America’s inglorious departure from Afghanistan is a coup for Russia and China. Their schadenfreude is almost tangible, as their propaganda outlets trumpet the implosion of America’s resolve and the global “failure of democracy.” Each has a target in mind where it feels the conditions are ripe to exploit U.S. weakness: Ukraine and Taiwan are now in the crosshairs.
And yet, a moment of such clarity presents opportunities. Ukraine provides a fulcrum for the redemption of America’s deterrence credibility. Russia aside, the U.S. failure of resolve on Ukraine thus far is also encouraging China to threaten an invasion of Taiwan. Unlike Ukraine’s established international status, no international institution or significant nation recognizes Taiwan’s sovereignty or territorial integrity; the U.S. withdrew diplomatic recognition in 1979.
If the U.S. fails in the effective defense of the very essence of what it espouses — Ukraine’s right to exist within internationally agreed borders, the centerpiece of international order — then where is America’s credibility regarding Taiwan, which that order does not recognize? Remember that China is constantly assessing U.S. credibility and resolve.
American foreign policy thinkers have failed to join the dots about the threats the country faces.
- The genome common to Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and their myriad offspring was engineered by the USSR as “Arab Nationalism” in the 1970s and 1980s. America has been fighting its handiwork indirectly ever since.
- A year before his 2006 assassination in London by a micronuclear device, former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko revealed that at the end of 1996, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s leader, was trained by the KGB in Russia-controlled Dagestan in the Caucasus (Dagestan was also the springboard for the Boston Marathon bombers.) After six months, instead of returning to his native Egypt, al-Zawahiri headed for Afghanistan in 1997 to became Osama bin Laden’s lieutenant and the brains behind the 9/11 attacks.
- That year Russia published Aleksandr Dugin’s influential blueprint for an assault against the West, among other measures calling for an Islamist-Russian alliance against America. A key element advocated the erasure of Ukraine. Distilling Islamic radicalism and propelling it against the West and America was an audacious aim given that the virulently atheist USSR also had a long and bloody history suppressing the Muslim nations of its empire. Kneading the brains of Western neophytes about Ukraine is child’s play by comparison.
- Ukraine is a battle-hardened U.S. ally and is Russia’s laboratory for the very cyberwarfare, psy-ops, subversion, corruption, and other “active measures” that Putin has used against America. As stated by the director of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Homeland Defense Institute: “The United States can see war’s future from Ukraine.” The country now bears the heaviest defense spending burden in Europe, its forces are on unending combat operations and yet even when adjusted for duration, U.S. military aid to Ukraine is less than 1% of what was burned through in Afghanistan.
- Ukraine is now the frontline shield for the West from assault by one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Ukraine’s area of the Black Sea, pirated by Russia, is larger than South Korea. Here too, key international concepts, like the law of the sea and freedom of navigation are under sustained attack.
- Ukraine’s return to nationhood in 1991 was a win for the West, even though it never sought this outcome. The recovery of independence ensured the USSR’s demise and the end of the Cold War, pushing Russia far back from the frontiers of western Europe which it had once menaced.
- Ukraine surrendered the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal, larger than that of China, the UK and France combined, following the fall of the USSR. Many would have been tempted to take another path, but instead Ukraine agreed to the infamous 1994 Budapest Memorandum and surrendered all nuclear weapons on its territory, shut down a massive nuclear industry (including the world’s largest intercontinental missile factory) and acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In return, some years later, it was robbed of Crimea and saw its eastern regions invaded by Russia.
- The continuing war of aggression in eastern Ukraine gives NATO the opportunity to unite. The perception that the U.S. cut and run from Afghanistan has massively tested future unity. If America and NATO do not regain their footing in the heart of Europe by at least providing effective military assistance to Ukraine, NATO’s credibility will be history.
- Ukraine has not asked that other nations to send troops to die defending their own values. Ukrainians are alone on the frontline — 250 miles of it. It has nonetheless contributed 20,000 troops to aid America’s war on terror and peace missions.
- The Biden Doctrine surely states that conflicts like Ukraine’s are also those of the United States. “I will invite my fellow democratic leaders around the world to put strengthening democracy back on the global agenda,” Biden has stated and indeed the administration plans a global summit on democracy in December.
- Kyiv’s democratic tradition preceded the rest of Europe’s, with the viche providing as the democratic brake on authoritarian rule, monarchic or otherwise. Ukraine has something to teach. In the current context, that means providing a demonstration of the transition from oligarchism to a truly clean and representative modern state so compelling that it influences debate and thinking in Russia.
Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu has described cognitive warfare as manipulating the enemy to “make decisions in the interests of the opposing party.” That fits America’s history with Russia (and before that the USSR), where there has been a cycle of self-defeating decisions regarding Ukraine. Whether that meant recognizing the Soviet Union just as it was starving Ukrainians into submission in the 1930s, tolerating what Stalin’s favorite assassin, Pavel Sudoplatov, described as Moscow’s “75-year war against Ukraine” or joining with the NKVD herding hundreds of thousands back to the Gulag, the U.S. has much to consider about its past.
Strategic sagacity has not been a hallmark of America’s dealings with Russia or China. The U.S. must now stand, unbending, with Ukraine to reassert the rules-based international order that resulted from two world wars. It would be undeniable proof that Afghanistan was not America’s Waterloo, and that the country lives to fight another day.
Victor Rud is a founder and past Chairman of the Ukrainian American Bar Association and now chairs its Committee on Foreign Affairs.