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Keeping Our Nerve on Ukraine

Keeping Our Nerve on Ukraine

Supporting Ukraine to reclaim its territory from Russian invaders involves costs. But the costs for our common security will be far higher if we lose our nerve now, argue Jeffrey Gedmin and William Kristol in Germany’s Tagesspiegel.

Jeffrey Gedmin, William Kristol

We write as Americans who are strong believers in NATO, in U.S. engagement in the world, and in the importance of a close U.S.-German relationship. We write as unequivocal supporters of the cause of Ukraine in their noble resistance to Putin’s invasion and brutal war. We write as analysts who have generally, over the last year, praised the leadership in this crisis of President Joe Biden and Chancellor Olaf Scholz. We were encouraged by what we heard about the determination to stay the course with Ukraine in private meetings in Berlin in January, and we’re heading back at the end of this month.

But we must confess to being somewhat alarmed.

Do our leaders, in the U.S. and Germany, have the sense of urgency that they ought to have? The sense of urgency shown by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who said last year we should have listened much earlier to Vladimir Putin’s East European neighbors, who was the first western leader to visit Ukraine following last February’s invasion—she went right to Bucha and Irpin—and who recently in Kyiv reminded us that the fate of European security hangs now in the balance in Ukraine.

Do our leaders, in the U.S. and Germany, have the clarity of vision they might have? Do they say, as Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin did when asked about off ramps for Russia, that Russian forces leaving Ukraine is the off ramp? Do they now fully appreciate the warning issued by Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas before the full-scale invasion began? She urged us all to beware of Russian demands for things that do not belong to Russia in the first place, followed, she said, by attempts at intimidation and threats of escalation.

On the whole, over the last year, the United States and Germany have done well. And just last week President Biden said in his State of the Union address that we would stand with Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” But we’d also note that President Biden spoke mostly about what we’ve done over the last year for Ukraine; he said little about how we will support brave Ukrainians in the difficult period ahead.

Meanwhile, the good news from Washington is that there is no real evidence yet of Trumpist Republicans undermining support for Ukraine. Not yet. But as we approach the 2024 presidential campaign in the U.S., we can imagine “America First” sentiments getting stronger. And so we can envision support eroding in some conservative circles, and the strong and bipartisan support for Ukraine becoming shaky.

In Berlin, the Zeitenwende has started–a paradigm shift with bumps along the way. One has to be impressed by Germany’s military and economic assistance to Ukraine over this past year. What’s more, the German-American relationship appears to be sturdy. But in our conversations with Germans they stressed that the mood here could shift.  We see Russian disinformation continuing to spread in Europe. We watch Viktor Orbán making his pernicious arguments. We’ve seen some polling in Germany that suggests growing numbers favor an end to the war through negotiations with Russia—without a decisive victory for Ukraine, without a decisive defeat for Putin. And now we hear calls in some circles for negotiations with Russia.

So this is no time for complacency. It’s time to reassert our unequivocal support for President Zelenskyy and the elected government in Kyiv. It’s actually time for more support for Ukraine and more pressure on Russia.

The time to stop Russian revanchism and imperialism is now. The time to establish the principle that aggression will not succeed, that threats of the use of nuclear weapons will not work, that brutality will not pay off, is now. And the time to stand with brave Ukrainians, who fight and die to defend their homeland and freedom, is now.

We were recently speaking with a young Ukrainian friend who’s just given birth to a son. Her husband, a filmmaker, is fighting in the east. She remarked in passing that it’s hard for her to think of a single friend in Ukraine who has not already lost in this awful war a father, a brother, a son, or a cousin. We cannot let these sacrifices be for naught. We must help Ukraine gain peace and freedom.

We’re not cavalier about risks. But the costs of inaction far outweigh the potential costs of further action. Ukraine is urgent need of additional military aid and modern weapons to prevail on the battlefield. Otherwise, we face the specter of another frozen conflict in the region, more refugees, unsettled neighbors, a bruised transatlantic alliance, nations around the world rushing to accommodate brutal autocrats and/or arming themselves with nuclear weapons so they do not meet the fate of Ukraine. And this is to say nothing of the terrible and historic tragedy of Ukraine betrayed.

Fighting to win has its costs. But the costs for our common transatlantic security will be far higher if we falter and lose our nerve now.

And failure to achieve victory in Ukraine would have global consequences. Just as the theocratic regime in Tehran rushes to supply Moscow with additional drones to kill Ukrainian civilians, the people of Iran, who risk daily for their freedom, continue to voice their support for the people of Ukraine. The Communist Party of China is watching and drawing conclusions. As is everyone else. If the West is unable to sustain support for a partner fighting against a butcher in NATO’s back yard—what then?

But if we defeat Putin, if we help Ukraine prevail—a brighter future lies ahead.

It’s no time to let up.

Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose. William Kristol is editor-at-large of The Bulwark.

Editor’s note: This is the English version of a piece by the authors that appeared in German in Tagesspiegel.

Image: Ukrainian soldiers conducting an anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine. (Ukraine Ministry of Defense)

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