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Why all Americans have a stake in what happens in Ukraine next

The good news is that Ukraine won the first year of this war. The bad news is that the war continues.

Today, the world marks the tragic anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The good news is that Ukraine won the first year of this war. The bad news is that the war continues, with no plans from Russian leader Vladimir Putin to retreat or negotiate. He’s playing a long game, expecting the collective West to eventually lose interest. We cannot allow that to happen. Indeed, it is in America’s interest to stay the course and help Ukraine achieve victory.

He’s playing a long game, expecting the collective West to eventually lose interest.

Ukrainian soldiers astonished the world last year by stopping Russia’s assault on Kyiv, liberating over half of the territory once held by Russian occupiers, and thwarting Putin’s attempt to overthrow President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Ukraine’s democracy. By providing weapons and economic aid, the U.S., NATO and other democracies have played a critical role in helping Ukrainians achieve these victories.

The U.S. has been able to help the Ukrainians so effectively because of a broad bipartisan consensus. But signs of weariness and cynicism are beginning to appear. Isolationists on both the right and the left are calling into question the wisdom of bolstering Ukrainians in their fight against tyranny — and their complaints may well find some traction among Americans who perhaps do not understand why we should expend so much effort to help Ukrainians liberate their country, especially when we have so many problems at home.  

Some critics are trying to frame this conflict as a repeat of the wars that punctuated European history for centuries, wars over territory and resources, which should be none of our business. I disagree. This is a fight over values. An autocratic Russia invaded a democratic Ukraine. After 30 years of independent Ukraine, Russia is trying to recolonize its neighbor and annex large territories, violating a foundational norm in the U.N. Charter in defense of sovereignty. The Russian way of war — slaughtering noncombatants, terrorizing civilians through drone attacks, destroying cultural sites, raping women and kidnapping Ukrainian children — is also inhumane and immoral. These are crimes against humanity.

So there are strong moral reasons to help Ukraine win (“win” as defined by them, not us). But even if you are narrowly focused on American security interests, there are compelling realpolitik reasons to help Ukraine succeed, too.

First, Ukraine’s win is essential to enhance European security. Ukrainian warriors are fighting for their nation’s right to exist but with an added security benefit for us. They are fighting Russian soldiers invading Europe — so that American and NATO soldiers do not have to do so later (“offshore balancing” is the phrase used by self-described realists). Were Putin to succeed in transforming Ukraine into a forward operating base, our front-line NATO allies would be threatened, demanding more American assistance, including increased deployment of our troops. This does not serve U.S. security interests, especially when we are trying to rebalance our military forces to counter China.

Second, Ukraine’s defeating one of the largest and best-armed global militaries would send a powerful deterrent message as Chinese leader Xi Jinping calculates the costs of invading Taiwan. We also want Xi to understand sustained NATO unity, including massive military aid for Ukraine and comprehensive sanctions against Russia, as a signal for how American allies in Asia and Europe would respond should he invade.

Of course, Xi may be taking notes on Russia’s failures, including the importance of going in big and fast. If Ukrainian forces had not repelled the planned “three day” capture of Kyiv, we would have never been able to provide Ukraine with howitzers and HIMARs. But we have a major security interest in showing Xi just how costly attempted conquest can be.

But should Putin win in Ukraine, Xi would learn a very different lesson. An American failure in Ukraine would confirm Xi’s hypothesis about the U.S.’s declining power. Putin’s victory in Ukraine would embolden Xi in Taiwan — and that most certainly does not serve U.S. security interests.

Third, a U.S.-supported victory by Ukraine would deter annexation globally. A failure would do the opposite. History has shown how violent the world can be become if conquest and annexation are normalized again. The U.S. would not benefit from a return to that anarchic, violent past.

Standing up for democracy also produces tangible instrumental benefits for American national security. The separation of interests and values is a false dichotomy. The success of democratic Ukraine in repelling autocratic Russia would reassure small “d” democrats around the world that our ideas are gathering steam. Small “d” democrats in Belarus, Burma, Iran and even Russia would feel more emboldened. In parallel, countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East watching this war from the sidelines right now would lean more toward the U.S., not China and Russia, after a victory in Ukraine.

The converse is equally true. Those fighting for democracy in autocracies would feel disheartened and those countries around the world hedging today would gravitate toward Russia and China after a Putin win in Ukraine.

Simply put, there are multiple powerful moral reasons for the U.S. to stay the course and help Ukraine win. But there are powerful self-interested security reasons to do so, as well.