With support from Europe, the United States, and others, Ukraine has held off – and in part, beaten back – Russia’s campaign of conquest and subjugation. But Ukraine has not won, Putin seems determined to fight on, and the West seems beset by doubts as to whether continuing to back Ukraine is practical or worth the investment. Lessons learned the hard way in the 20th century – among them that aggressive dictators need to be stopped and people willing to fight for their freedom need to be supported – are in danger of being lost once again.
As of the end of January, funding for new US assistance to Ukraine is being blocked by a determined minority of legislators, and EU assistance is being held up by the veto power of one member state. The Ukrainian military is running short of ammunition. If not resolved soon, these political blockades could lead to Ukraine’s defeat, a catastrophe for Ukrainians and a major blow to the West: a sign to dictators around the world that Western allies will not stand up for their friends, and perhaps not even for themselves.
The case for supporting Ukraine, repeatedly made by President Joe Biden, is rooted in American grand strategy for over a century. It was first articulated by Woodrow Wilson in his 14 Points speech of 1918, applied by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to the Atlantic Charter of 1941, realized by Harry Truman after 1945 and maintained by American presidents ever since. It was also adopted by Western European and key Asian allies after 1945 and by Central and Eastern European nations after regaining their sovereignty in 1989.
The axioms of this grand strategy include support for democracy and the rule of law at home; security through alliances, in which the United States has played an indispensable part; and, most broadly, support for an open world, without closed empires or blocs, with economic relations rooted in common rules. This system used to be known as the free world and is now often referred to by the ungainly name of “the rules-based liberal international order.”
The United States took the lead in establishing this free world system that, notwithstanding the blunders, hypocrisy, and inconsistency of implementation since the late 1940s, brought about three generations of general peace among great powers, no third world war and unparalleled prosperity. This system saw an end to the European empires that had subjugated much of the world and to the Soviet empire that subjugated half of Europe.
The United States is frequently accused of seeking hegemony, and of acting just as other leading world powers did over the centuries. But the US-led order is not zero-sum. It held open the gates of growth and encouraged the rise and prosperity of other powers, including former enemies Germany and Japan and later China, with which the United States fought a war in the early 1950s but to whom, starting in the 1970s, the US offered a place around the table, to the benefit of the Chinese economy.
The US also opened for post-Soviet Russia a place in the free world order, notwithstanding two generations of Cold War with the Kremlin. Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all made similar offers to Moscow: join with your former adversaries in a common international framework and reap the benefits of common prosperity and security.
The inclusion in NATO of Moscow’s former imperial subjects in Central and Eastern Europe no more threatened Russia’s security than did the inclusion of Germany in NATO in 1955. The enlargement of NATO launched by President Clinton and continued by President Bush was intended to avoid the renationalization of security in Europe. Both administrations regarded defense against a revanchist Moscow as an unlikely contingency.
Russia was having none of it. After a period in which Russian President Boris Yeltsin seemed to consider the possibility of Russia integrating with the wider, US-led free world system, Vladimir Putin returned to imperial, zero-sum thinking. His ambitions focused on reestablishing Kremlin control over as much of the former Soviet and Russian empire as possible.
Putin made his hostility to the United States and Europe clear in a stark speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. He invaded Georgia in 2008 and also that year made a claim to Crimea, Ukrainian territory. In 2014, Putin invaded Ukraine. He was angered by the fall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, his loyal subordinate who fled the country in the face of pro-European demonstrations that he had failed to crush, even after firing on demonstrators. After eight years of steady but low levels of fighting, Putin launched an all-out invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 aimed at destroying Ukraine’s sovereignty either by annexing it outright or reducing it to satellite status, recalling the Soviet satellites during the Cold War.
The US and European nations had treated Russia’s 2008 attack on Georgia as peripheral and its 2014 initial attack on Ukraine as a limited problem. In retrospect, that seems to have been a mistake. But they reacted sharply to the outbreak of full-scale war in 2022, treating it as a major international challenge that they had to meet. They imposed serious economic sanctions against Russia and provided Ukraine with large quantities of weapons and ammunition including, though only after prolonged periods of indecision, sophisticated arms such as tanks, fighter jets, advanced air defense systems, and longer-range attack missiles.
Before the full-scale invasion, the Biden administration had sought essentially to park the US-Russian relationship in a “stable and predictable” category, the better to focus on what it considered to be the more profound challenge from China. After the invasion, the Biden administration spoke of needing to meet simultaneous challenges to the free world (or “rules-based, liberal international order”) from two authoritarian adversaries, China and Russia.
European governments, especially in Western Europe, made similar strategic shifts. Germany seemed stunned by the all-out Russian invasion and acknowledged that its assumptions that Russia was on some level a partner, assumptions to which it had clung even after the Russo-Georgian War and the initial Russo-Ukraine War, had collapsed. In a sign of just how far German thinking had changed, senior German officials began to admit privately that the Poles and Baltics had been right all along in their dark warnings of Russian intentions. The French government, which had dismissed warnings from European countries closest to (and most knowledgeable about) Russia, shifted as well. In a major speech in March 2023 in Bratislava, President Emmanuel Macron came close to apologizing for France’s earlier attitude, acknowledging that the Russian threat was real.
In the wake of this revised view of Russia, the European Union found creative ways of financing the provision of weapons to Ukraine.The US and Europe saw the stakes in deep strategic terms and acted accordingly, backing Ukraine’s wartime efforts and increasing their military readiness to defend their own ranks against Russian attack.
It is not clear, however, whether the West can maintain this stance of resistance. In 2023, a Ukrainian land offensive, of which much was expected, failed to gain ground. This came as a cold shower to Western governments, which had hoped – on the basis of Ukrainian military successes in the summer and fall of 2022 – for greater success and even a potential end to the war on Ukrainian terms. Russia, on the other hand, appeared to double down on its war aims, mobilizing its military industry in the face of economic sanctions and export controls.
These setbacks fueled arguments that the United States was again mired in an “endless war”; that Ukrainian victory was out of reach; and the US would be better off encouraging (or pushing) Ukraine to settle the war essentially on Putin’s terms.
Opposition grew within the Congress to continued support for Ukraine. Some took the form of political linkage: Republicans, especially in the House of Representatives, insisted that the Biden Administration agree to major changes in immigration and border policy as a price for Ukraine aid.
In part, this simply reflects hardball legislative tactics. But there is a deeper strategic context. Some of the Republican arguments against aid to Ukraine and many of the more sophisticated arguments by skeptics of support for Ukraine reflect objections to the Biden administration’s strategic framing of the issue.
Former President Trump and his “MAGA” allies have made clear that they do not accept the axioms of the rules-based liberal international order, aka, the free world. Rhetorically, they reject it as “globalism” and speak in terms that recall the “American First” isolationists in Congress before the US entry into World War II. Trump himself has repeatedly expressed himself in these terms, speaking with disdain or even hostility towards NATO and the European Union. Albeit inconsistently, Trump seems to prefer great power politics and the logic of machtpolitik, or “might makes right.”
In parallel, some serious and knowledgeable experts argue against open-ended support for Ukraine because it is ultimately futile and will lead to needless conflict with Russia, while greater realism requires a return to an international system based on great power spheres of influence. They argue, essentially, that the US needs to accept that Ukraine will inevitably come under Moscow’s sway. They are less explicit about the baleful consequences of that for the Ukrainian people, and posit that Ukraine is in any case ill-prepared for a future as part of Europe, suggesting that it is not really part of the European or transatlantic family.
Some of the current strategic debate over Ukraine policy recalls an earlier argument during the Cold War. Was liberation of Central and Eastern Europe from Soviet rule possible? Or was talk of it mere cant that flew in the face of a realistic view that the Iron Curtain, however unfortunate, was a fact of life?
Cold War realism, as it was then known, had a basis and was generally accepted by the American and West European foreign policy establishments, President Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric notwithstanding, until 1989, when developments on the ground, namely the rapid overthrow of communist rule in Poland and other countries of Central Europe by democratic dissidents and in some cases mass social movements, decided the issue.
The strategic argument about Ukraine may also be decided on the ground. The war’s outcome hangs in the balance. The failure of Ukraine’s land offensive in 2023 was matched by Russia’s equal failure to advance. Less noticed were Ukrainian successes in deep strikes that forced the Russian Black Sea Fleet to retreat and opened the Black Sea to renewed exports of Ukrainian grain.
Biden administration officials have articulated a credible theory of relative success for the West in 2024: give Ukraine the weapons it needs to hold off the Russians on the ground and inflict heavy casualties if the Russians seek to advance; provide more and longer-range missiles enabling the Ukrainians to put Crimea, the Kerch Strait bridge, and Russian logistical chokepoints under fire; keep tightening enforcement of sanctions and export controls to intensify pressure on the Russian economy; and act on a G7 basis to seize the more than $300 billion of frozen Russian sovereign assets, using them to help Ukraine.
These steps could generate a more favorable outlook by the time of the July 2024 NATO Summit in Washington. There NATO could make clear in a credible way that time is not on Putin’s side; that Ukraine is on the road to membership in NATO (and the EU) if it can continue the systemic transformations needed, succeeding as did Poland and other countries a generation ago; and that Europe and the United States will not be intimidated or discouraged by Russia but will rather help Ukraine prevail.
That optimistic scenario is not inevitable. But it is reasonably possible, which in foreign policy, is usually as good as it gets. To get that far, however, both European and American political leaders need to break through the blockage of assistance to Ukraine, rooted in politics and strategic arguments that could doom Ukraine’s efforts and vindicate the darker hypothesis that democracies, as in the 1930s, are in retreat before aggressive dictators. The strategic stakes in Ukraine are high. Europe, the United States, and other friends of Ukraine still have an opportunity to affect the outcome.