Labor Day is behind us, Congress is returning to Washington, and the 2024 campaign is well underway. For Republicans who stress philosophy and policy over performance art, no issue is more ominous than the opposition within some party circles to helping Ukraine repulse Russia’s unprovoked aggression. In the months ahead, military and diplomatic developments, combined with congressional votes on Ukraine assistance, could have enormous implications for the party’s future direction.
Core Strategic Realities
Thwarting Russia’s continuing assault on Ukraine is a vital US national security interest. Encouraged by Barack Obama’s pathetic response to Moscow’s 2014 attack, and by Donald Trump’s willful inability to see Ukraine except through his own self-interest, Vladimir Putin is seeking to reverse the Soviet Union’s collapse and forge a new Russian empire. If successful in undoing the USSR’s beneficial and liberating disintegration, the Kremlin would again endanger all surrounding regions and prompt China and others to take advantage elsewhere of perceived US weakness and lack of resolve.
Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first and only freely and fairly elected leader, freely agreed to end the USSR at Belovezha after a 1991 Ukrainian referendum revealed majorities for independence in every region, including Crimea. Moscow’s current attempt to eliminate or severely compromise Kyiv’s sovereignty and territorial integrity manifestly endangers US interests by threatening the cornerstone post-1945 principle that peace and security in Europe are vital to our wellbeing.
That, in two paragraphs, is the core strategic case for Washington assisting Kyiv.
Congressional aid opponents have not seriously or systematically argued to the contrary. They have instead offered bumper-sticker-level rationales, straw men, and non-sequiturs, the very antithesis of strategic thinking.
The most frequently heard complaint is that President Joe Biden worries more about defending Ukraine’s border than America’s Mexican border. While this complaint has political resonance with many Republicans, it is the very paradigm of a non-sequitur, linking two issues that have no logical connection. Assuming (correctly) that Biden’s illegal-immigration policy is erroneous, failure on the Mexico border hardly justifies failure to contest Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The same applies to the fallacy that resources committed to Ukraine distract us from other global priorities. The real problem is not Ukraine, but wasteful domestic spending that overwhelms both expenditures for Ukraine aid and military spending generally.
Geopolitics by Bumper Sticker
The next most popular is the criticism that Washington should not “write blank checks for Ukraine.” Diligent research does not reveal a single member of Congress or the commentariat who has advocated unlimited “blank-check” support. True, Biden has been unduly deterred by unwarranted fear of Russian escalation. He has dribbled out extensive military assistance in an incoherent, helter-skelter fashion, thereby impairing Ukraine’s ability to act more strategically in expelling the Russians. But the administration’s incompetence does not alter fundamental American interests.
Nor has anyone opposed scrutiny of how the Pentagon and USAID distribute assistance, or of how Ukraine employs it. Corruption in government programs is endemic worldwide, including here at home, but being “shocked” at finding corruption in Ukraine does not excuse strategic malpractice. To the contrary, it is entirely in America’s interest that our assistance is employed effectively to achieve its intended purposes. Concededly, the “no blank checks” criticism fits on a bumper sticker, but it is otherwise utterly irrelevant.
In the straw-man category falls the criticism that China’s status as our pre-eminent adversary this century means we must effectively abandon Washington’s interests elsewhere. Whether in Europe, the Middle East, or beyond, we are told, significant US military commitments divert available resources necessary to defend Taiwan and other allies and interests in the Indo-Pacific.
This is nonsense. In reality, supporting Ukraine strengthens rather than impairs our politico-military ability to defend our interests elsewhere. Indeed, failure to defeat Russia’s aggression only encourages other American adversaries to act belligerently in their regions. The US has failed over multiple post-Cold War presidencies to meet Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength” standard by devoting adequate resources to defense, intelligence, and foreign-affairs objectives. Nonetheless, promptly correcting that failure hardly requires us to cut Ukraine loose.
Missing from critics’ analysis is the crucial acknowledgement that China is scrutinizing the Ukraine war more closely than many countries in Europe itself. Nor are they merely watching. The new and developing Sino-Russian axis, with Beijing as the command center, is already effectively engaged in the Ukraine war. We ignore this alignment at our peril. China’s significantly increased purchases of Russian oil and gas, the camouflage it provides for Russia’s international financial transactions, and its supply of dual-use equipment and other key resources aiding Russia’s war effort make Moscow and Beijing full partners. Ukraine is not just fighting Russia.
What China Sees
Moreover, Beijing’s strategists are seeking to assess whether Washington has the necessary determination to protect its interests in Europe. If not, China will undoubtedly conclude that the United States does not have the resolve to do so in East Asia and will recalibrate its thinking accordingly, particularly regarding Taiwan and the South China Sea. America’s Indo-Pacific allies have no doubts about what is at stake for them in the Ukraine war, which is why South Korea’s president and the prime ministers of Japan and Australia attended NATO’s recent Vilnius Summit. How can we miss what they see so clearly?
Of course, critics note that several European countries are not pulling their weight, a critique fully shared by Ukraine supporters. Nonetheless, saying rightly that many Europeans should do more does not mean we can wait around until they do. Washington has too long turned a blind eye to European defense inadequacies, but we can hardly subordinate — indeed, endanger — our own national security while Germany and others get their act together. Criticism of European underspending is accurate, but it is not enough in setting the right strategy to counter Russia.
Haunting all the opponents’ arguments is their tacit assumption that Ukraine is too distant to matter, that it is “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” Neville Chamberlain’s ghost is not at rest in today’s Republican Party, and this is clearly the time to take him on.
About the Author, Ambassador John R. Bolton
Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.
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