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Op-ed: The Ukraine crisis is a test of the West’s course-correct on Putin, who they’ve appeased too long

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Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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This is about him, it’s about us, and it’s about Ukraine.

First, the Ukraine crisis is about Russian President Vladimir Putin, suffering from what historians refer to as the “rationality slippage” that comes with 22 years of autocratic power. Having grown more rigid and isolated with time – surrounded by sycophants and facing unanticipated Ukrainian resistance – he is doubling down on his premeditated, unprovoked, illegal, and immoral war.

Second, however, it is even more about the West, and whether we can reverse the “purposefulness slippage” among Western democracies of the past three decades, underscored by an erosion of democratic gains around 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, but not only, victim.

We responded too little after Russia’s cyberattack on Estonia in 2007, Russia’s Georgian invasion in 2008, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Donbas military intervention in 2014; Russia’s ongoing cyber and disinformation attacks on U.S. and other democracies; its repression and assassination of opponents; and now this unfolding international crime scene in Ukraine.

A flurry of weekend announcements signals a tectonic shift in Europe and no less significant a move within the Biden administration to a more assertive posture, suggesting a growing realization that Putin’s aggressions are as much a danger to Europe’s future as it is to Ukraine.

On Saturday, the European Union, the U.S, France, Germany, Italy, the U.K., 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. “It could cripple the commercial banking system which is already coming under heavy strain from sanctions and cause the ruble to weaken precipitously when markets open Monday.”

The moves included removing select Russian banks from the SWIFT system, thus undermining their ability to act globally; measures that will prevent the Russian Central Bank from deploying its reserves in ways that could undermine the impact of sanctions; and a crackdown on “golden passports” that have allowed wealthy Russians to gain access to Western financial systems.

That was accompanied by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s announcement of a ground-breaking decision to arm Ukraine with anti-aircraft systems and missiles, followed by his Sunday decision to increase defense spending to more than 2% of GDP alongside a $100 billion special fund 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 ability in defending against Putin’s invading army.”

That, in turn, came alongside U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s release of a further $350 million in military support, signaling President Joe Biden’s growing understanding that his legacy is on the line.

Third, of course, the crisis is most immediately about Ukraine, a democratic country of 44 million that became independent after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991. Ukraine’s primary threat to Moscow since then has been its example of independence, freedom, and prosperity, one that Putin is trying to snuff out with lies that its Jewish President Volodomyr Zelenskyy and his government are a “neo-Nazi gang,” committing war crimes that should be documented and prosecuted.

Zelenskyy has emerged as an unlikely hero, refusing to leave the country’s capital of Kyiv despite the danger to his life. After U.S. officials offered to evacuate him, Zelenskyy instead said he needed ammunition and “not a ride.”

Ukraine’s stubborn resistance has surprised Putin and bought Western democracies more time to act. The Ukraine military and thousands of freshly recruited volunteers regained control of Kyiv Saturday from Russian troops and undercover units, and they continue to resist Russian efforts to take Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

That said, there is little doubt that Putin will double down in the days to come rather than accept defeat. He has only scratched the surface of what harm his 190,000 deployed troops can wreak. Putin’s ill-advised war now threatens his own survival. And just now he put Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces on high alert in a further brazen attempt to threaten the world.

“If fierce Ukrainian resistance leads to a long and bloody war,” wrote The Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov from Kyiv, “or forces Mr. Putin to seek to end the fighting without achieving his goals – the setback could threaten both his hold on power in Moscow and his drive to restore Russia as a global power.”

Conversely, if Putin is not stopped, his armies will have moved that much closer to the most exposed NATO members, once “captive nations” of the Soviet bloc, who are now members of the European Union: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. There’s a gathering consensus, driving the actions of this weekend, that Putin would not stop at Ukraine.

Perhaps it now and again takes a brave people like the Ukrainians to remind us of the freedoms we too often take for granted. For me as a reporter in Eastern and Central Europe in the 1980s, it was a role that the Polish people and the Polish pope played during the final 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 the other, they spoke with the passion of individuals who understood they were on the front lines of freedom, appealing to their European and American colleagues to defend the Ukrainian democracy they had inspired.

One former parliamentarian, a young woman who the next day would return to her family in Ukraine for the war’s beginning, spoke of commitments made to Ukraine in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. It was then that the U.S., Great Britain, and Russia offered security guarantees to Ukraine in exchange for its agreement to return all its 1,800 nuclear weapons to Russia.

Her message: Ukraine had delivered on its commitments, and now it was time for the U.S. and its partners to deliver on theirs.

President Zelenskyy’s delegation’s chance to succeed in talks at the Belarus border with a Russian delegation would be far greater if Putin were confident that the West has Ukraine’s back.

Frederick Kempe is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Atlantic Council.

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