The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion To counter Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, look to Ronald Reagan

President Ronald Reagan shakes hands with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986. (Ron Edmonds/AP)
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RANCHO DEL CIELO, Calif. — Arriving at the Reagan Ranch in California’s Santa Ynez mountains is like stepping back in time to the 1980s. The 40th president’s Western White House is privately owned by the Young America’s Foundation, which invites high school and college students to visit and learn about the Reagan legacy. There are no exhibits or velvet ropes. Everything remains as it was when the Reagans lived here, from Nancy’s handwritten instructions for operating the TV remote to the jar of “Brim” freeze-dried coffee in the kitchen.

Returning to the 1980s feels like a relief at a time when our nation appears to be reliving the 1970s. Inflation is at a 40-year high, the economy is contracting, gas prices are skyrocketing, a U.S. ally has been overthrown by Islamist radicals and an expansionist Russia has invaded one of its neighbors. It’s practically the second coming of the Carter administration. So it’s comforting to be in a place, however briefly, where it is always “Morning in America.”

My visit happened to coincide with that of the late president’s son, Michael Reagan, the longtime conservative radio host and author. He brought his grandchildren — President Reagan’s great-grandchildren — on their first visit to the ranch to bury their cat, Sticky, in the family pet cemetery. I ask Michael what his father would have done about Ukraine. “It would never have happened if he were president,” Michael says. He’s right. Not far from here, at the Reagan presidential library, a Reagan quote is emblazoned on a sign: “We know only too well that war comes not when the forces of freedom are strong, but when they are weak. It is then that tyrants are tempted.”

The weakness of the Biden administration tempted Russian tyrant Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine. So this is a good moment to reflect on some important lessons from Reagan on how to confront and reverse Putin’s unprovoked aggression.

Reagan assumed the presidency in the wake of our withdrawal from Vietnam. Then, as now, Americans had no appetite for sending U.S. troops to fight in distant lands. He needed to figure out a way to roll back Soviet expansionism without committing American ground forces to every global flash point. So, he forged the Reagan Doctrine, which recognized that there were brave men across the world willing to fight their own wars of liberation. Given American weapons, training and intelligence, as well as financial, diplomatic and humanitarian support, they could free their nations from Russian domination. By providing such assistance, Reagan helped freedom fighters from Central America to South Asia unshackle their countries from the grip of an expansionist Russia. He also worked with Pope John Paul II to funnel millions of dollars to the Solidarity movement in Poland, laying the groundwork for that country’s liberation from Soviet domination.

Now, in Ukraine, a new generation of freedom fighters is defending their land from Russian expansionism. For months, President Biden slow-rolled arms shipments to Kyiv, terrified that stronger U.S. support would be “provocative” and could cause “World War III.” As Putin’s forces committed unspeakable atrocities against Ukrainian civilians, President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded for arms, asking: “What is NATO doing? Is it being run by Russia?” Only after two months and thousands of unnecessary deaths did Biden agree to provide Ukraine with heavy weapons necessary to roll back Russian forces.

Today, Congress is moving forward with a nearly $40 billion package of military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine that would make Reagan proud. The package passed the House 368 to 57, and the Senate voted 81 to 11 to proceed toward final passage. The good news is that the bill has broad bipartisan support. The bad news is that Reagan’s fellow Republicans made up all the “no” votes. Shamefully, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, one of Reagan’s favorite think tanks, lobbied hard against the aid package, declaring that it “takes money away from the priorities of the American people and recklessly sends our taxpayer dollars to a foreign nation.” This is the same argument the left made against funding the Reagan Doctrine in the 1980s.

In his farewell address to the 1992 GOP convention, Reagan called on his fellow Republicans to reject the “new isolationists” who “insist that our triumph [in the Cold War] is yesterday’s news, part of a past that holds no lessons for the future.” We must never go back, he said, to a world “where our leaders told us that standing up to aggressors was dangerous.”

For many who remember the Reagan years, those words still ring true. We have muscle memory from the Cold War. A Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that majorities of those 40-and-older support increasing military aid to Ukraine. But just 38 percent of young Republicans, who grew up in the post-Cold War era, support boosting military aid, and 52 percent are opposed. Which means the Young America's Foundation has its work cut out reminding a new generation that, in Reagan’s words, “a violation of human rights anywhere is the business of free people everywhere.” Bring them here to the Reagan Ranch.