With just a few words, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride,” Ukraine’s democratically elected President Volodymyr Zelensky, became the most inspirational, not to mention courageous, national wartime leader since Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.
Spoken in response to an offer by U.S. officials to evacuate him from Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, Zelensky’s words captured the extraordinary courage and fighting spirit of the Ukrainian people in the face of Russia’s brutal military might, perfected in places ranging from Georgia to Syria and the Dombas.
The contrasting visual images have been especially stunning. Russian President Vladimir Putin, ever more physically isolated, sitting amid lavish imperial opulence, and the security, of the Kremlin issuing orders to troops invading another country. Zelensky, a Jewish one-time comedian, speaks from the streets of Kyiv as Ukrainian troops fight elite Russian units only blocks from government offices. All the time Putin’s rockets bombard not only Ukraine’s capital, but its major cities in the south and east.
It is easy to blame this terrible deadly tragedy on the killer in the Kremlin. It’s unfortunate, however, that we, the United States, have conveniently forgotten our actions and, more important, our inaction that have led to the horrors that Ukraine is facing.
On Dec. 4, 1994, Ukraine was the third-greatest nuclear power in the world. On Dec. 5, 1994, under great pressure from the U.S. government, Ukraine, despite its leaders’ reluctance, followed our country’s wishes and turned over all its nuclear arms to Russia.
In return, the United States, as well as Great Britain and Russia, signed the Budapest memo, with each signatory committing itself to the security of Ukraine’s borders. Obviously, as current events have shown, those commitments, including that by the United States, were less than ironclad.
One certainly can argue that the United States should have made a far greater effort to bring post-2014 Ukraine into NATO. The point advanced by many U.S. leaders, and frequently thrown in the face of Ukrainian leadership, that the country suffered from too much economic corruption, ignores the reality of the relatively comparable levels of such corruption in at least a couple of NATO countries. Nor does it acknowledge the less-than-shining record of our own country in such matters in recent years.
Even with the U.S. sanctions imposed on Putin, there is still considerably more for our government to do, especially in terms of far tougher economic and trade sanctions and much greater military assistance. Why is it that Poland, a country in far more jeopardy from Russia than we are, has been the first country to send badly needed new ammunition to Ukraine. Why not us? Even Germany has reversed its long-held reluctance to offer armaments to other countries to help Ukraine resist Putin’s onslaught.
Admittedly, further steps undoubtedly will have negative economic impacts for ours and other friendly economies, but, in light of the pact of 1994, don’t we have an ethical obligation to do this? It’s equally important that, in doing so, we also are protecting ourselves and our most fundamental values. Until a week or two ago, most informed observers who did not have access to U.S. intelligence never imagined Russia actually would invade Ukraine.
However, Ukraine, despite Russia’s significant military and economic advantages, is a serious threat to Putin’s murderous kleptocracy. By becoming a vigorously flourishing democracy and, thus, an example for the Russian people to emulate, Ukraine is an existential threat to Putin’s authoritarian regime. As such, it could not be allowed to exist. Ultimately, Putin’s invasion is less surprising than it first seemed.
If he is not stopped, what democracy Putin will go after next? Most likely it will be another neighbor, but this time a NATO ally — thus, by treaty requiring the involvement of American troops. There certainly is the possibility that, a decade from now, we might look back and realize that we witnessed a moment similar to Munich 1938. If so, we will be sorry we did not do more now to stand up to the murderer in the Kremlin.
Allan Rosenbaum is Distinguished University Professor, Department of Public Policy and Administration, Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs, Florida International University. He also is national president of the American Society for Public Administration in Washington, D.C. Between 1995 and 2005, he traveled frequently to Ukraine to work on democratic institution building projects there, sponsored by the U.S. government.