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Three logical flaws stand in the way of a sufficient response to the Ukraine challenge

The nature and scale of US support for Ukraine in the crucial months ahead boil down to one question: What sacrifices are the United States and its allies willing to make in the present to secure the future?

Fourteen months into Russia’s full-scale invasion, that’s a question that hovers not just over Ukraine but also over the emerging era of global competition.  

As significant as political, military, and economic support has been for Ukraine thus far, it is insufficient to ensure the failure of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war and land grab. If US President Joe Biden’s argument is right that the future of the global system is being tested in Ukraine—and I believe it is—then the response isn’t commensurate with those stakes.    

Three logical flaws still prevent the West from rising to the historic challenge of Ukraine. 

The first logical flaw is that the West must deter itself so as not to provoke a more escalatory response from Putin, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons. The truth, experience shows, is that only the clear demonstration of determination deters despots.

The second is that the United States needs to reduce its commitments in Europe to address the greater global challenge of China. The truth is that those contests are inseparable, as underscored by Putin’s recent meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Moscow.

The third is that it was the prospect of NATO enlargement that incited Putin to attack Ukraine. The truth is that it was the failure to extend that sort of security guarantee—a guarantee that has kept other former Soviet bloc states and most of Europe secure—that provoked Putin.    

A year after Putin invaded and then annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, Henry Kissinger, the Atlantic Council’s longest-serving board member, spoke at the Council’s 2015 Global Citizen Awards about how the United States and its European partners had to change course to confront emerging global challenges. 

“The Atlantic relationship that was initially developed primarily on military and strategic lines now really has to be extended into a conceptual question,” the former US secretary of state said. “What are we trying to achieve? What are we trying to prevent? And what sacrifices are we willing to make? Because great things cannot be achieved without some sacrifice of the present for the needs of the future.”

Ever since then, and particularly since Putin escalated his invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Kissinger’s challenge has haunted me: Is the West willing to make the necessary sacrifices in the present for the needs of the future? In my estimation, the answer to that question is “not yet,” despite remarkable support for Ukraine and a big burst of transatlantic unity, including Finland’s new NATO membership, with Sweden’s accession to the Alliance hopefully not far behind.   

US President Joe Biden himself has said that with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, “the principles that had been the cornerstone of peace, prosperity, and stability on this planet for more than seventy-five years were at risk of being shattered.” If those are the generational stakes, it follows that the sacrifices will be insufficient until Ukrainian security, sovereignty, freedom, and independence are assured.

Through his audacious trip to Kyiv on February 20, Biden has tied his presidential legacy as clearly to Ukraine’s future as US President Ronald Reagan bound his legacy to Berlin’s future with his “Tear Down This Wall” speech in 1987. Yet without delivering on Ukraine, that legacy will be lost.

The historic stakes grew all the more apparent during Xi’s March visit to Moscow, where he and Putin made clear their ambition to remake the liberal international order that has prevailed since the end of World War II. As Xi told Putin before departing, “together, we should push forward these changes that have not happened for one hundred years.”

Muddled thinking and an insufficient sense of urgency could provide Xi and Putin with the outcome they desire, in Ukraine first and then beyond.

What both of them know is that their prospects improve with every additional month of war in Ukraine, which will only wear down and fatigue Ukraine and its supporters—and serve Russian and Chinese interests.    

“One of the reasons this war is still ongoing,” writes Andrew A. Michta for the Atlantic Council, “is the West’s extreme caution… The West has given Ukraine enough to survive, but not enough to win. This strategy, though it seems reasonable today, will likely require the world to pay a much higher price in blood and treasure in the coming years.”

Michta argues, for example, that if Ukraine’s partners had provided the country more wherewithal during Kyiv’s military offensive last summer—in the form of the precision long-range fires, main battle tanks, and aircraft it sought—“its forces would have stood a good chance of achieving a strategic decision on the battlefield and perhaps ultimately winning the peace.”    

Then there’s the misguided notion that the United States should pivot away from Europe and toward China.

If the United States hopes to deter China from attacking Taiwan, the place to start is in Ukraine by visibly ramping up defense production and increasing military support to Kyiv as well as expanding sanctions against Russia and tightening their enforcement. If the United States and its allies help Ukraine turn back Putin, it could give Xi second thoughts regarding Taiwan.

Then there’s the muddled thinking that concerns NATO’s role in securing Europe. Those former Soviet bloc countries that became NATO members remain secure and at peace, while it has been the gray areas like Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova that have invited Russian aggression.

Even Kissinger, who was long against any enlargement of NATO, has come to accept that such a course will be necessary to ensure European stability. As he said in Davos this year at the World Economic Forum, “the idea of a neutral Ukraine under these conditions is no longer meaningful. I believe Ukrainian membership in NATO would be a[n] appropriate outcome.”

NATO’s summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July would be a good time for Western leaders to take the first concrete steps in that direction. 

In a recent memo to NATO leaders, the Atlantic Council’s Ian Brzezinski and Alexander Vershbow—a former Pentagon official and former US ambassador to NATO, respectively—lay out an approach that’s both urgent and achievable.

They propose a “new NATO-Ukraine Deterrence and Defense Partnership… aimed at building up Ukraine’s long-term capacity to defend itself.” They also recommend Ukraine should be invited now to attend meetings of the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s governing body.

Both proposals would open a path, after the war, for Ukraine’s accession to NATO, following Finland and Sweden. Bolder measures must follow at NATO’s seventy-fifth-anniversary summit in Washington, DC, in 2024.

That is the right path to secure the global future, but for NATO leaders, it will require sacrifice in the present.

That would be a good habit to establish for the challenging years ahead.

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe.

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