The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Slinking away from aiding Ukraine would be a major strategic error

The U.S. Capitol, Nov. 29. (Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post)
4 min

The first major war on European soil of the 21st century has raged since Feb. 24 without drawing Americans into combat, and the likelihood of American bloodshed remains vanishingly small. It is, however, still possible for the United States to go AWOL — absent without leave — from this century-shaping conflict.

Some members of Congress from both parties seem inclined to pick “now” and “Ukraine” as the time and place to practice parsimony. Some are saying that the United States cannot afford to continue supplying Ukraine with the means of national survival and of further diminishing Russia. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), perhaps the next House speaker, has spoken sternly of not providing Ukraine a “blank check” — a tendentious phrase that establishes McCarthy as (in a phrase William F. Buckley employed) “a pyromaniac in a field of straw men.”

U.S. aid for Ukraine — military, humanitarian and economic — has totaled about $68 billion, a bit more than the $60.4 billion Americans spent on video games in 2021. The Biden administration’s Nov. 15 request would bring the U.S. total to $105.5 billion. This is about one-eighteenth of what Congress voted to scatter in 2021 in just one bill for relief from a receding pandemic and to stimulate an economy careening into inflation.

While some in Congress contemplate penny-wise-and-pound-foolish economizing at Ukraine’s expense, Ukrainians are dying, freezing, starving, enduring torture and the targeting of civilians, and seeing their children kidnapped to Russia. Ukraine has served U.S. interests by revealing Russia to be a Potemkin nation, a disheveled exterior hiding a threadbare interior. The desire to slink away from assisting Ukraine’s fight for freedom might be found among those who call themselves the House Freedom Caucus and who talk about making America great again.

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What many Americans usually want in the way of foreign policy is as little of it as possible. Of course many voters, when asked, look askance at anything resembling foreign aid for anyone for any reason. But when voters are not prompted by being asked, they probably never think about a sum that resembles a rounding error on a $5.8 trillion federal budget.

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Certainly some Americans think of the struggle between Ukraine and Russia as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” That was the description of the German-Czechoslovakia crisis, three days before the Munich capitulation, by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who soon afterward learned a lot about those people.

In Henry Kissinger’s latest book, “Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy” — at age 99 and publishing his 19th book, he is a reproach to everyone less industrious, meaning: everyone — he says: “If Ukraine were to join NATO, the security line between Russia and Europe would be placed within 300 miles of Moscow — in effect eliminating the historic buffer which saved Russia when France and Germany sought to occupy it in successive centuries.” But speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Kissinger has said that, given Russia’s criminal savagery since February, “one way or the other, formally or not, Ukraine has to be treated in the aftermath of this as a member of NATO.”

So, whatever Congress now does regarding Ukraine, members will be doing it to what someday will be, geographically, the largest nation in the European Union and a nation indistinguishable, as a practical matter, from a NATO member.

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Rob Johnson of Oxford University, writing in Parameters, the quarterly journal of the U.S. Army War College, reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army has branded Ukrainians with swastikas, has run over injured civilians, has thrown grenades into basements where civilians were sheltering and has raped girls as young as 10. He says Putin’s failure to quickly (he planned on two days) decapitate Ukraine’s government, as the Soviet Union did in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979, has driven him to tactics he employed in Syria — indiscriminate urban destruction.

Antulio J. Echevarria II, editor in chief of the U.S. Army War College Press, also writing in Parameters, notes that Putin’s war against Ukraine is partially explained by two things that are supposed to account for the declining frequency of major wars: the growth of multilateral institutions and the spread of democratic values. Putin sees one such institution, NATO, and Ukraine’s democratic values as threats. A third factor that supposedly inhibits would-be aggressors — one that encompasses international law and the law of armed conflicts and norms against barbarism — has had no effect on Putin.

So, Congress should understand that Ukraine’s success in this major war could be crucial to resuming the decline in the incidence of such wars. Certainly Beijing, salivating for Taiwan, is watching for signs of U.S. wobbliness regarding Ukraine.