Americans should be paying attention to Ukraine

By Tara Sonenshine, Professor of Practice of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine feels like the pandemic: long, repetitive and unending. The truth is it has been going on for eight years, since Russia invaded and illegally annexed Crimea. And here we are, still debating whether to expect an “intrusion” or “incursion” or full-scale “invasion” by Russia of all of Ukraine.

Right now, there is lots of talk about war and peace.

My guess is that most Americans did not watch the deliberations at the United Nations, although you can’t ask for better political theater. The United States and Russia engaged in a full public diplomatic barroom brawl at the U.N. Security Council on Monday over the Ukraine crisis. Accusations were flying, and competing versions of reality were on full display.

Almost immediately after the meeting of the 15-nation Council convened, the Russians objected to even holding it. Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused the Americans of fomenting “unfounded accusations that we have refuted” and said the meeting would not help “bring this council together.”

For those who have tired of the news from the frontlines, now is not the time to tune out but to sit up and pay attention. This seemingly faraway war is about us — our way of life, our freedom and the fate of everything we hold dear. If you thought the Cold War was important, this is the Cold War on steroids.

It is important to know that there are two worlds in this story: When I visited Kyiv, I saw the youthful energy in a democratic, active and lively public square. I went to schools and met eager young people who wanted to grow up and be like Americans. It is a place teeming with freedom.  

Moscow in winter is cold, dreary and creaking with authoritarian control. I visited Russia in 2013 as part of an official U.S. government team trying to convince the Russians not to close an American library. From there we went to Ukraine to help open an American one. 

This war is a study in what happens when there are competing visions of the world, and we need to be clearly on the side of the West. To let the Ukrainians down is to let ourselves down and everything we believe in. What that means is we need more troops, more equipment, more economic sanctions and more diplomacy backed by force.

To be clear, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is no saint. He can be devious, defiant and defensive with the West. He begs for help to defeat the Russians and then claims we are being hysterical. He yells “The Russians are coming!” and then asks tourists to visit Ukraine.

Nor is Russian President Vladimir Putin a pure devil. He can be reasonable and rational if his interests depend on it. A small but useful example is last week’s protest by Irish fishermen off the southern coast of Ireland who begged the Russian ambassador in Dublin not to allow Russian military exercises to kill off the fish and their livelihood. Putin gave orders to move the military exercises further out to sea in a gesture of goodwill.

More importantly, as defense experts Michael O’Hanlon and Omer Taspinar wrote recently in these pages, “It is not automatic that any time Putin seems menacing, he will follow through with violent action. For example, he has, to date, limited his belligerence against the Baltic states – formerly part of the Soviet Union, but in NATO since 2004 – to cyberattacks. This, despite the fact that many in NATO thought he might seek to recapture what he views as lost Soviet lands.”

So how does this conflict end?

My bet is on the French saving our bacon. France is the Switzerland of this war. Behind the scenes, they have been getting the Russians and the Ukrainians together, keeping the U.S. and Europe in the loop and at the table using President Emmanuel Macron’s muscle to coax and cajole Putin and the warring parties to give peace a chance.

Traditionally, it would be America leading the diplomacy. But we are bogged down at home with COVID-19, inflation and a deep and paralyzing political divide. Making peace requires full-time attention and the ability to juggle multiple crises. I am not convinced we have that energy right now, although President Biden is doing his best to keep talking to Putin the way you would talk to a hostage taker. But Americans are distracted. Prices are high, job satisfaction is low and we are busy arguing over masks. 

Regardless of who creates the ceasefire, we should all pause for a moment and consider the world at large and agree that war will only make us less safe, secure and prosperous. So, let’s root for the good guys and stand together in supporting America and NATO. This is the moment.

This piece is republished from The Hill.

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