The confrontation with Russia over Ukraine is, at its roots, not just about defending one nation’s sovereign right to self-determination, nor is it even about upholding the entire rules-based international order that a Russian invasion would imperil.

Instead, it’s about drawing a firm red line between autocratic countries like Russia and China that routinely violate human rights at home and bully neighbors abroad and democracies like the United States and Britain that, whatever flaws they may have, understand and respect the rule of law both at home and abroad.

Democracies may be flawed, but at least they’re constantly striving for improvement, domestically and internationally, rather than simply striving for victory or for the continuity of their own regime. Democracies not only represent an improvement over autocracies on a moral ground but also lead to greater global peace and stability. The spread of democracy around the world – and particularly in Europe – is a big part of the reason there hasn’t been a major conflict between great powers in decades.

Unfortunately, the United States has not always been consistent in standing up for democracy around the world. We’ve been willing to align ourselves with brutal dictatorships and we have a poor track record defending other democracies. Indeed, the U.S. has often worked to actively undermine our fellow democracies ourselves – or simply completely ignored their plights – when it was politically convenient for us to do so. The current rivalry not only with Russia, but also with the People’s Republic of China, should make it clear that we absolutely need to stop that sort of equivocating and work more aggressively to support democracies and spread democracy around the world.

Russia is behaving aggressively toward Ukraine precisely because the United States hasn’t done much to defend threatened democracies. After invading first Georgia in 2008, then Ukraine in 2014, the United States hasn’t effectively responded to Russian incursions against neighboring democracies. While the United States – and its European allies – condemned those attacks and imposed sanctions, none of that much impressed Russia. Rather than discouraging future hostile acts, the Western responses to previous acts of Russian aggression appears to have only encouraged Vladimir Putin. We’ve managed to give him the impression that, since we haven’t forcefully responded in the past, he can keep pushing the envelope even further.

Now, that’s not to say that the United States should have gone to war with Russia over their previous attacks on either Ukraine or Georgia, simply that we could have responded more forcefully. In Ukraine, for instance, the U.S. has been aiding their military more since 2014, but we could have gone further in helping them suppress the Russian-backed insurgents in eastern Ukraine.


We’ve been more than willing to intervene in other countries that were far less stable and democratic than Ukraine, with less obvious goals and possibility of success, like in Libya and in Syria. While it’s admirable to assist rebels trying to overthrow a dictator, neither of those countries has transitioned successfully into peaceful democracies. In Ukraine’s case, we not only failed to adequately assist them in suppressing the insurgents, but the Western powers also allowed the breakaway regions to maintain a frozen conflict indefinitely. No foreign peacekeepers were deployed, as they had been in the former Yugoslavia, so the separatists have free rein within their territory. NATO didn’t launch a military intervention, either, as they did in Libya and Kosovo. Russia was able to seize control of a neighboring countries’ territory without facing severe consequences, so of course they’re considering doing so again.

It’s understandable that the United States is in no rush to go to war with another major power, or with anyone. What’s less understandable is why we haven’t done more to protect fellow democracies along Russia’s periphery. Even if they were unlikely to be offered full NATO membership any time soon, the United States could have defended Ukraine and Georgia better before the Russian incursions, preventing them entirely.

We could have cooperated more with their militaries, deploying American troops within the country. We’ve deployed this strategy successfully elsewhere around the world. Even without ground troops, no-fly zones have been effectively used to constrain tyrants in the past. While the United States may not want war with Russia, it’s important to remember that Russia doesn’t want war with us either.

It’s long past time we keep that in mind if we want to deter them from future foreign adventures. Hopefully, enough people in Washington in both parties are finally beginning to realize that.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
Twitter: @jimfossel

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