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Ukraine Is Redefining America’s Interests


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Interesting essay on the historical implications of this war.


If this conflict is a new cold war, it’s one that the autocracies have been pursuing energetically and the democracies have been loath to accept.

By George Packer

In the short six months between the fall of Kabul and the invasion of Ukraine, the triumph of one idea was eclipsed by the appearance of another. The wars that followed 9/11 ended for Americans on August 31, 2021. They ended with relief and bitterness and the sense that the United States would now have to learn restraint—that we lacked the ability, the will, and the means to involve ourselves in the affairs of other countries. Pax Americana was over, and so was the 20 Years’ War, and now it was time to turn inward and address our own considerable problems. After all, who were we, with our political rot, our social conflicts, and our COVID disaster, to act as a leader of anything to anyone?

This view was widespread across the political firmament. The progressive version leaned pacifist, the reactionary version was nationalist, and in the center a new “realism”—a hungover awareness of limits—prevailed. This realism reminded bruised, exhausted Americans that our national interests should be narrowly defined, and that other great powers, including Russia, have interests of their own that need to be respected.

The Biden administration embraced this realism before America had finished withdrawing from Afghanistan. It seemed to believe that the U.S. would leave nothing behind there except the debris of two decades of failure—and so it neglected to ensure that the Afghans who’d allied themselves with the American project in their country would have any kind of future anywhere. The relatively open, outward-looking society that had grown up during the American war among younger Afghans in the cities, with its lively press and civic activism and new freedoms for women and girls, was abandoned with barely a second thought.

The failure in Kabul showed that the new realists didn’t understand what our national interests actually were. It took Vladimir Putin to explain them.

In giving the order to invade Ukraine, Putin made nonsense of a raft of apologists who had, until the last hour, continued to believe that Russia could be satisfied with concessions, that it was acting out of “legitimate security concerns.” Putin didn’t start this war because of NATO expansion, or American imperialism, or Western weakness, or the defense of Christian civilization, or any other cause that directs blame away from the perpetrator. In 2014, Ukrainians staged what they called a “Revolution of Dignity” in Kyiv, and they’ve been struggling ever since to create a decent country, ruled by laws and not by thieves, free of Russia’s grip. That country was so intolerable to Putin that he decided to destroy it.

In 2016, in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, President Barack Obama took the realist view of the conflict in Ukraine: “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.” He added, “This is an example of where we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for.” Obama was right not to go to war with Russia in 2014 when Putin annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine; and it would be equally disastrous for the U.S. to stumble into direct military conflict with Russia today. But if the front line between democracy and autocracy is a core interest of the United States, Obama should have concluded that the survival of Ukraine’s government was worth defending with American arms, harsh sanctions, and the international isolation of Russia’s rulers.

Obama’s successor took the Russian side of the conflict. President Donald Trump was willing to see pro-Russian kleptocrats return to power in Ukraine because they served his corrupt political ends, and because he and his followers despise liberal democracy and admire naked “strength,” especially when it’s exercised to break rules and heads. It was no accident that Trump’s first impeachment had its origins in Ukraine, with his attempt to blackmail President Volodymyr Zelensky to obtain political favors. The two countries are entangled, not just because of the war with Russia but because Ukraine is where the battle for democracy’s survival is most urgent. The fate of democracy here turns out to be connected to its fate there. Putin understands this far better than we do, which explains his dogged efforts to exploit the fractures in American society and further the institutional decay, and his use of Russian-backed corruption in Ukraine to corrupt politics in America. The West’s years long underestimation of his intentions and the stakes in Ukraine showed a failure of understanding and a weakening of liberal values.

Read: Putin has made America great again

Now Putin, along with his patron and enabler, Xi Jinping of China, has pushed into American and European faces a truth we didn’t want to see: that our core interests lie in the defense of those values. To be realist in our age is not to define American interests so narrowly that Ukraine becomes disposable but to understand that the world has broken up into democratic and autocratic spheres; that this division shapes everything from supply chains and competition for resources to state corruption and the influence of technology on human minds and societies; that the autocrats have gained the upper hand and know it. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, following its earlier efforts to stifle independence and democracy there, as well as in Georgia and Belarus, is the most dramatic but far from the last point of conflict between the two spheres.

If this conflict is a new cold war, it’s one that the autocracies have been pursuing energetically and the democracies have been loath to accept. Until the past few days, the West seemed unwilling to confront Putin in a way that would hurt enough to make him regret his aggression. While Russian troops massed along Ukraine’s borders, European leaders showed little enthusiasm for any sanctions against Russia that might cost their people in commodity prices and financial disruption, and themselves in popular support. Britain was reluctant to expose Russian oligarchs who launder their criminal wealth in its banks and mansions. Italy wanted to protect the value of its luxury goods, and Belgium its diamonds. Germany invoked its terrible history of war in pleading for a peace that kept its supply of gas and oil uninterrupted.

Since last Thursday, Ukrainian resistance to invasion has shamed and inspired much of the world. Protests that were absent during the Russian buildup throughout February now fill the streets in cities from Sydney and Tokyo to Berlin and Bern—even in St. Petersburg and Minsk. Over the weekend the European Union imposed devastating banking sanctions on Russia. Most remarkably, Germany ended its decades of nonintervention and declared that it will send military equipment to Ukraine. Even perpetually neutral Sweden is arming the Ukrainians. This sudden, energetic unity of the democracies shows the reserves of power that can be brought to bear against the autocracies without going to war.

While Joe Biden’s domestic political opponents look for any reason to criticize him, the president is handling the crisis with skill and imagination. Unlike Afghanistan, Europe and NATO have a special importance for him because of his long experience of the Cold War and its aftermath. For the first time in decades, an American president is showing that he, and only he, can lead the free world, including by allowing Europeans to be the public voice for policies that the Americans push in private. Biden is right to rule out sending troops—after two decades of fruitless death and destruction, some lessons of restraint are well worth learning, above all in a conflict with another nuclear power. But he should make clear to the Ukrainian people, who are fighting alone, that they can count on every other form of American support—weapons, training, humanitarian aid, intelligence, and sanctions that smother the Russian economy and sever Russia’s elites from all the benefits of the rich West. Biden should tell his own people that they will have to make sacrifices, and why they are worth making.

Putin may still win his bet on Western decadence and indifference. America is more insulated than Europe from the effects of punishing Russia, but nothing can protect us from ourselves. If this country fails to persevere in supporting Ukraine, the cynical opportunism of our political elites and the self-absorbed divisions of our people will be the reasons. Putin’s assault on Ukrainian democracy will test American democracy as well.

As I write, Russian troops are attacking Kyiv and Kharkiv. Young Ukrainians—journalists, students with no military training, counterparts of those Afghans who lost everything last summer in the effort to escape from Kabul—are leaving their families and volunteering for the Territorial Defense Forces to fight against a far superior enemy. Even if the Russians decapitate the Zelensky government and replace it with a puppet regime, the war will go on, perhaps for months, perhaps for years. Ukrainians are fighting with the ferocity of people who know exactly what they have to lose. As long as they keep on, we owe them every chance to survive and, ultimately, succeed. They’re fighting on our behalf too.



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Putin Accidentally Revitalized the West’s Liberal Order

The Russian president thought he sensed an opportunity to take advantage of a disunited West. He has been proved wrong.

By Kori Schake


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unleashed a chorus of despair—beyond the cost in Ukrainian lives, the international order that the U.S. and its allies built after World War II is, we are told, crumbling. The writer Paul Kingsnorth has declared that the liberal order is already dead. The Indian journalist Rahul Shivshankar has argued that “in the ruins across Ukraine you will find the remains of Western arrogance.” Even the brilliant historian Margaret MacMillan has written that “the world will never be the same. We have moved already into a new and unstable era.”

The reverse is true. Vladimir Putin has attempted to crush Ukraine’s independence and “Westernness” while also demonstrating NATO’s fecklessness and free countries’ unwillingness to shoulder economic burdens in defense of our values. He has achieved the opposite of each. Endeavoring to destroy the liberal international order, he has been the architect of its revitalization.

Germany has long soft-pedaled policies targeting Russia, but its chancellor, Olaf Scholz, made a moving and extraordinary change, committing an additional $100 billion to defense spending immediately, shipping weapons to Ukraine, and ending the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which was constructed to bring gas to Germany from Russia. Hungary, thought to be the weakest link in the Western chain, has supported without question moves by the European Union and NATO to punish Moscow. Turkey, arguably the most Russia-friendly NATO country, having bought missile defense systems from Moscow, has invoked its responsibilities in the 1936 Montreux Convention and closed the Bosporus strait to Russian warships. NATO deployed its rapid-reaction force for the first time, and allies are rushing to send troops to reinforce frontline states. A cascade of places have closed their airspace to Russian craft. The United States has orchestrated action and gracefully let others have the stage, strengthening allies and institutions both.

We are a long way from the ultimate outcome of Russia’s invasion, but even if Ukrainian military forces cannot prevail or President Volodymyr Zelensky and his government are killed or captured, it’s difficult to see how Putin’s broader gamble succeeds. If Zelensky falls, another leader will step forward. Even Russian-speaking Ukrainians have become anti-Russian. The scene depicted in Picasso’s Guernica, one of wanton and barbaric violence, is the best Putin can hope for: Conquering Ukraine will require unspeakable brutality, and even if Moscow succeeds on this count, foreign legions are flowing to Ukraine to assist an insurgency in bleeding Russia’s occupation. If Ukraine fends off Russia’s assault, it will be welcomed into NATO and the EU.

The Ukrainian government that so recently seemed mired in corruption and division has been outstanding: President Zelensky has refused to flee and inspired resistance; outgunned and outmanned Ukrainian military forces seem to have held their own. They understand that they’re in a battle of ideas, establishing, for example, a hotline for Russian prisoners of war to call their families.

Civil activism is the lifeblood of free societies, and Ukrainians have been excelling, including the sunflower lady, who cursed Russian soldiers; civilians lining up to collect arms and make Molotov cocktails, or change out street signs to confuse the invaders; and breweries retooling to produce weaponry.

Ukraine’s tenacity and creativity have ignited civil-society energy, corporate strength, and humanitarian assistance. The hacker group Anonymous has declared war on Russia, disrupting state TV and making public the defense ministry’s personnel rosters. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has promised to help keep Ukraine online. The chipmakers Intel and AMD have stopped sending supplies to Russia; BP is divesting from its stake in the Russian energy giant Rosneft; FedEx and UPS have suspended service to Russia. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is cutting all its investments in Russia. YouTube and Meta have demonetized Russian state media. (Even Pornhub is denying Russians access.) Belarusian hackers disrupted their country’s rail network to prevent their government from sending troops to support the Russian war. Polish citizens collected 100 tons of food for Ukraine in two days. Bars are pouring out Russian vodka. Iconic architecture in cities all over the free world is lit up with the colors of the Ukrainian flag to show solidarity. Sports teams are refusing to play Russia in international tournaments. The London Philharmonic opened its Saturday concert by playing the Ukrainian national anthem, and the Simpsons modeled Ukrainian flags. This is what free societies converging on an idea looks like. And the idea is this: Resist Putin’s evil.

Although we in the West sometimes lose faith that our values are universal, Putin certainly believes they are. Otherwise, why attempt to conquer a country to prevent it from succeeding? And why threaten prison sentences for Russians giving aid to Ukraine? Plenty of Russians seem to share our perspective: Protests took place in scores of Russian cities over the weekend, and thousands of people were arrested. The Russian tennis star Andrey Rublev wrote no war please on the lens of a TV camera during an interview. Russian soldiers are allowing civilian protesters to halt their tanks. Rumors abound that Putin has fired the chief of his military’s general staff. Reports have emerged that oligarchs such as Oleg Deripaska are calling for an end to the war.

Nor is the liberal international order just a project of the transatlantic alliance. The UN may not have been able to prevent Russian aggression, but it served its purpose of forcing accountability onto governments for their positions. Kenya’s ambassador to the UN reminded us all that smaller powers, countries that suffered imperial conquest, are some of the biggest beneficiaries of a system that affirms “the sovereign equality of states, and states’ inviolable rights to territorial integrity and political independence.” Japan has joined many of the Western sanctions against Russia, while Southeast Asian nations such as Singapore and Indonesia have condemned the invasion.

China has squirmed at having its longtime support for an individual state’s sovereignty conflict with its just-christened friendship treaty with Russia, and is balancing its political position of not enforcing sanctions by having to limit financing by Chinese banks for Russian goods because of the risk of exclusion from the global financial order. Russia’s argument that Ukraine isn’t really a state may seem consonant with China’s position toward Taiwan, but worldwide reaction to Russian aggression ought certainly to give Beijing pause before it considers an attempt to subjugate Taiwan.

Those of us already living in free societies owe Ukrainians a great debt of gratitude. Their courage has reminded us of the nobility of sacrifice for just causes. As Ronald Reagan memorably said, “There is a profound difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest.” What Ukrainians have done is inspire Americans and others to shake ourselves out of our torpor and create policies of assistance to them, in the hopes that we might one day prove worthy of becoming their ally.

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