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How Long Can We Ask Ukraine to be NATO’s Defender?

photo from The New York Times
                               The New York Times

The moral quandary of the West’s position sits in clear view.

As others have noted, the Ukraine war is “asymmetrical.”  Russia is in the privileged position of attacking Ukrainian citizens with little fear of direct retaliation to its forces or equipment staged on their side of the border. Vladimir Putin has essentially used nuclear blackmail to deter the west from engaging in direct military retaliation. Russians are mostly experiencing only modest economic hardships, but nothing equal to the deaths and homelessness of thousands of Ukrainians whose towns in the east have been leveled.

It’s easy for some to say this isn’t our fight. But NATO leaders and individual governments have noted that it is unthinkable to let Russia pull another Crimea by taking the territory of a separate and emerging democracy. Putin, of course, claims he is only occupying what belongs to his pathetically out of date map that included what was once known as “little Russia.”

Everyone following this appalling war understands that NATO member states have contributed to financing and supplying Ukraine with advanced weapons to stave off a full invasion. The usual observation as per our own Secretary of Defense is that we cannot allow Russia to succeed in its continual thirst for more lands to put under its control. That seems self-evident, especially in light of a delusional Putin who recently declared himself the heir to the legacy of Peter the Great.

But the moral quandary of the West’s position sits in clear view.  How long can we ask the Ukrainians to sacrifice their citizens in the interests of NATO’s strategic goals? To be sure, containment is required in order to rein in a leader trying to expand a nation already faltering.  Except for gas and vodka, no one is buying what Russia is selling.

Russia remains one of the physically largest nations in the world. But most of its citizens still find it hard to identify with others in the hinterlands in the far east. They cherish European vitality, even though many seem to lack the national will to function with anything like the norms of a civil society.

We must be on the scene with the Ukrainians. 

ukraine flag graphicIf the idea of “western values” means anything, it should include doing more than supplying weapons with the handicapping proviso that they only be used for defense. I am no military analyst, but if there were justice in this quagmire, Russia should be forced to feel the sting of its mostly unanswered military attacks. They should face retaliation in their own regions which are used to stage assaults on Ukraine.

In addition, and at a minimum, the nearly fifty countries around the world supporting Ukraine must be prepared to strengthen threatened cities like Odesa and other land that may soon be under siege. A true multinational force could function as a peacekeeping presence in areas threatened by Russian attacks. A model for this form of ‘drawing a line in the sand’ might be Berlin after World War II. In 1948 Allied forces helped maintain the free zones of the large city, placing themselves firmly in the way of Soviet goals to move west. Food and household items were often the weapons of choice in the aircraft-centered Berlin airlift. It helped citizens live a semi-normalized life.  If the same approach was used now, the idea of attacking a true multi-national peacekeeping force should be too much even for Putin.

No doubt this would still look like “aggression” to murderous Russian leader, who seems to lack even an elemental understanding of the idea of national sovereignty. As well, authoritarians almost always overestimate their self-importance, usually scouring the empty closets of their history to justify their faded rhetoric of political hegemony. Such an incremental step of western citizens joining Ukrainians as guardians of their own nation might finally call Putin’s bluff.