Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday, 7 February 2023


The American Case for Supporting Ukraine

The U.S. can back its allies and send a message to the Chinese, without sparking a wider war in Europe.

A destroyed Russian tank with an artwork depicting a dove with an olive branch by famous street artist TvBoy, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in the village of Dmytrivka, outside Kyiv, Ukraine Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)PHOTO: EFREM LUKATSKY/ASSOCIATED PRESS

After years of observing Russian leaders up close during World War II, Winston Churchill remarked that “there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.” Churchill therefore warned against “offering temptations to a trial of strength.”

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what President Biden did in his first year in office, tempting Vladimir Putin to pursue his long-standing ambition to reassemble the Russian Empire by conquering Ukraine. Having failed to deter the war, Mr. Biden’s timid approach has now prolonged it.

Thanks to his failures, some Americans wonder whether we should continue to support Ukraine. But cutting off Ukraine wouldn’t end the war. It would only increase the chances of a Russian victory and harm our interests in deterring wider wars in Europe and Asia.

Mr. Biden appeased Russia from the start, from a no-conditions extension of a one-sided nuclear-arms treaty, to the waiving of sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, to freezing an arms shipment to Ukraine. Then came the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan. This humiliating failure telegraphed weakness and incompetence, and Russia soon massed an invasion force along Ukraine’s border.


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Mr. Biden responded by hinting at disunity in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and suggesting he might tolerate a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine. Convinced of his strength and his enemies’ weakness, Mr. Putin went for the jugular.

The Ukrainians stood their ground and fought. Yet Mr. Biden has dragged his feet all along, hesitating fearfully to send the Ukrainians the weapons and intelligence they need to win. Today, Mr. Biden stubbornly refuses to provide fighter jets, cluster munitions and long-range missiles to Ukraine. As a result of Mr. Biden’s half-measures, Ukraine has only half-succeeded.

We should back Ukraine to the hilt, because the likeliest alternative isn’t peace, but rather another “frozen conflict” that favors Russia and harms our interests. Russia would retain key strategic terrain and much of Ukraine’s industry and agriculture. Food and energy prices would remain high, potentially starving many nations and exacerbating the migrant crisis in the West.

Meanwhile, Russia could rebuild its strength and seize the rest of Ukraine when the opportunity arises. Such an outcome would create millions more Ukrainian refugees, drive inflation higher and worsen supply-chain disruptions. Russia would also extend its border deep into Europe. Next on the chopping block could be Moldova, site of another frozen conflict. And after that, a NATO nation.

Stopping Russia also will allow the U.S. to focus on the greater threat from China. A Russian victory would force us to divert more resources for a longer time to Europe to deter Russian expansionism, creating persistent threats on both fronts. But a Ukrainian victory and a durable peace will secure our European flank as we confront China.

The Chinese dictator, Xi Jinping, is closely watching the war in Ukraine. If the West falters, he will conclude that we will never fight to protect Taiwan. In the 1930s, the West tempted the Axis powers by appeasing naked aggression against small countries like Ethiopia and Czechoslovakia. Some Western politicians may have forgotten the lessons of history, but Mr. Xi hasn’t.

Our support for Ukraine can also save American money and lives in the long run. A sizable portion of our outlays will be spent on replacing the older weapons and materiel we’ve sent to Ukraine with newer equipment for our troops. Along with lessons learned from the Ukrainian battlefield, our military can emerge better equipped, trained and prepared to defeat our adversaries.

War is always expensive, but we must measure the current costs against the greater potential cost of wider war in Europe or Asia. The Ukrainians are fighting their own war, with no American troops engaged in direct combat—which won’t be the case if irresolution in Ukraine tempts our enemies to attack a NATO ally or Taiwan. Had the West retaliated when Germany remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936, that small operation might’ve seemed expensive and risky at the time, but it likely would’ve prevented world war.

History also shows that we can oppose Russian aggression without sparking a wider war. We fought proxy wars against Soviet Russia across the world in the last century. We armed insurgents during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Russians not only armed our enemies in Korea and Vietnam, but also took part in the fighting, shooting down American pilots. These proxy wars were more provocative than anything we’ve done to support Ukraine. In no case did they lead to war between our two countries.

Of course, we must also demand that our allies do their fair share. Hardy nations like the United Kingdom, Poland, and the Baltic states have carried their share of the load, but wealthy laggards such as France and especially Germany must do more. As ever, though, we can’t allow European weakness to constrain American action.

The Ukrainian people are fighting with spirit and resolve, exercising what Churchill called “the primary right of men to die and kill for the land they live in.” Their cause is sympathetic, but the world is a dangerous place and America shouldn’t act out of sympathy alone. We act to protect our vital national interests. That’s the case in Ukraine, and we deserve a strategy of victory to match.

Mr. Cotton, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Arkansas.

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