Volodymyr Zelensky’s December 21 address to a joint session of Congress got all the headlines, but I was struck by something he said at the White House a few hours earlier in the day. Alexander Nazaryan of Yahoo News asked the Ukrainian president, who’d come straight to Washington from the frontline of his country’s defense against Russia, if he had a message for the American people. Zelensky replied in English. His voice was sober and plaintive. “My message,” he said. “I wish you peace.”
The value of peace, Zelensky continued, is something one understands only when it is missing, when one’s children are threatened by terrorists and invaders. Zelensky carried with him not only a message of peace but also a sense of hope. He believes that America will continue to support Ukraine with military and financial aid, “because we really fight for our common victory against this tyranny. That is real life. And we will win. And I really want to win together.” Then Zelensky corrected himself. He didn’t “want” to win together, he said. He was sure that Ukraine would win with America at her side.
Zelensky summarized, in a few clipped sentences, the war’s humanitarian and strategic stakes. His personal courage and blunt rhetoric put to shame the moral minnows who cynically and foolishly criticize his dress, manner, history, and aims. Zelensky stated succinctly why Ukraine fulfills the requirements for U.S. involvement. Helping Ukraine protect and defend her people against Russian war crimes is not only just. It also furthers America’s interest in a world where despotism is constrained and where freedom thrives.
It was neither Zelensky nor any of his fellow Ukrainians who violated the status quo on February 24. It was Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. He broke the peace. He ordered the “special military operation” to decapitate the democratically elected leadership of Ukraine, install a puppet regime, divide the Western alliance formalized in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and solidify a “no limits” partnership with the Chinese Communist Party that would reorder the globe along tyrannical lines.
So far, Putin has failed to achieve these goals. But his missteps do not exempt him from responsibility. Quite the opposite: Russia’s battlefield setbacks and shambolic mobilization have led him to embrace ever more despicable methods of assault. His forces have butchered women and children, transferred populations, and used Iranian-made drones to deny electricity, heat, and water to millions of civilians.
Ukrainians did nothing to deserve this fate. Their countrymen have fled. Their economy is ruinous. Yet they continue to fight for national survival and democratic liberties. Only the most confused, damaged, or corrupted moral compass would fail to identify the just side in this battle, and be unable to distinguish the aggressors from the aggrieved. And only the most desiccated character would disparage a war leader who has consistently demonstrated individual bravery and communal solidarity.
Once we recognize and decide to act upon our shared ethical commitment to alleviate suffering and assist friends in self-defense, the question becomes whether doing so serves the U.S. national interest. Zelensky offered part of an answer in his speech to Congress when he said, “Your money is not charity. It is an investment in global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.”
Why should America make this investment? Because it is the same strategy America has pursued since the end of World War II, and has returned enormous financial, political, ideological, and moral dividends. And there is another reason: The alternative to U.S. engagement is a nightmare.
In 1648 the Peace of Westphalia ended the destructive Thirty Years’ War in Europe and established national sovereignty as the reigning principle in international affairs. Vladimir Putin has violated this principle more than any leader alive today. Since 2008, when he invaded the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Putin has redrawn borders, carved up nations, and involved himself in the internal affairs of other lands. If Putin conquers Ukraine, if he squashes its democratic aspirations, if he imprisons or kills its political class and reabsorbs parts of its territory into a new Russian empire, he won’t stop.
He will just pick another target. Moldova, maybe, or the Baltic states. And the droning and disingenuous chorus would resume: Rising tensions are NATO’s fault, these small and infant democracies are rife with corruption, they hold pride parades don’t they, how would America like it if foreign militaries were stationed on our borders, the crazy neocon-led “uniparty” wants a nuclear war, at least there aren’t 37 genders in Russia, and what about that laptop from hell.
Putin will pursue his next objective having neutralized the United States and proved to Xi Jinping that evil men can seize land by force at high but manageable cost, and eventually profit from it. The enemies of freedom will act with impunity. And the day when America will have no choice but to respond with military force, putting U.S. soldiers at risk, will be brought forward in the calendar.
That is why it is wrong to say the war in Ukraine is about nothing more than who runs the Donbas or who owns basing rights in Sevastopol. The war in Ukraine is also about right and wrong, freedom and justice, humanity and barbarism, and above all whose leadership will define the economic and political structure of the twenty-first century: democratic America and her allies in Europe and East Asia, or autocratic Russia and her Chinese patron.
Securing America’s position and freedom’s future without direct intervention and for a rounding error in the federal budget is a strategic bargain. Ukraine needs more, not less, U.S. aid, and it needs it now. The faster the Patriots, layered air defenses, ATACMS, tanks, and MiGs show up in Ukraine, the sooner victory will arrive, and Volodymyr Zelensky’s message of peace will be made real.