Amb. James Gilmore
Russia’s war against Ukraine is just America’s first challenge
This war of aggression by Russia against Ukraine changes everything
On the sidewalk in Kyiv, in front of a key government office is a bronze statue of St. George spearing the dragon. The statue reflects the conviction of every Ukrainian I met. Ukraine is St. George, and Russia is the dragon.
In May 2021, I led a delegation from the American Foreign Policy Council to visit Ukraine. I visited over a dozen ministries in Kyiv, traveled to Mariupol, engaged with the Ukrainian Navy on the Sea of Azov, and went out onto the battlefield of Donbas.
During my visit, Kyiv was calm, but every Ukrainian I met was determined to remain out of the clutches of Russia. The consistent message of every person I met in Ukraine was that Ukrainians are not Russian and would never be made into Russians even if conquered. The Ukrainian officials made it clear that, as a people, they had decided that Ukraine’s future was to be a democratic part of the West, within the European Union, and with membership in NATO.
In the face of this firm Ukrainian national identity, Russian President Vladimir Putin published a lengthy essay on his vision of Ukraine’s future. In it, Putin stated that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” and that Ukraine did not deserve to exist as an independent country. At the time of my visit, the Russian threat was building up. Now the Russian invasion is underway, using atrocities, rape, murder and deportation of civilians, mass destruction, and other war crimes, to crush the Ukrainian people. The port city of Mariupol has been bombed out of existence by Russia.
For more than 75 years, students of World War II have wondered “what if Hitler had gotten the atomic bomb ahead of us?” Now we know. Aggressive war is being fought by Russia against an innocent neighbor under the protection of its nuclear umbrella. Putin has threatened the West with nuclear war if they aid Ukraine. Even an attack using battlefield nuclear weapons is a present threat. Despite this threat, the West is openly supplying Ukraine with weapons to defend itself.
This risk is one that has to be taken. The decision has been forced upon us. The future consequences for the world of doing nothing have become manifest. Russia has said it is acting in its own defense. That is a lie. Ukraine is not and never was a threat to Russia. NATO is a defensive alliance and not a threat to Russia. Now Russia has proven NATO’s vital necessity. Ukraine is no threat to Russia except in its decision to be a free country. A free Ukraine is an example to the people of Russia themselves as Putin understands.
The real reason for this invasion of Ukraine is Putin’s determination to reassemble the old Soviet empire. Ukraine is Putin’s essential first step. Putin has said that the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th Century. Putin sees his place in history as the leader who reverses that history. This invasion is a play for the big stakes.
Against that historic possibility, Putin measured the constant messages of Western weakness: prestige summits, removal of Nord Stream 2 sanctions, a free extension of the New Start Treaty without any demand on Russia, and the catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Putin observed no response to the take-over of Crimea, the takeover of parts of Georgia, and a statement by President Biden that “a minor incursion” into Ukraine might mean lesser sanctions. All of this invited Putin’s decision to invade to achieve his place in history.
The attack on Kyiv failed due to heroic resistance by Ukraine and President Zelensky. Now Putin has a backup plan to conquer the Donbas in east Ukraine. When I was Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the organization addressed the issue of armed pro-Russian proxies in Donbas. A principal mission of OSCE is to send hundreds of monitors into Donbas to observe threats of Russian military action and to report. Some OSCE observers lost their lives in order to do so. Now Russia has declared Donbas independent and has launched a further invasion of that long-suffering province of Ukraine.
This war of aggression by Russia against Ukraine changes everything, not just the security and peace in Europe, but the safety of the entire world, and especially the safety of the United States. The OSCE and the stability of Europe are based on the Helsinki Accords of 1976. Russia signed those accords. The agreement was that aggressive war would be outlawed, that any county could be a part of any alliance or association it chose, and that citizens would have open access to information and travel. Russia deliberately impliedly revoked the Helsinki Accords to further its imperial aspirations.
If the Russian aggression in Ukraine is successful, the next defense of the West in Europe will be harder and more dangerous. My experience as Ambassador proved to me that the nations of Europe are aware of these dangers. The ambassadors of the member nations of OSCE with whom I interacted made it clear that their countries will defend themselves and welcome American presence, commitment, and leadership.
My fear is that if Ukraine is conquered by force and terror, Russia will not have to further invade Europe – perhaps not even Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia, although the threat of a NATO response is clear. The sovereignty of the countries of Europe will be compromised, and they will have to take the Russian threat into account in the conduct of their affairs. Europe will be neutralized. As World War II so clearly demonstrated, America is not safe if Europe is dominated by any hostile power.
I am a lifelong conservative, and a follower of President Ronald Reagan. President Reagan understood the danger of an expansionist Russia. America was safe while he was in the White House. When I speak on foreign affairs, a few fellow conservatives ask, “What does Ukraine matter to us?” This strain of neo-isolationism in the American conservative movement must be eradicated. Many wish we could stay at home, and not become involved in the world. That is not the world we live in. Conservatives must lead in this long war to keep our own country safe.