Column: Aid to Ukraine tests American staying power

By NARAIN BATRA

For the Valley News

Published: 03-06-2023 9:57 AM

What would have happened if the West under the determined and compassionate leadership of the United States and President Joe Biden had not promptly come to Ukraine’s rescue when Russia launched its savage and horrendous attack a year ago?

Or perhaps, it is better to ask whether the West would have continued its unflinching and full-throated support, including military arsenals and billions of dollars in aid, if the defiant Ukrainians, under the fearless, dynamic, and persuasive leadership of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, had not shown their courage in defending Kyiv against the brutal Russian attack?

Vladimir Putin’s dream of a quick victory at Kyiv and the regime change to reduce Ukraine into a vassal state like Belarus turned into utter humiliation and desperation. Bucha — a witness to Russia’s crimes against humanity — the town that was brutalized by mass murder, including the killing of children, torture, execution, looting and rape by the Russian forces during their assault on the way to Kyiv, has begun to recover from the horror and rebuild itself.

For Ukrainians, the price of defending their homeland has been humongous. According to some estimates, 100,000 Ukrainians have been killed and injured, 8 million have become refugees in neighboring countries, and an equal number of people have been displaced in their own country. The US has admitted more than 271,000 Ukrainian refugees since the invasion.

But the numbers alone do not conjure up the terrible misery of the innocent people caught up in the war — except when we see our evenings being filled with streaming videos of Ukraine being bombarded with rockets and drones, buildings collapsing like houses of cards and the people, the elderly, women and children, running for safety through the debris.

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Entire cities have been razed to rubble and have become ghost towns as the Russian forces, after their defeat in Kyiv, changed their strategic goals, and moved to the south, and captured Mariupol to link the Crimean peninsula with the Donbas region. But the Russians failed to hold on to Kherson whose liberation by the Ukrainian forces gave hope that Ukraine might beat back Russia. Nor did missiles and drones help Russia to capture the eastern city of Bakhmut despite causing widespread death and destruction. Ukrainians have remained unbroken. The anticipated Russian spring offensive has already begun.

One wonders what makes Ukraine so defiant. And therefore, to give up on such people would be utter moral cowardice. James Meek wrote in The Guardian: “A year ago, the world doubted Ukraine’s survival; now is the time to plan how to help it live and thrive. ... The west has been Kyiv’s arsenal and banker, but what role would it play in a conflict that could last generations?”

A conflict of generations might seem rather too disheartening. But let’s be realistic. Keep in mind that in spite of considerable military and financial support, about $150 billion, of which the US has provided $75 billion including $47 billion in weapons, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Ukraine is nowhere near victory. After an extraordinary clandestine overnight train visit to Ukraine, President Joe Biden told a cheering crowd in Warsaw that “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia. Never.” But no victory for Russia doesn’t mean a decisive victory for Ukraine. Or a decisive defeat for Russia.

Russia is not likely to give up what it has already conquered, including Crimea and the eastern Donbas region, in spite of 200,000 Russian troops killed or wounded in action. Putin’s authoritarian hold in Russia seems unshakable at present. In spite of massive sanctions, the Russian economy has not tanked. China’s commitment to Russia has been steadfast in spite of the fact that it has recently called for a ceasefire while condemning the US for supplying “a steady stream of weapons to the battlefield.” This was in response to Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s warning that China might supply arms to Russia.

Since it’s being projected as an existential war by both Putin and Zelensky, there’s little scope for any compromise today except achieving a state of militant stalemate. The region under Russian control would remain an unsettled and contested zone of no war-no peace. The precarious situation, the twilight zone, could be sustainable with controlled military assistance to Ukraine so long it does not lead to the possibility of a nuclear war.

There’s no gainsaying the fact that although war has brutalized a vast swath of the Ukrainian population, the West’s geopolitical gains have been tremendous. With the admission of Finland and Sweden as full-fledged members, NATO would be enlarged, and Europe would be more united than ever since the end of the Cold War. The question is whether the truncated and moth-eaten Ukraine would be allowed to become part of the EU and NATO, without which it would have no democratic future.

Narain Batra publishes the Freedom&Geopolitics newsletter and podcast about media, culture, politics, technology, and America’s global role. He’s the author of The First Freedoms and America’s Culture of Innovation, and is affiliated with the Diplomacy and International Program in the graduate college at Norwich University.

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