National Security & Defense

Let’s Be Honest about Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatist tanks near Krasnyi Luch, November 2014
Fake resolve in the face of Russia’s invasion only shreds our credibility elsewhere.

In 2015, Europe faces two major problems. First, across the continent, rebranded Communists are selling the snake-oil of painless utopia, where government provides everything and balance sheets don’t exist. Second, Russia is invading.

Where the first problem threatens the future of millions of young Europeans, the second problem threatens the sovereign peace upon which the European project resides.

This Russian invasion requires American honesty. Today, in the Baltic States, Russia is threatening pro-Western politicians and kidnapping intelligence officers. And in Ukraine, Russia is stealing a nation. In recent weeks, Russia has escalated offensive actions across eastern Ukraine. Arming, mobilizing, and directing Ukrainian separatists against the Kiev government, President Putin has shredded last September’s Minsk agreement. Under this deal, Russia had agreed to cease its support for rebel aggression. Instead, it has done the exact opposite. This was predictable. As I wrote in December, lower oil prices and Putin’s philosophy meant that Russia’s heightened aggression was always likely. Moreover, Western leaders aren’t exactly deterring him.

In fact, they’re emboldening him. After all, in his recent State of the Union address, President Obama claimed that he’d out-maneuvered Russia and won a defining victory. Simultaneously, multiple Ukrainian towns were falling to Russian forces. Where Obama measures foreign policy success by packaged statistics (whether the number of airstrikes against ISIS, or the stats on Russia’s economic condition), Putin measures physical reality. Now America has two solemn choices: allow Putin to seize Eastern Europe (Ukraine is only part of Russia’s regional strategy), or escalate to stop him.

If we chose to cede Ukraine, we should do so honestly, by strengthening economic sanctions on Russia but ending the pretension that we’ll do anything else. At a moral level, it’s fair to ask why we should do more: If European nations don’t care enough (the UK included) to invest in their own defense, why should Americans? Nevertheless, our clarity of purpose is critical. In U.S. foreign policy, false resolve is far worse than honest disinterest. Clear disinterest in one area allows us to maintain our credibility elsewhere, but when we abandon our word, American credibility is gutted everywhere.

Of course, we’ll have to be equally honest if we escalate against Russia. For a start, we’ll have to drop the platitudes and accept that confronting Russia carries real risks. Believing Russia’s existential interests are at stake in Ukraine, and leading a proud but pained nation that craves respect (read David Greene and Angela Stent), Putin is ready for a fight. And let’s be clear, while we could ramp up sanctions (a full-spectrum denial of Russian financial access to Western markets, for example) or provide arms to the Ukrainian government, those options carry consequences. Were Ukraine to deploy any U.S.-provided arms east of the Dnieper River, our involvement in the war would cross a modern-day Rubicon. Russia might well launch a full-scale invasion toward Kiev; and, again, the old credibility question would once again rise to the fore. In that scenario, our only means of deterring Russia might be the large-scale deployment of American military forces to western Ukraine.

Regardless, as we decide on next steps, all of us — whatever our opinions — must consider more honestly what we’re willing or unwilling to do, and how much European security matters to us. Our present confusion helps no one.

Tom Rogan, based in Washington, D.C., writes for the Daily Telegraph. He’s a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and holds the Tony Blankley Chair at the Steamboat Institute. He tweets @TomRtweets.

Tom Rogan — Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at

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