Clifford D. May
Vladimir Putin is waging a war of imperial conquest. That’s despicable but, from an historical perspective, hardly novel. Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, and Attila the Hun are among those who did not think: “Maybe I should give peace a chance!” Mr. Putin, I submit, sees the world similarly.
Why do elites in America and Europe find this reality elusive? Because they cling to the grand delusion that there is an “international community,” and that it believes “No one wins wars!” and that everyone seeks “diplomatic solutions” to “address legitimate grievances” while rejecting armed conflicts in pursuit of territory, resources, and power.
A memorable example: In 2014, Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine for the first time. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry exclaimed: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext!”
I imagine Mr. Putin was amused, though perhaps not as much as when he heard Mr. Kerry last week express concerns about the “massive emissions consequences” that might result from the current Russian war on Ukrainians. As White House climate envoy, Mr. Kerry reached out to the neo-czar: “I hope President Putin will help us to stay on track with respect to what we need to do for the climate.”
What Mr. Putin believes he needs to do is rather different, and an odd coalition is attempting to ensure his success. On the left, Rep. Ilan Omar opposes sanctions that could “devastate the Russian economy.” The Democratic Socialists of America has called for the U.S. “to withdraw from NATO and to end the imperialist expansionism that set the stage for this conflict.” Code Pink is demanding that “not a single bullet or gun be sent to Ukraine!”
More than a few voices on the right echo these views. I am at a loss to understand how anyone wearing a Make-America-Great-Again cap can be indifferent when it comes to Mr. Putin whose goal is to make America irrelevant – an impotent, hapless, has-been superpower.
Take J.D. Vance, author “Hillbilly Elegy” (a marvelous book!) and a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Ohio. Last week, he made an argument that is emotionally compelling and geo-strategically incoherent. “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another,” he said. “I’m sick of Joe Biden focusing on the border of a country I don’t care about while he lets the border of his own country become a total war zone.”
Which is the same as saying: “The current administration’s policies at home are a disaster and I want a foreign policy to match!”
A more thoughtful faction on the right argues that we should let Mr. Putin have his way in Ukraine – and in Europe more broadly, and in the Middle East, and Latin America, too – so we can “pivot to Asia” and concentrate on the threat China’s rulers pose.
Among the problems with that: The rulers of Russia and China – along with the rulers of Iran and North Korea, as well as the rulers of Venezuela and Cuba – have been forming what you might call an Axis of Authoritarians. Their common goal: weakening and diminishing America.
You can be sure they chuckled when President Obama, in 2015, warned Mr. Putin that if he intervened militarily in Syria, he would end up “stuck in a quagmire.” Instead, Mr. Putin propped up Syria’s dynastic dictator (at a cost of more than 500,000 Syrian lives), expanded his Mediterranean naval facility in Tartus, and restored Russia as a major force in the Middle East.
They were reassured when America and its allies gazed with bovine passivity as Chinese Communists, violating their clear commitments, stripped the people of Hong Kong of their freedoms, all the while building militarized islands in the South China Sea.
They were even more encouraged by America’s chaotic and humiliating capitulation to the Taliban – and, by implication, to its ally, al Qaeda – in Afghanistan last year.
They’re now expecting American diplomats in Vienna to surrender to the much shrewder negotiators from Tehran.
If Mr. Putin succeeds in swallowing Ukraine, he will become more powerful, which will make him more valuable to Xi Jinping whose goal is to conquer Taiwan and become hegemon of Asia – a steppingstone toward displacing America as global leader.
Similarly, Mr. Putin will want to move on to become the dominant European power. He is apt to think: “Since the U.S. is prioritizing the threat from Beijing, wouldn’t this be a convenient time to strike a blow against a NATO member?”
Long-term, the West needs to learn hard lessons and change failed policies. Short-term, we need to do whatever we can to support Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky who, when offered a chance to flee, tweeted: “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”
As rapidly as possible, we should provide Ukrainians with Stingers, Javelins, TOW missiles – whatever they need to defend themselves. And we should do everything we can to bring Russia’s economy to a grinding halt until such time as Mr. Putin’s troops go home.
Final point: There is inspiration to be found in the streets of Kyiv and the frozen fields of Donbas where a brave nation fights against all odds for independence, sovereignty, and the right to choose its leaders.
We can stand up to totalitarianism and defend freedom as we did in World War II and the Cold War. Or we can leave to our children a world in which evil empires expand and imperial conquerors enjoy what George Orwell called “the intoxication of power…the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless.” There is no third option.
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times. Follow him on Twitter @CliffordDMay. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.