In his address before a rare joint session of Congress, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was unequivocal: Ukraine is under attack from Russia and in need of strong U.S. support to defend itself against Russia. But despite all the cheers and standing applause on Capitol Hill, Poroshenko is likely to return to Kiev empty-handed as Washington continues to dither over how to best respond to the crisis.

The backdrop to Poroshenko's visit to Washington is of course the conflict in his home country that has now taken over 2,600 lives and that continues to take even more despite the presence of a cease-fire agreed on by both parties. Facing an increasingly heavy Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine and little Western support, the Kiev government had little choice but to enter into negotiations with the pro-Russian rebels on Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinPutin not ready to recognize Biden win Putin: Russia ready to give Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine to other countries Trump to participate in virtual G-20 summit amid coronavirus surge MORE's terms a few weeks ago.


As a result, Putin is now winning big time in Ukraine. Having already annexed Crimea, he is now in a position to tighten his grip over the eastern provinces as well. His logical next step may well be to create a land bridge between Crimea and the city of Mariupol. And even if so, there is no reason to think he would stop there. Russia could easily push for even greater autonomy — or even a Crimea-style referendum — in eastern Ukraine.

Such a move would surely be a recipe for a permanently frozen conflict in Ukraine, which is precisely what Putin wants. For a free, democratic and Western-oriented Ukraine, however, this would be disastrous.

But this outcome would also be a disaster for the West. While the West has repeatedly denounced Russia's actions in Ukraine as unacceptable, it has done little to stop it. If the West really was serious about not tolerating Putin's aggressions, it would do far more to put pressure on Russia and to support Ukraine.

For many NATO allies, cautious about beefing up Ukraine's ability to defend itself, a frozen conflict might of course seem like a preferable outcome to a complete Ukrainian defeat to Russia. But giving in to Putin is unfair to Ukraine, which longs to be part of the West and has the right to choose to do so. The lack of U.S. and European support has left many Western-oriented people in Ukraine with a strong sense of abandonment from the West.

The other reason for the West to balk at the prospect of a frozen conflict in Ukraine is that it wouldn't solve any its own problems with Russia. If anything, such an outcome would only make things worse. If Putin senses he can win in Ukraine it would only embolden him to continue pursue an even more reckless path both there and beyond. If so, that would be very bad news for other regional NATO and non-member states.

The West must not be fooled by Putin's sudden willingness to support the cease-fire. There is no reason to think Moscow has suddenly gone soft on Ukraine. Poroshenko's speech before Congress serves as a stark reminder that Putin is not serious about peace. Moscow still denies the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Let's also recall that this is the same Putin who recently joked that "Russia could be in Kiev in two weeks."

Instead of accepting Putin's win, the West must call Putin's bluff. The Obama administration must move beyond merely offering words of support to Ukraine. It must take Poroshenko at his words when he calls for more U.S. leadership in the crisis.

In the immediate term, Washington must move forward with tougher sanctions against Russia. The latest U.S. and EU rounds of sanctions is a good step, but far from enough. The White House must push its European partners to also target Gazprom and its leadership without delay. The West must also avoid jumping too quickly to remove these sanctions, even if the cease-fire holds. Instead, they should apply the central lesson from the flawed "reset" following the 2008 Georgia war and not remove the pressure from Moscow too fast.

Additionally, the U.S. — together with other NATO allies — should step up its direct lethal and non-lethal assistance to the Ukrainian army. It should send more advisers, trainers and advanced military and intelligence assets to Ukraine. As Poroshenko said before Congress, "one cannot win the war with blankets. Nor can one keep the peace with blankets." He is right. The U.S. must take the lead here and push European allies to follow.

In the long term, NATO must declare its willingness to keep its door open to Ukraine and other states such as Georgia. This includes working closely with the Kiev government to carry out the reforms necessary for the country to one day qualify for membership. The most important criterion is of course helping Ukraine guarantee its own territorial integrity.

As Poroshenko departs from Washington, President Obama's task is to make him confident that the United States stands fully behind him — both in words and action. A failure to deliver a substantial new pledge of support to Kiev would be a serious blow not just to a free and united Ukraine, but also to the very values that the United States stand for — the same values that Vladimir Putin is currently trampling all over in Ukraine.

Brattberg is a resident fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council.