Why we must defeat Russian imperialism now


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is about more than Ukraine. It’s about frontline states in Europe’s east that fear they’re next; it’s about Europe whole and free.

It’s about the developing world, too. Because of Russia’s Black Sea blockade, African nations face famine. In Somalia, as many as 250,000 people confront imminent starvation. In Kyiv recently, I met with the chairman of Odessa’s Regional Council, who predicted more missile terrorism against the coast.

Crucially, the war is bringing into focus questions about the credibility and influence of the United States in the world. The Chinese, Iranians and North Koreans are watching. So are American allies. President Joe Biden may have domestic reasons for not wanting to say so, but America is in a proxy war. Who wins will have far-reaching implications.

I’m a millennial from Eastern Europe. Growing up in Bucharest in the 1990s, I learned about Russian authoritarianism and imperialism from my grandparents, who lived through the horrors of Soviet occupation. From my parents, I often heard that the best thing that could happen to our country would be for the Americans to come. After the United States and its allies liberated Eastern Europe — yes, the Cold War had a winner and a loser — my best friend and I named our puppy “NATO.”

Smoke rises after shelling during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in Donetsk, Ukraine.
Smoke rises after shelling during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in Donetsk, Ukraine.
Alexander Ermochenko/REUTERS

Then came 9/11, Iraq, the financial crisis, the Trump years, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan. The United States began to lose hearts and minds, and not just where I come from. Many of the Gen Z students I teach at Georgetown and George Washington University are skeptical of a strong American role in the world. The crucial leadership once played by the United States in the Cold War is ancient history for them.

Across generations, trust that “Biden will do the right thing in world affairs” is waning. Only 38% of Europeans trust the United States on Ukraine. I have friends at home and across the region — influenced by years of Russian disinformation, to be sure — who doubt American staying power.

Helping Ukraine win can reverse this. Moscow’s aggression has been so brazen, its crimes so atrocious, that even the stoic and neutral Swedes and Finns have raced to NATO’s doors. How many kids in Stockholm and Helsinki will be naming their dogs “NATO,” if only Russia can be properly routed?

We respect the limits America has set. No pilots in the sky, no troops on the ground, no flagrant provocation that risks direct confrontation with Russia. But do Americans understand all that’s at stake? Dribble, dribble. President Volodymyr Zelensky pleads for military aid. President Biden gives a little. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz temporizes. The French fear humiliating Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Ukrainians beg for more help. Tick tock.

Waiting for a win this summer means the war grinds on in the fall. Wars have windows, and this one is closing when the cold is coming. Moscow will weaponize energy and refugees. Putin will gladly help with fissures across the West. He knows Germany fears a shutdown of gas — and recession.

And the Kremlin sees that a war ending in partition and another frozen conflict keeps its larger goals on track. No one I spoke with in Ukraine this summer believes that Russia will give up its ambitions to take other parts of the country. No one I know in Eastern Europe thinks the region will be safe unless Russia is defeated now. In my neighborhood, we think a decade ahead.

Bewilderingly, Biden said of the war after the recent NATO summit, “I don’t know how it’s going to end.” In Eastern Europe, everyone knows the United States has the power to lead and end this conflict. “It’s all in Biden’s hands,” a top diplomat from Poland told me.

Soldiers fly the Ukrainian flag on Snake Island following its liberation from Russian occupation.
Soldiers fly the Ukrainian flag on Snake Island following its liberation from Russian occupation.
Zgard Special Unit/State Border Service

Break the Black Sea blockade now by sending escort ships. International law allows it. Decency and sound strategy require it.

Give the Ukrainians the full and complete military assistance they need to drive the invaders out. We’ll know it’s enough when the enemy is in full retreat. That’s the moment when Russian imperialism will be finished for at least a generation. That’s the turning point, when new generations will learn to trust and respect American power again.

A residential building stands in disarray following the attack of Russian forces in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
A residential building stands in disarray following the attack of Russian forces in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

Iulia Sabina-Joja teaches at Georgetown and George Washington University, runs the Middle East Institute’s Black Sea program in Washington, DC, and is co-host of the AEI podcast “Eastern Front.”



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