Why Ukraine Matters
In his classic account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, the Greek historian Thucydides wrote, “The strong do what they can and the week suffer what they must.”
On January 1, 2022, Americans celebrated the beginning of a New Year. Many enjoyed watching New Year’s Day parades and watching college football games. As the New Year began, few Americans could locate Ukraine on a map or identify its distinctive yellow and blue flag. But this suddenly changed on February 24th when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked attack on Ukraine.
Russia’s brutal invasion and the resulting humanitarian crisis stunned the world. Shocking and painful images of bombed buildings, terrified refugees and mass graves dominated the news. The crisis forced both global leaders and the American public to come to grips with one pressing question: “Why does the fate of Ukraine matter?”
The answers to this question are crucial to understanding this pivotal historic moment. The war is obviously crucial for Ukraine. But the conflict is not just about Ukraine. It will have immense consequences for democratic values and for America’s role as leader of the Free World.
Ukraine Matters Because We Can’t Allow Might to Make Right
Does might make right? For most of human history the answer has been yes. In his classic account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, the Greek historian Thucydides wrote, “The strong do what they can and the week suffer what they must.”
Thucydides’ grim but realistic prediction proved to be accurate. For centuries, aggressive nations and their ambitious rulers used force to conquer weaker nations. But this brutal and enduring characteristic of power politics seemed to change in the decades following World War II. Shocked by the war’s devastation, European and American leaders created a new rules-based international order in which accepted borders would not be changed by force.
The norm against territorial conquest brought Europe seven decades of peace and prosperity. But Vladimir Putin did not share this vision. He later described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Humiliated by the unraveling of the Soviet Union, Putin vowed to restore Russia’s global position of power and influence.
Putin began to challenge the norm against territorial conquest in Ukraine. In 2014, he annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and then carved out semi-autonomous republics in a region of eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas. Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine represents a blatant attempt to create a new international order based upon force. Ukraine matters because Putin cannot be allowed to redraw the map of Europe and might cannot be allowed to make right.
Ukraine Matters Because Dictators Cannot be Appeased
Hitler was a ruthless and amoral dictator who threatened to reverse the restrictions placed upon Germany by the Versailles Treaty. During the 1930s, Britain and France hoped that making territorial concessions would keep the peace. Known as appeasement, this misguided policy emboldened Hitler and led to World War II. In the years following the Second World War, appeasement became synonymous with surrender. American and European leaders vowed they would never again appease dictators.
Like Hitler, Vladimir Putin is a ruthless and amoral dictator. Undeterred by the threat of economic sanctions, Putin ordered the Russian war machine to invade Ukraine. Recalling the lessons of appeasing Hitler, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas warned, “If Putin wins, or even has a view that he has won this war, his appetite will only grow.” The outspoken Putin critic, Garry Kasparov underscored Kallas’ warning when he bluntly reminded American and Europeans, “Evil doesn’t die.”
Kallas and Kasparov are both right. If Putin’s aggression is allowed to go unchecked, it will embolden other authoritarian leaders. For example, President Xi of China may conclude that the gains of invading Taiwan outweigh the costs. Ukraine matters because the price of allowing Putin’s treacherous aggression is too high. Ukraine matters because it reminds us that dictators cannot be appeased.
Ukraine Matters Because Democracy Matters
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is taking place in the context of a global contest between democracies and autocracies. Democracy values regard for human rights, the rule of law, and the freedom of individuals to think, act, and create. Putin fears that a democratic and prosperous Ukraine on Russia’s border would inevitably pose a threat to his autocratic and corrupt rule.
The United States is the leader of the Free World. In his inaugural address, President Kennedy pledged the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” He concluded by welcoming “the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.”
America now faces another hour of “maximum danger.” Putin cannot be allowed to destroy Ukraine’s democratically elected government. Americans have always taken democracy seriously. Ukraine matters because democracy matters. We must take our democracy seriously by teaching it in our schools, improving it with our laws, and defending it with our economic and if necessary military power.
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