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Put America first: Support Ukraine

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark Milley, right, accompanied by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington on March 15, 2023.

Supporting Ukraine’s effort to defeat Russia is in the U.S. national interest. Unfortunately, recent comments by leading Republicans call into question whether the U.S. should continue to help Ukraine get what it needs to defeat Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

In a response to a questionnaire from Tucker Carlson of Fox News, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis first referred to the war as “a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia,” noting that “checking the economic, cultural and military power of the Chinese Communist Party” is vital, but later walked back the comments regarding the Ukraine war. In his response to Carlson’s question on Ukraine, former President Donald Trump said that opposing Russia was not a vital national strategic interest for the U.S., although it is in the interest of the Europeans.

There are certainly Republicans who are in favor of helping Ukraine, and congressional funding of Biden administration requests for sending Ukraine aid reflects that. But the fault lines in sustaining funds for Ukraine are there. The administration and others must continue to address why U.S. support for Ukraine is the right policy.

The premise of those who call into question our support of Ukraine is that “American interests must come first.” The U.S. should remain steadfast in aiding the Ukrainians precisely because, in so doing, it is putting U.S. interests and values first. Regarding interests, if Putin defeats Ukraine, it would have a dramatic impact on U.S. national security, emboldening him to attack his neighbors at will and further strengthening Russia’s relations with China. This, in turn, would affect U.S. economic interests as well. Finally, Putin’s success would undermine support for democracy, human rights and personal liberty, which are fundamental U.S. values.

The Biden administration reinstituted a policy of working with our allies and friends in common cause through NATO, the European Union, other international organizations, and bilaterally.  That was not the approach of the previous administration, and it undercut trust in the U.S. as a reliable partner. There is still some skepticism about whether the U.S. can be counted on over the long term. European political leaders wonder if the Biden administration is an interregnum or whether the Trump administration’s unilateral and often antagonistic attitude toward them was a passing phase.  

That matters because, if allies and friends believe that U.S. support for essential national security policies such as assisting Ukraine will not be sustained, they could doubt the utility of maintaining a close working relationship with the U.S. Trump indicated he would consider pulling out of NATO, according to John Bolton, one of his national security advisers. NATO works because its members trust each other, and NATO amplifies U.S. military strength and reach.  

Russia understands that violating the territorial integrity of a NATO nation means it will be confronted with the military capability of all its members. This has been integral to the U.S. and allied approach to supporting Ukraine. The idea that the U.S. might stop supporting Ukraine and leave NATO is right out of the Putin playbook.  

DeSantis and others have said the administration should focus on confronting China, not on the war in Ukraine. Again, pulling back from Ukraine is not only what Putin wants; it is what Chinese leader Xi Jinping expects. Xi recently visited Putin in Moscow to underscore the special relationship without conditions between the two countries. China helps keep the Russian economy afloat by buying Russian oil, and there is concern that China will supply Russia with much-needed military equipment to support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

In addition, Xi is likely keeping a close watch on what the U.S. does with regard to helping Ukraine and what that might mean to his stated willingness to use military force against Taiwan as part of a reunification effort. If the U.S. pulls back from Ukraine, China will take this as a green light to help Russia and make a possible attack against Taiwan more likely.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has had a profound economic impact globally. A recent United Nations report lays this out clearly: “The economic impact of the war is reverberating worldwide, contributing to inflationary pressures, and impeding the post-pandemic recovery. The war led to elevated energy prices and exacerbated food shortages in many regions. The repercussions of the conflict are being felt both in developed economies, especially in Europe, which has been confronted with skyrocketing energy prices, threats to its energy security, and inflow of the Ukrainian refugees, and in developing countries, especially those with high shares of grains in their food consumption basket.”

If the U.S. pulls back in its support for Ukraine, the conditions described in the UN report could worsen, and Russia and China will gain the upper hand in responding to the global economic crises that the Ukrainian invasion has created. An article by scholars Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage points out that Russian success in Ukraine, which can be measured in various ways, would have profoundly negative economic consequences: “The United States and Europe will also be in a state of permanent economic war with Russia. The West will seek to enforce sweeping sanctions, which Russia is likely to parry with cyber-measures and energy blackmailing, given the economic asymmetries.” 

The recent meeting between Putin and Xi in Moscow stressed the economic ties between their two nations, as the New York Times reported: “President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, declared an enduring economic partnership on Tuesday, promising to bring more Russian energy to China and more Chinese companies to Russia as the two leaders sought to insulate their countries from Western sanctions and other consequences of the war in Ukraine.” If Ukraine is forced to agree to Russia’s terms on ending the war — made much more likely if there is a lack of support from the U.S. — the Xi-Putin economic axis would become more formidable. China would be buoyed to ignore Western sanctions and related economic efforts against itself and Russia.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued a warrant for Putin’s arrest for war crimes, including the kidnapping of Ukrainian children. His attack on Ukrainian civilians is another example of Russia’s war crimes. The Ukrainian people are victims of an unprovoked war they did not seek or incite. Putin has underscored the fact that he will do anything, including murder of women and children, as part of his strategy to subjugate the Ukrainian people. In addition, he and the Wagner Group, a militia fighting alongside the Russian military in Ukraine, are using Russian recruits as cannon fodder. Putin has shown disregard for the people he is supposed to represent. If the U.S. withdraws its support for Ukraine, Putin will prosecute his atrocities with impunity.

Those in the U.S. who question the administration’s support for Ukraine because it’s not in America’s interest need to look at the facts: That simply is not true. If the U.S. pulls back, it not only helps Putin, who has shown he will do anything to prevail, but also helps Xi by confirming his belief that the U.S. has a feckless foreign policy and failing political system. 

Putting America first is about understanding that helping Ukraine is unequivocally strengthening American interests and championing American values.  

William Danvers, a former deputy secretary general of the OECD, is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School and worked on national security issues for the Clinton and Obama administrations.

Tags China-Russia strategic partnership Donald Trump Joe Biden Ron DeSantis Russia under Vladimir Putin Tucker Carlson Ukraine war US aid to Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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