Remember: In the Freedom versus Tyranny Struggle, Ukraine Must Win and Putin Must Lose
With the Israel-Hamas war seizing the world’s attention, another war — in which Russia’s Vladimir Putin without legitimate pretext invaded neighboring Ukraine — has sunk out of range.
But it should not: In the global struggle of democracy versus autocracy, if Putin the Autocrat wins, it means the reversal of so much that was secured in the post-World War II era. Cross-border land grabs become legitimate again; torture and rape return as instruments of war; the Geneva Conventions are sacked, doing away with war conducted in any humane way.
Ukraine, the scrappy David in this David-and-Goliath contest, has fought valiantly since it was invaded almost two years ago. With a former comedian meeting his moment and stepping up as its wartime leader, Ukraine has punched far above its weight — with weapons supplied by Europe and the U.S., often requiring ingenious adaptation on the battlefield.
But: Ukraine has suffered enormously, with casualties both combat and, against the rules of war, civilian, with fully one-third — repeat: one-third — of its population forced to flee the country. Whole cities — Mariupol — and towns — Bucha — have been destroyed, joining History’s annals of atrocities. An atrocity lost sight of by the world: Russia has abducted thousands of Ukrainian children and put them in “re-education” camps, an especially cruel element of Russia’s genocidal war.
And now, with its counter-offensive stalled — despite Ukraine inflicting nearly twice their own death rate: 120,000 Russian war dead versus Ukraine’s 70,000 — Ukraine finds itself losing international support and international media attention. Another of History’s truths: A small country must maneuver — more ingenuity required — on the international stage vis-à-vis the Great Powers, or else….
Desperate to regain momentum — and save itself from extinction — Ukraine is reaching out to the world.
Recently, Ukraine’s minister of strategic industries met with U.S. arms manufacturers, seeking “co-production” partnerships to enable Ukraine to manufacture more of its own weaponry. And now Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, comes hat in hand (and no doubt heart in throat) to Washington, at President Joe Biden’s invitation, to un-jam a Congressional logjam, or try to, and enable a multi-billion-dollar military aid package to both Ukraine and Israel.
Fair or not (it’s not), this small country’s fate as a nation rests with the politics of a Great Power (America) — or more to the point, America’s severely dysfunctional politics at present. Jamming the process, Republicans, expressing reduced support for Ukraine, have refused to cooperate unless immigration reform and border security are part of the mix.
But lest anyone forget: It was President Biden himself who included immigration reform and border security — way back in August — in his proposed Ukraine package: He did this as sweetener to Republicans, who have long insisted on it. Also, Mr. Biden understands immigration reform and border security will be major issues in the 2024 presidential election.
It could be a big win for America — politically, historically, morally. Not to mention for Ukraine…. Yet nothing has happened to date.
I confess I am disappointed in my fellow Democrats: They have known, again since August, that immigration reform and border security were part of any extension of military aid to Ukraine, yet they kept balking. Yes, the devil is in the details (which details are hard to track in closed sessions) and Dems would claim lots of GOP devilry. But: To save Ukraine from extinction — and save the cause of democracy from losing to Putin’s autocracy — Democrats could not agree at least “in principle” to immigration reform and border security, then work out the details later? Really?
Especially disappointing are progressive Democrats, who recently called it “unconscionable” that President Biden would agree to any reduction in immigration to the U.S. What? The fact that immigration to the U.S. this year was at a record high, with almost 11,000 migrants entering the U.S. per day, is somehow un-American? Really?
Granted, immigration reform has gone unresolved for 30 years, because of the parties’ divergent approaches. This go-round, Republicans want more controls on asylum, insisting migrants apply for asylum in countries through which they pass enroute to the U.S. Dems worry that the expanded executive authority Republicans demand means a “national dragnet” on deportations. Dems also want a path to citizenship for Dreamers, those migrants brought illegally as children to the U.S., but Republicans counter that this go-round is all about security and Dreamers are not a security issue.
Mr. Zelensky understands the need for security at our southern border. He also argues for another kind of border security: between democracy and autocracy.
Can this impasse be broken by tomorrow, Thursday, when Congress adjourns for the Holidays? Will new House speaker Mike Johnson call members back during the Holidays to push for final passage? Will President Biden and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell personally intervene at this late juncture, as many members of Congress now want? The President has indicated he is ready to make concessions (with Democrats worrying: what concessions?).
In all this, will Ukraine’s fate — and the fate of democracy versus autocracy — be kept top of mind in the hurly burly among these political players? This is, in truth, a test of America’s maturity. I wish I could be more sanguine about that maturity.
Hindsight is 20–20: Europe should have provided more of the weaponry Ukraine needed. Same with President Biden: He erred in holding back on the weapons he ultimately provided Ukraine — and which, upon receipt, the Ukrainians deployed successfully: tanks, air defense systems, etc. But enough with the past tense; what about now? What Ukraine needs now is air power: But the F-16, which Mr. Biden finally agreed to let allies provide Ukraine, cannot be deployed for months.
This drama — will Ukraine get the arms and funding to fight another day? — is climaxing now, with Congress’ decision to extend the multi-billion-dollar aid package. Remember: Ukraine is fighting the West’s cause — i.e., democracy — yet many in Congress, i.e. Republicans, are talking trash about democracy of late. Helpfully, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin provides a new lens on the democracy versus autocracy struggle. Appearing with Mr. Zelensky days ago at the National Defense University, Mr. Austin reframed the struggle: It is between freedom and tyranny and America is “key” to it.
“Zelensky Fails to Sway the G.O.P.”: So reads a headline in today’s New York Times. Wrong: America fails Ukraine. Veteran Putin-watcher Fiona Hill is blistering on this point, while also noting that, if Putin wins, America’s standing in the world is radically diminished: “We’re just falling all over ourselves to engage in self-harm.” This is the Achilles heel of democracy: Democracies engage in vigorous, not to say unproductive, debate. Tyrants don’t allow debate. Can tyrants be shown their fatal flaw?
A year ago I wrote about Volodymyr Zelensky as a true hero, whom only a helpless world could make tragic. I amend and extend that thought now: Ukraine is truly a heroic nation, which only a helpless West can render tragic. Vladimir Putin believes the West is so dissolute that we cannot muster a response. Will we? Can we?