It’s about him, it’s about us and it’s about Ukraine.
First, the Ukraine crisis concerns Russian President Vladimir Putin, suffering from what historians call the “slippage of rationality” that accompanies 22 years of autocratic rule. Growing more rigid and isolated over time – surrounded by sycophants and facing unforeseen Ukrainian resistance – he redoubled his efforts in his premeditated, unprovoked, illegal and immoral war.
Second, however, it is even more about the West and whether we can reverse the “slide of resolve” among Western democracies of the past three decades, underlined by an erosion of democratic achievements in the world since 2006. Putin is the result of our mass amnesia about what despots do when they are appeased for too long. Ukraine is the immediate victim, but not the only one.
We too few answers after Russia cyberattack on Estonia in 2007, Georgian invasion of Russia in 2008, The annexation of Crimea by Russia and the military intervention of Donbass in 2014; Russia’s ongoing cyberattacks and disinformation against the United States and other democracies; its repression and the assassination of opponents; and now this international crime scene taking place in Ukraine.
A flurry of announcements over the weekend signals a tectonic shift in Europe and a no less significant move within the Biden administration towards a more assertive posture, suggesting a growing awareness that Putin’s assaults are as much of a danger to the future of Europe than for Ukraine.
On Saturday, the European Union, the United States, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Japan and Canada – the Group of 7 countries, plus the EU – announced unprecedented major economic sanctions against Russia. “Never before has a G-20 economy had its foreign assets frozen,” said Josh Lipsky, director of the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center. “This could cripple the commercial banking system which is already under severe pressure from the sanctions and lead to a precipitous weakening of the ruble when markets open on Monday.”
The measures included removing some Russian banks from the SWIFT system, thus compromising their ability to act on a global scale; measures that will prevent the Central Bank of Russia from deploying its reserves in a way that could undermine the impact of sanctions; and a crackdown on “golden passports” that gave wealthy Russians access to Western financial systems.
This was accompanied by the announcement by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz of a revolutionary decision to arm Ukraine with anti-aircraft systems and missiles, followed by its decision on Sunday to increase defense spending to more than 2% of GDP alongside a special fund of 100 billion dollars for defense investments.
“The Russian invasion marks a turning point,” Scholz tweeted on Saturday. “It is our duty to support Ukraine to the best of our abilities in its defense against Putin’s invading army.”
This, in turn, was accompanied the release by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken of additional military support of $350 million, signaling President Joe Biden’s growing understanding that his legacy is at stake.
Thirdly, of course, the crisis concerns more directly Ukraine, a democratic country country of 44 million people that became independent after the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Ukraine’s main threat to Moscow since then has been its example of independence, freedom and prosperity, an example that Putin is trying to smother with lies that its Jewish President Volodomyr Zelenskyy and his government are a “neo nazi gang“, principal war crimes which must be documented and tracked.
Zelenskyy has become an unlikely hero, refusing to leave Kyiv, the country’s capital, despite the danger to his life. After US officials offered to evacuate him, Zelenskyy instead said he needed ammunition and “not a turn.”
Ukraine’s stubborn resistance surprised Putin and gave Western democracies more time to act. The Ukrainian army and thousands of freshly recruited volunteers have regained control of Kiev Saturday Russian troops and infiltration unitsand they continue to resist Russian efforts to take Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city.
That said, there is no doubt that Putin will double down in the coming days rather than accept defeat. It has only scratched the surface of the damage its 190,000 deployed troops can cause. Putin’s misguided war now threatens his own survival. And just now he put Russian nuclear deterrents on high alert in a brazen new attempt to threaten the world.
“If the fierce Ukrainian resistance leads to a long and bloody war”, wrote Yaroslav Trofimov of the Wall Street Journal in Kiev“or forces Mr. Putin to seek an end to the fighting without achieving his goals – the setback could threaten both his grip on power in Moscow and his drive to restore Russia as a world power.”
Conversely, if Putin is not arrested, his armies will be all the closer to the most exposed members of NATO, formerly “captive nations” of the Soviet bloc, today members of the European Union. : Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. There is a consensus gathering, driving the actions this weekend, that Putin would not stop at Ukraine.
Maybe sometimes it takes a brave people like the Ukrainians to remind us of the freedoms we too often take for granted. For me, as a journalist in Eastern and Central Europe in the 1980s, this was a role that the Polish people and the Polish Pope played during the last years of the Cold War.
At the Munich Security Conference a few days ago, the most inspiring moment of the weekend for me was a small private dinner with Ukrainian parliamentarians, in their thirties or younger.
One after another, they spoke with the passion of individuals who understood that they were on the front lines of freedom, calling on their European and American colleagues to defend the Ukrainian democracy they had inspired.
A former parliamentarian, a young woman who the next day would return to her family in Ukraine for the start of the war, spoke of the commitments made to Ukraine in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. It was then that the United States, Britain and Russia offered guaranteed security to Ukraine in exchange for its agreement to return all of its 1,800 nuclear weapons to Russia.
His message: Ukraine had delivered on its commitments, and now was the time for the United States and its partners to deliver on theirs.
President Zelenskyy’s delegation’s chance of succeeding in Belarusian border talks with a Russian delegation would be much greater if Putin was convinced that the West supports Ukraine.
—Frederick Kempe is the President and CEO of the Atlantic Council.