KYIV, UKRAINE – MARCH 08: Firefighters try to extinguish a fire after a chemical warehouse was hit by Russian shelling on the eastern frontline near Kalynivka village on March 08, 2022, in Kyiv, Ukraine. Russia continues assault on Ukraine’s major cities, including the capital Kyiv, after launching a large-scale invasion of the country on February 24. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
By John Nagl
Vladimir Lenin is reputed to have said that there are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen.
Decades have happened in the past few weeks. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the most important geopolitical event since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; in fact, Europeans are calling the invasion their 9/11, for good cause.
A continent shattered over the past century by two world wars and then split in two by the Cold War with the Soviet Union was convinced that history had ended when the Berlin wall fell, with the mid-90s conflict in the Balkans explained away as aftershocks of the short twentieth century between 1914 and 1991.
Like the United States on a beautiful September morning two decades ago, Europe has been astounded to learn that it is nakedly vulnerable to aggression and hate. Pestilence, war, death, millions of refugees—this was the fate of other less fortunate parts of the world, but not of “civilized” Europe, at least not since the demise of the Soviet system of oppression and torture.
And it is the attempted revival of that very system, with its iron control of what Russia thinks of as its near abroad, that has smashed Europe’s conception of itself. The horrors of totalitarianism, of murder on a mass scale, have shaken a lethargic and comfortable continent by the throat.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s twisted fantasy of restoring the supposed former grandeur of the Soviet Union’s evil empire begins with Ukraine but does not end there, and Europe knows it.
The reaction has been swift and extraordinary. The sleeping giant of Germany has been shocked awake, sacrificing its comfort and its standard of living to shoulder its responsibilities as the core of Europe by abandoning Russian oil and gas and massively increasing its defense budget. NATO, licking its wounds after a painful end to two decades of war in Afghanistan in support of the United States, has also roused itself against the threat of further Russian aggression.
And America, again the world’s indispensable nation, is deploying tanks and troops to NATO’s eastern flank and pouring arms and aid into Ukraine in support of a brave people defending themselves against a naked aggression that was thought to have been banished from the “civilized” world.
The West had been distracted by the aftermath of Sept. 11, and slow to realize the threat presented by Putin’s Russia. His attacks on Estonia in 2007, on the country of Georgia in 2008, on Ukraine in 2014, and on American democracy itself in 2016 did not rouse us from our slumber. We did not believe that mass slaughter of innocents could happen again, not in Europe. Putin was nibbling around the edges, a bad seed, but not an existential threat to the democratic West. How very wrong we were.
But now we are fighting back, inspired by the courage of the Ukrainian people led by the magnificent President Volodymyr Zelensky. They are fighting and dying for our collective liberty, and deserve all of the credit, but their valor has been enabled by the support of the free peoples of the world led by the United States.
The Biden administration has unified the free world in a way not seen at least since the coalition that opposed Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Kuwait three decades ago. It is hard to think of a more capable use of intelligence and diplomacy to rally a broad alliance to fight for freedom.
The course of the fight remains uncertain. Russia has proven itself to be a far less capable military force than most observers had assumed; authoritarian kleptocracies do not breed good armies.
A Russian military that cannot control the skies over Ukraine or conduct and supply combined arms maneuver forces has proven unable to seize Kiev in its planned coup de main, but sadly can continue to commit war crimes by indiscriminately shelling population centers almost indefinitely.
NATO is correctly limited in its willingness to escalate the conflict beyond arming Ukrainian forces by the threat of Russian weapons of mass destruction; the possibility of a military stalemate that grinds on for years is horrific to contemplate but a real possibility. Unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia have real bite, but dictatorships can endure enormous suffering, and the Russian people are used to hardship. This may be a long as well as a brutal war.
It is difficult to comprehend enormous world events while they are happening, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine has shattered our conception of the world in which we live. As long as Putin rules Russia, it is difficult to imagine the sanctions on that country being lifted.
Russia cannot rejoin the global community without facing consequences for the war crimes it has committed. And it is up to us, all of us, the free peoples of the world, not just to stand with Ukraine, important as that is, but also to fight for liberty in our own nations.
Each generation faces its own challenge; while we were slow to recognize the peril Putin presented, we can no longer shirk our responsibility. Freedom itself is at risk, and each of us has a role to play in its preservation.
John Nagl is a visiting professor of National Security Studies at the Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
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