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Kyiv Stands Strong, Proud, Tall — and Free
Russia's war against Ukraine, one year on
This Friday, February 24, marks one year since Russia launched its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, a war started with the goal of wiping a fledgling democracy off the map and destroying Ukraine as a nation. The valiant and steadfast defense mounted by the Ukrainian people stopped Putin’s invasion in its tracks, while the heroic, Rooseveltian political leadership of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy rallied the world to Ukraine’s cause. With material military assistance from the United States and its allies around the globe, Ukraine has been able to reverse a number of Moscow’s ill-gotten territorial gains.
Evidence continues to mount of Russian war crimes and crimes against humanity, including but not limited to:
The deportation of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to Russia, including the abduction of thousands of Ukrainian children from Russian-occupied territory.
An ongoing effort to erase Ukrainian culture and cultural heritage from Russian-occupied territory.
These atrocities shouldn’t come as a surprise given Moscow’s horrific track record in Syria and elsewhere, but they nonetheless remain shocking and appalling in both scope and scale. No wonder high-level U.S. government officials like Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have publicly and formally accused the Kremlin of committing crimes against humanity — crimes for which Putin and his cronies must be held accountable, unlike the pass Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria has received.
Still, it’s hard to disagree with the assessment President Biden offered standing next to President Zelenskyy in Kyiv: “one year later, Kyiv stands and Ukraine stands. Democracy stands.”
On this somber anniversary it’s worth stepping back and looking at the bigger picture — not just the critical day-to-day debates over what particular weapons systems the United States and its allies might give to Ukraine or the reports of the latest Russian outrage against ordinary Ukrainians, but the wider changes this conflict has wrought for America and the world.
Profound and permanent changes to geopolitics — and slow but steady adaptation by the United States and its allies.
If there were any doubts that the post-Cold War era was over, Putin laid them to rest a year ago. His premeditated invasion delivered the coup de grâce to ways of thinking about global politics and international security that persisted in some quarters around the world right up to the moment Russian bombs started to fall on Kyiv.
To their great credit, most political leaders in the United States and among America’s allies have recognized this change — at least in principle. Witness Germany’s slow and painful Zeitenwende on defense and security policy, for instance, and Japan’s move to increase its own military spending by nearly $300 billion over the next five years. That’s in stark contrast to fence-sitters like Brazil, South Africa, and India, whose political leaders, policymakers, and strategists all seem to think they’re still living in a unipolar moment. It’s much more complicated geopolitical situation than existed in, say, 1999, one that other nations have yet to catch up with.
By and large, however, the United States and its allies have only begun to translate their new geopolitical understanding into action. Take defense production: a year into the war in Ukraine, and we’re only now starting to think about ramping up our ability to make arms and ammunition at a scale able to meet Kyiv’s needs — to say nothing of the needs of our allies and partners around the world, or indeed of our own military’s needs. The experience of the past year has made it clear that the United States and its allies will need to increase their defense production and spending to provide for their own security and protect their own interests.
There’s been progress on this front in recent weeks, with Congress authorizing $8 billion worth of emergency munitions production in last December’s “must-pass” defense legislation. Moreover, France and Australia struck a deal at the end of January to jointly manufacture artillery shells for Ukraine. But there’s still a long way to go, and defense production will need to be increased across the board — not just more artillery shells and anti-aircraft missiles but new tanks, precision-guided weapons, air defense systems, combat aircraft, and even ships, all delivered with greater speed than currently remains the case.
Again, President Biden and allied political leaders deserve credit for recognizing the profound and permanent geopolitical shifts brought about by Moscow’s war against Ukraine. But their task now is to successfully execute and adequately provision these new foreign policies and national security approaches.
Democracies are much more adaptable and resilient than many thought.
It wasn’t irrational for Putin to bet that the United States and its European allies would split apart rather than stand together to oppose his invasion of Ukraine. Disputes and disagreements between the United States and its NATO allies persisted on issues ranging from Australian submarine contracts to the calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan. What’s more, Europe remained dependent on Russian natural gas, with over 40 percent of its imports coming from Russia at the end of 2021.
In the actual event, however, Europe weathered the loss of cheap Russian gas far better than many expected a year ago. The continent has now largely weaned itself off Russian gas, with just 12.9 percent of its gas originating in Russia as of November 2022. That process wasn’t painless for ordinary Europeans, but a fortuitous combination mild weather, energy conservation campaigns, and a fill-up of continental gas storage tanks over the summer helped Europe withstand a winter without Russian gas and deal Putin a major strategic blow. It doesn’t make up for the fact that Europe — and Germany especially — put itself in this position to begin with, but Europe’s resilience deserves notice and commendation from American policymakers and political leaders.
Likewise, long-time neutral nations Sweden and Finland moved quickly to apply for NATO membership in the wake of Russia’s invasion. Only the two illiberal members of the alliance — Hungary and Turkey — have yet to ratify the accession of these two countries; were NATO fully an alliance of democracies, it’s almost certain that Stockholm and Helsinki would already be members. But the alacrity with which Sweden and Finland acted to join NATO as well as the speed with which the rest of the alliance moved to accept their membership applications does still show that democracies can act swiftly to protect their own security.
Finally, Ukraine itself provides the strongest case for democratic resilience — even in the face of a threat to Ukraine’s very existence as both a nation and a state. A year ago, it remained an open question as to whether Ukrainians could join together to fight an aggressor; some analysts asserted that American weapons wouldn’t make any difference in the face the anticipated Russian onslaught. Despite its well-documented struggles with corruption over the years and thanks in no small part to President Zelenskyy’s inspiring wartime leadership, Ukrainians proved much more willing and able to defend their nation and its fledgling, imperfect democracy than many outside experts predicted.
Overall, though, we needn’t dwell on the imperfections and problems democracies all face today — many of them severe and some of them possibly fatal. Indeed, Putin still hopes those flaws will cause the United States and its European allies to falter in their support for Ukraine and win him the war. But all in all, over the past year democracies have held their ground against the Kremlin’s aggression and then some.
Dramatic shifts in the domestic American politics of foreign policy.
The war in Ukraine didn’t cause any epochal changes in the domestic politics of American foreign policy. But it did elucidate and exacerbate some underlying trends while putting a damper on others.
These trends have been apparent for several years now, despite a misguided flirtation with the so-called restraint camp among some Democrats. Indeed, Democrats have become the party of internationalism, though largely via instinct than by any conscious decision. Self-proclaimed progressives have mostly marginalized themselves on foreign policy, as can be seen by the prompt and brutal backlash among Democrats to the letter circulated by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) last fall that called for direct talks with the Kremlin over Ukraine’s future. Chronic, knee-jerk calls from progressives to cut America’s defense budget no matter what’s happening in the world will receive decreasing sympathy from many Democrats moving forward.
Republicans, by contrast, appear both fractured and increasingly beholden to their party’s loud “America First” isolationist constituency. Old-line Republican lawmakers like Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have been resolute in their support for Ukraine, but likely presidential contender Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) has staked out a position on the war that’s incoherent at best and too close to America First for comfort. Most Republicans in Congress may not be America First-style isolationists, but this faction can carry the day in a divided party — much in the same way original isolationists like Sen. William Borah (R-ID) sidelined Republican internationalists in the 1920s. It’s no exaggeration to say that former President Trump drastically changed the direction of the Republican Party on foreign policy, even if many elected Republicans remain internationalist in outlook.
When it comes to the politics of U.S. foreign policy, then, Democrats and Republicans find themselves heading in opposite directions. Democrats look more unified around an internationalist approach, while Republicans appear divided between an aging cohort of internationalists and a seemingly ascendent band of America First isolationists. Over the next decade, this reality will make the politics of foreign policy uncertain and unsteady — but it also opens the door for potential cooperation across party lines in support of internationalism.
Looking to the immediate future, there can be no end save victory for Ukraine over Russia. The United States and its allies have committed themselves to Ukraine for the long haul, and they can’t waver now. That means backing Kyiv as long as it takes to win back all of Ukraine’s territory, whether through liberation or negotiation. It also entails membership in NATO (or some other concrete security guarantees) and the European Union, both for geopolitical stability and reconstruction once the war ends.
More broadly, though, the United States and its allies need to act on their understanding of a world changed by the war in Ukraine. Increases in defense spending and production are a must, of course, but we need to reinforce other ties as well — or at least manage disputes and differences on issues like trade far more collegially than we have to date. Similarly, the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia need to show up in places like Africa and Latin America, where too often something provided by Moscow or Beijing beats the nothing offered by the United States, European Union, and Japan.
Neither the United States nor its allies around the world can delude themselves into thinking that the world will snap back to the way it was a year ago. The post-Cold War world is dead, and there’s no reviving it. We’ve got to forge ahead into this uncharted territory with confidence in ourselves and our values, knowing that we can succeed — and that Ukraine’s fight is truly our own.
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