. Accounting for this failure means doing more for Ukraine now. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Today.

Ukrainians are valiantly fighting to defend their country from Russian invaders. They have stunned the world with their will to resist. The countries of the West — far too passive initially — have begun to rise to the challenge with increased military aid and crippling sanctions. Such steps are welcome, but they still aren’t enough.

Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin has chosen to threaten the world with Russia’s nuclear arsenal if other countries intervene in his war on Ukraine. Despite Putin’s bluster, however, the rules of great-power competition and confrontation have not changed since the beginning of the Cold War. But we have forgotten how to confront a belligerent, saber-rattling Russia. A previous generation of policymakers would have managed tensions while standing up to intimidation and calling out incendiary rhetoric. In truth, Russian leaders have no interest in a nuclear war or a bilateral conventional conflict that they would certainly lose.

The West has far more room to maneuver than it appears to grasp. Above all, the United States and its allies must be creative and proactive in crafting a broad new strategy for Ukraine to replace decades of failed policy in the region. Successive administrations have mistakenly prioritized engagement with Russia at the expense of regional deterrence, security and stability. Simultaneously, the United States has played down cooperation with sincere and willing partners, such as Ukraine, for fear of derailing the tenuous relationship with Moscow.

For a generation, placating the Kremlin without applying the tools of hard power became standard operating procedure. Now we — and above all Ukrainians — are paying the price for this mistake.

Starting today, however, the United States and its allies can begin forming a special relationship with Ukraine. This partnership could be grounded in the existing NATO-Ukraine Commission — the decision-making body responsible for developing the NATO-Ukraine relationship — and other existing institutions. The cornerstone of this approach would be a new version of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Ukraine’s economy and a 21st-century version of the Lend-Lease Act to support the heroic efforts of Ukrainian soldiers with much-needed lethal aid, including more antitank weapons, powerful air defense systems and unmanned aerial vehicles. UAVs in particular would be capable of striking military targets on Russian and Belarusian territory that are involved in the current offensive, such as cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and Russian aircraft. Meanwhile, a NATO Membership Action Plan should remain on the table for Ukraine, and the West should support Ukraine’s ongoing efforts to integrate with the European Union.

Funding for this bold new venture would need to be orders of magnitude higher than President Biden’s recent pledge of $350 million. The United States should aim to spend billions on security assistance and tens of billions on economic aid. Only help on that scale will have a demonstrable impact.

There is already a historic precedent for this kind of support and assistance. During the Cold War, it was a well-known fact among both Soviet and Western leadership that if one side engaged in an overseas conflict, the other side would funnel materiel aid to oppose their adversary. Proxy wars were the norm, and direct confrontation even occurred occasionally.

Soviet and American fighter pilots engaged in dogfights over the skies of Korea in the 1950s. The U.S.S.R. supported the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, and the United States, in turn, aided the mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War. This awareness of the other side’s activities did not, however, lead to wider bilateral conflict or a nuclear war. And in moments of acute danger, such as the Cuban missile crisis, a willingness to defend critical U.S. interests and values prevented events from spiraling out of control as well as reducing the likelihood of future war.

The doctrine of mutually assured destruction has not disappeared overnight, and as recently as January, the United States and Russia reaffirmed their view that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The United States and its allies still maintain a significant deterrent that Putin will not choose to challenge on a whim; he is not a madman. Shrinking from the moment would only grant a free hand to countries with nuclear weapons to freely escalate at a conventional level without fear of anything beyond sanctions. The proper response to this war is to boost our support for Ukraine militarily and economically.

Now that we’ve woken up, we must decide if we’re willing to learn from the past and change the course of history. We cannot just watch as the Kremlin assails a democratic nation and erodes the foundations of everything the international community has built. The onus is on the West to buttress Ukrainian ferocity on the battlefield using its immense economic resources, diplomatic influence and military power.

Make no mistake, the world is watching. Ukraine is leading. Now, the West must decide whether it has the fortitude to support the Ukrainian people’s fight for freedom.