In Ukraine, a ray of hope

Masha Fesenko, from Kyiv, arrives at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland, Poland
Associated Press/Visar Kryeziu

It has been more than a month since Russia invaded Ukraine. In that time, the Ukrainian people have stunned the world with their courage, resilience and determination to defend their homes at all costs. The Qur’an tells us that “God is with those who are patient in adversity”; for the Ukrainians’ sake, let us pray that it is so.  

Putin, as is his habit, has cloaked his war aims in a fog of half-truths, misinformation and outright lies. “In the foreseeable future,” Putin argued, “it was possible that the pro-Nazi regime in Kyiv could have got its hands on weapons of mass destruction, and its target, of course, would have been Russia.” Such risible claims have, fortunately, found little purchase outside Russia’s sphere of influence.  

Some continue to indulge in a milder version of the Kremlin’s narrative, however. So-called “realists” have claimed, “If there were no NATO expansion and no E.U. expansion,” the current crisis could have been avoided. Less sophisticated versions of this view even seem to imply that Russia invaded Ukraine in a belated reaction to NATO’s expansion into Central Europe in the late 1990s. 

Yet through the fog of Putin’s rhetoric, one can discern clear hints of his true objective: to revive, albeit in nucleic form, as much of the old Russian Empire as coercion and intimidation can bring into Moscow’s orbit. In his now-infamous speech of Feb. 23, he noted that “[s]ince time immemorial, the people living in the southwest of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians,” and that “what we now call Ukraine was entirely created by Russia.” In other words, a Ukrainian identity separate from Russia is fiction, and the Ukrainian state has no true legitimacy.  

This debate over Putin’s true aims is not simply a matter of apportioning blame for the current crisis. On the contrary, it has concrete implications for what to do next. A Moscow that was truly seeking a buffer zone separating it from NATO could be mollified by credible assurances that Ukraine will remain outside the alliance. If, on the other hand, Putin is truly seeking an imperial restoration, built on the subjugation of Russia’s near abroad, a commitment to international norms demands a response made of sterner stuff. 

On that front, there has been a welcome stream of good news.  

The United States has led the way. The Biden administration has levied an imposing array of economic sanctions on Russia and even banned imports of its oil, gas and coal. Congress has already approved $1.2 billion in aid to Ukraine, and President Biden is widely expected to add a further $800 million in military assistance. To further underscore Washington’s seriousness, the Pentagon has deployed another 7,000 troops to Europe. 

Europe has shown surprising fortitude in confronting this new wave of aggression. Over the course of one week, Germany flipped from the weak link in NATO’s cordon sanitaire to its linchpin. Under Angela Merkel, the German defense budget was chronically short of its NATO commitments and the country’s energy market fell into deep dependence on Russian energy exports.  

After Ukraine was invaded, Chancellor Olaf Scholz joined the American push for sweeping EU sanctions on Russia and expanded the defense budget by a stunning 30 percent. Sweden and Finland, which have long maintained distance from NATO, have publicly floated joining the alliance. Even perennially neutral Switzerland joined the sanctions regime in a clear repudiation of Russia’s invasion.  

Even China — which as recently as February declared that “Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation,” — has labored to take a more neutral tone since the invasion began. President Xi has called for “maximum restraint” in the conflict while stopping short of criticizing Putin, his erstwhile ally. Beijing has many reasons to hedge.  

Indeed, the punishing onslaught of Western sanctions directed at Russia has given rise to widespread fears among Chinese firms that they will find themselves caught up in the same sanctions architecture that has decimated the Russian economy. Foreign Minister Wang Yi all but acknowledged as much in a recent press event where he insisted that “China is not a party to the crisis, nor does it want the sanctions to affect China.” 

All in all, even as we mourn the dead and rightfully decry the challenge to the Great Power peace that has reigned since 1945, there are many reasons to be hopeful. The West has shown itself to be far stronger, more resilient and less decadent than its would-be successors had imagined. Russia’s vaunted military juggernaut has shown itself to be far hollower and less capable than most observers would have believed. And the Ukrainians themselves, far from the pliant vassals of Putin’s imaginings, have sustained a doughty defense of their homeland that has not only won worldwide admiration but stopped the Russian military in its tracks.   

One of America’s greatest strengths is its ability to summon into being and coordinate a coalition of like-minded allies. Perhaps never has that leadership been more crucial. In order to build a durable coalition to contain Russian aggression, Washington will have to reassure traditional allies that despite the withdrawal from Afghanistan, America is still deeply committed to their security and to the preservation of international norms. In today’s Europe, that message will fall on receptive ears.  

In the Middle East, among Washington’s traditional allies, the administration will likely find tougher going. On the popular level, there is plenty of discontent with Russian imperialism in the Arab world, which ranges from its military engagement in Syria to its ever-deepening security and economic relationships with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. 

However, on the political level, concerns about America’s commitment to key Middle Eastern allies — a perception of indifference to their national security concerns — have driven a number of Arab powers to develop their own relationships with Moscow. It has partly been cultivated as a hedge against American withdrawal, and partly out of frustration with Washington’s cultivation of its own regional and domestic rivals. Bringing these allies into the process means giving their concerns a fair hearing, which can go a long way towards bolstering renewed America’s new strategy of containment. 

In the end, for all the talk of American decline and a post-American age, eight decades after the guns fell silent on the last World War, it is still America that the world looks to for a last line of defense against would-be conquerors. Americans need only retain their faith in themselves, and extend an open hand to their many friends and allies around the world. They will find we are there, waiting for them.

Ahmed Charai is a publisher of The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune. He is on the board of directors for the Atlantic Council, and an international counselor of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. 

Tags In Russia In Ukraine International relations Joe Biden NATO Post-Soviet conflicts Prelude to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine Reactions to the 2021–2022 Russo-Ukrainian crisis Russian irredentism Vladimir Putin

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