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American credibility is on the line in Ukraine

President Joe Biden holds a speech at the Royal Castle after meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw, Ukraine, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Surely no one should see the war in Ukraine as a net positive. The toll in lives on both sides, the destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure and the Russian human rights violations, not to mention the high cost to western economies in an era of ballooning deficits and high inflation, all add up to an unmitigated catastrophe. No one can be happy with the conflict, except perhaps for China, which increasingly benefits from the relegation of Russia to its ever more junior status in their unequal Eurasian partnership.  

We can wish this war had been prevented, and that the West, especially the United States, had made it clear to Russia in advance that it would not accept invasion and annexation. Yet Moscow had seen the Obama administration do little in response to the occupation of Crimea. Moreover, watching the Biden administration accept the humiliating exit from Afghanistan, it could reasonably conclude that it could swallow Ukraine with few consequences.  

Yet the invasion might still have been forestalled by effective American diplomacy warning Russia robustly against pulling the trigger. Prior to Feb. 24, 2022, Washington might have beefed up its embassy in Kyiv – instead of evacuating it – raising the diplomatic stakes against an invasion, or even stationed a symbolic contingent of troops, a trip wire, to send a signal of commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty. Perhaps Putin would have hesitated, if President Biden had not repeatedly underscored what the U.S. would not do. The only effect of that overcautious messaging and the promise not to send U.S. troops was to invite Moscow to march right in, as if it were Prague 1968 all over again. To the surprise of everyone, however, Ukraine fought back. 

There are conspiracy theorists on the left and on the right who misinterpret Washington’s pre-invasion messaging as an intentional trap to lure Russia into a war. This sort of speculation is risible. There is a much simpler explanation: poor leadership in America and lethargic diplomacy. 

But all that is water under the bridge now. The war that might have been prevented with better American vision has been raging for more than a year, and with this duration, new stakes have taken shape. 

For Ukraine, the goals include expelling Russia from territory occupied since Feb. 24, 2022, as well as ending the occupation of Crimea. These goals (the territorial disputes to which Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., referred) are consistent with international law, respect for internationally recognized borders and stated U.S. policy. Yet the U.S. has an additional interest of higher priority: imposing an unambiguous defeat on Russia.

This ambition was not present at the start of the conflict; hence the initial American hesitation to support the Ukrainians. However, as the war has ground on, and the commitment on both sides has grown, American credibility as the prime defender of the international order is on the line. Unless the Russian aggressor experiences a clear loss, it is the U.S. who will suffer reputational damage. A western defeat in Ukraine, after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, will become a narrative of American weakness. The world order will be less secure. 

The way to impose a defeat on Russia is to accelerate military support for Ukraine, i.e., both the speed of the delivery of arms and an increase in their quality. The time has long past for slow-walking the weapons the Ukrainians can use so effectively. The longer the war drags on, the greater the likelihood that our always half-hearted West European allies will drop off: Germany was recently gripped by a nation-wide strike, and France is bogged down in violent protests over pension reform. Very soon such domestic concerns will undermine their commitments to security on the eastern front of the free world.  It is foolish and short-sighted to withhold from Ukraine the tools it needs to win. Their winning is in American national interest. 

Russell A. Berman is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he directs the Working Group on the Middle East. He previously served as senior advisor on the policy planning staff in the Department of State. 

Tags Afghanistan withdrawal biden foreign policy Ron DeSantis Russia Russia-Ukraine war Ukraine Ukraine aid Ukraine war United States

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