donbass region

What’s at stake in Ukraine and why the US must care

By James S. Gilmore

The world is on the brink of a third world war, this time with the major combatants having nuclear weapons. The world has been in a state of relative peace and prosperity ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — but no longer.

From 2019 to 2021, I served as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Vienna, Austria . As the United States’s ambassador to that 57-country organization, I worked to implement the Final Act of the Helsinki Accords of 1976. Those accords, agreed to by Russia , guaranteed countries the right to sovereignty, inviolable borders, the right to be a part of any alliance they chose, and human rights. The Final Act opened the path for a better future.

Now, however, Russia and China are rejecting the principles laid out in the Final Act and the United Nations Charter. They are engaging in a revision of the world order and trying to turn it into one that accepts aggression, war crimes, and violations of national sovereignty as a means to an end.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Russia and China deny fundamental human rights to their citizens and to people they would subjugate. They know their type of authoritarianism cannot exist side by side with Western ideas of freedom. And, perhaps most importantly, they know that the freedoms offered in neighboring countries like Ukraine and Taiwan might someday spur their citizens to rebel and demand liberty for themselves. This is the real challenge to authoritarian regimes like Russia and China and why they, in turn, threaten the long-term existence of democratic states.

We often hear debates as to whether the independence of Ukraine or Taiwan should matter to America. Well, they do matter, because these conflicts are only the beginning of a determined effort by China and Russia to dominate Europe and Asia. Alliances are America’s greatest advantage. An “America First” agenda does not mean “America Alone.” If our allies fall under the domination of Russia and China, the world we live in today will change radically. Our economy would wither. Military threats would be ever-present. Authoritarianism as a way of life would be pressed upon us.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the first step to reducing America as a world power. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin intends to reassemble the Soviet empire, which would be a permanent threat to all of our allies in Europe. He intends to demonstrate he can demolish Ukraine even if he can’t conquer it. He even plans to eliminate Ukrainians as a separate people.

China, meanwhile, is watchful as it plans its next step in Asia. The Chinese Communist Party has already begun to test the bounds of America’s strength in terms of its commitments to Taiwan, as we recently saw with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) trip to the island.

However, Russia and China have miscalculated. In Ukraine, specifically, Putin underestimated Western unity and the willingness to send arms to the war-torn nation. Europe is nearly unified in support of Ukraine despite Russian energy blackmail. And above all, Putin underestimated the Ukrainian resolve to defend their country.

American resolve will also be required to block Russian aggression in Ukraine. But the American public is seriously distracted by inflation, crime in the streets, drugs, southern border violations, and culture wars over race and gender. These issues cannot be ignored, but there’s no reason why we can’t address these domestic and foreign threats at the same time. National security is and must be our highest priority.

Indeed, messages of appeasement that question America’s support for Ukraine really just serve the interests of Russia and China. They make us look disunified and unresolved — exactly what our enemies want. Most deplorable is the often repeated message from a small group of conservatives in the media and Congress that we should not be sending aid and financial support to Ukraine. This message plays upon the traditional populist concern about American involvement in foreign wars but undermines American unity and resolve at this most important moment.

The world is walking on a tightrope, just waiting for something to snap. Real conflict exists in the Middle East as Iran marches toward a nuclear bomb. Serbia in the Balkans is dissatisfied with the NATO-imposed peace. The Baltic countries know they are the next target of Russian aggression. All of these conflicts, and others, could break out all at once. Russian victory in Ukraine could be the event that causes everything to start crumbling. That’s why it’s so important for the U.S. and its allies to fight back against Russia’s campaign of conquest. The goal is to avert a larger conflict.

The West must continue to send modern arms and support for the defense of Ukraine. We must also separate our economies from Russia and China. Our trusting efforts to integrate world trade have backfired. There’s a reason we did not trade with Germany and Japan during World War II. Trade with Russia and China today strengthens those that mean us harm.

And America should not, as some have suggested, force Ukraine into a negotiation to give up sovereign territory. A surrender of territory rewards aggression. Ukraine might suggest a nonaggression pact, guaranteed by NATO, on the condition that Russia withdraws from Ukraine. Rejection by Russia would at least expose the lies upon which Putin has predicated his invasion.

China and Russia intend to impose their authoritarian way of life on the world. Many of our allies, especially in Eastern Europe, refuse to return to a world where a midnight “knock on the door” might mean arrest, torture, a labor camp, or execution. It is time to recapture the spirit of President Ronald Reagan and his firm demand to “tear down this wall” and everything it represented. We can be no less faithful to that vision in this moment of crisis and decision.

James S. Gilmore III was ambassador to the Organization for Security in Europe from 2019-2021. He was the 68th governor of Virginia.