The Corner

National Security & Defense

Ukraine and Us

Secretary Mattis has been in Kiev, saying, “Have no doubt: The United States stands with Ukraine.” He said, moreover, that the United States will not accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

“So what?” you may ask. “Russia is going to keep Crimea regardless. You can huff and puff all you want — that won’t change the reality.”

Maybe. But every Balt will tell you that Washington’s refusal to accept their annexation by the Soviet Union was extremely important to them — morally and also practically, when liberation beckoned in the late 1980s.

Mattis further said this: “Despite Russia’s denials, we know they are seeking to redraw international borders by force.” This is very important. Within living memory — although these people are dying out, unfortunately — international borders were redrawn by force. This redrawing went unchecked. Attempts at appeasement failed. And we were involved in a great, murderous conflagration.

In Kiev, Mattis was asked about selling defensive weapons to Ukraine. Wouldn’t that be provocative? (The likes of Nigel Farage like to fault the West for “poking the bear.”) Mattis answered coolly: “Defensive weapons are not provocative unless you’re an aggressor.”

True. But Putin’s Kremlin is, of course, an aggressor. And this problem is sticky in the extreme.

Last year, I thought a lot about these issues, while reporting from the Baltics. (Two of those republics: Latvia and Estonia.) I talked with many people with long experience in national security. A phrase from the past came to my thought: “Why die for Danzig?”

This phrase — a slogan — originated in France, in May 1939. And it was a very good question: Why should Frenchmen die for a contested city on the Baltic Sea?

Yet, exactly a year later, they were dying for Paris. (Radek Sikorski made this point to me. He is an ex–National Review man, and an ex–foreign minister of Poland.)

And here is the point of deterrence: No one should have to die for Danzig, including the Danzigers.

A lot of people I know want us to write off Ukraine. A conservative — really a right-winger — rebuked me on the subject of Ukraine last year. “It will revert to Russia as is the historic norm,” he said. “So just relax.”

Well, foreign occupation and domination has been the historic norm for the Baltic republics, too. Isn’t the point of progress to throw off certain historic norms? Slavery, for example? Tyranny? And if Ukrainians are to be written off — who’s next?

The problem with aggressors is that they are not satisfied with swallowing Czechoslovakia. As soon as they realize they can eat with impunity, they want more. They grab and swallow more. Who will stop them?

In America, we have a great and rolling debate. We have had it for a long time. It has intensified recently, properly. I think of a line from the first George Bush — spoken while he was accepting the Republican nomination in 1988. He was knocking his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis:

“He sees America as another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe. And I see America as the leader, a unique nation with a special role in the world.”

A lot of Republicans — a lot of conservatives, and not just Buchananites — want to be done with that. I understand them. Many on the left and right agree that America ought to be basically another pleasant nation on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe.

But sometimes the world won’t leave you alone, even if you want it to. “They’re over here because we’re over there,” said Buchanan, after 9/11. If only it were that simple.

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