Russia and Ukraine are now at war. At least 2,200 people have died in the conflict; thousands more may die yet. The Western powers — America, Europe, NATO — now have no good options, but they cannot do nothing. President Vladimir V. Putin has left us with two dire choices, both fraught with risk: Either we arm Ukraine, or we force Kiev to surrender and let Mr. Putin carve whatever territories he wants into a Russian-occupied zone of “frozen conflict.”
It is a stark choice, and Mr. Putin is not rational. Any rational leader would have reeled from the cost of Western sanctions. Russia’s economy is being hit hard by a credit crunch, capital flight, spiraling inflation and incipient recession. This will hurt Mr. Putin’s surging popularity at home. But none of this has deterred the smirking enigma.
Ukraine cannot win this war. Mr. Putin has made it clear that the Russian Army will annihilate Ukrainian forces if they attempt to liberate Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine’s ramshackle army cannot rout the crack troops and conscript forces of an oil-fueled giant.
The West needs to be honest with Ukraine. We talk as though this country were one of us — as if, one day, it will become a member of the European Union and the NATO alliance. That is Kiev’s wish, but the West is not giving Ukraine the means to fight this war.
Ukraine is being destroyed. The economy is in tatters. The military will not survive a Russian offensive. Ukrainians are taking refuge in romantic nationalism and preparing for partisan warfare. The costs are mounting — continuing to fight will cost thousands of lives — and the liberal dreams of the revolution are drowning in the jingoistic fury and hysteria of war.
A few more months without meaningful Western help and Ukraine will have lost the fighting core of its army — and its infatuation with the West. This will be replaced by a sense of betrayal, and there will be no way for Ukraine’s pro-European liberals to survive the backlash. The far-right extremists now on the fringe will ride into Kiev’s parliament on the lids of the caskets being shipped back from the front. Ukraine will become a ravaged conflict zone: a European Syria, or a hideously enlarged Bosnia.
We cannot let this happen. If we believe that Ukraine will one day become a member of the European Union and NATO, then we should be ready to arm it. We must face the fact that the costs of unlimited European Union and NATO expansion have meant war with Russia by proxy — and then fight the war. Having reignited the hottest moments of the Cold War, we must deal with the consequences of encouraging democratization in Eastern Europe.
This logic demands that we send Western military advisers to Kiev, and give the Ukrainians full intelligence and satellite support. And we must ship them guns, tanks, drones and medical kits by the ton. We must even be ready to deploy NATO troops if Russian tanks roll toward Crimea, as many fear they will, to build a land bridge to the mainland of southern Russia.
No question, this path involves enormous risks. Russia will throw its might into Ukraine. American and British special forces should be dispatched to plant the flag and protect the airports of Kiev and Odessa. But Mr. Putin may call our bluff: Russian forces might — in an echo of the 1999 Kosovo war — encircle them.
But if we are not prepared to take these risks, then we must force the Ukrainians to abandon their deadly delusion. It would be up to us to prevent Russia from slaughtering Ukrainian conscripts in vain.
The only way to achieve this is for the West to oblige Ukraine to surrender. Ukraine is completely dependent on the International Monetary Fund, which is Western money. We must tell Kiev to accept as a fait accompli that Russia has carved out a South Ossetia in the east — or we turn the money off. We can console them: Being another Georgia is not the worst thing in the world.
We could save thousands of lives this way, but it would be a crushing defeat for the West. Russia would have restored itself as an empire — the former Soviet Union once more under the sway of the Kremlin. The West would thus concede, in effect, that Russia may invade or annex any of these territories as it pleases. And in these lands, the appeasers would flourish, and democracy wilt.
Russia would have triumphed over the world order imposed by the West after the Soviet Union lost the Cold War. This would mean the destruction of American geopolitical deterrence. America’s enemies, from China to Iran, would see this as an invitation to establish their own spheres of influence amid the wreckage.
Russia would not stop there. Mr. Putin wants to undermine NATO, and the smell of weakness would tempt him further. It would be merely a matter of time before Moscow exploited the Russians in the Baltic States to manufacture new “frozen conflicts.” Poland would feel compelled to act as though NATO did not exist, creating a defensive military alliance of its own with the Baltics; it might even establish a buffer zone in western Ukraine.
There is no easy way out now. But we must not let thousands of Ukrainians die because we dithered. We must be honest with them if we are not willing to fight a new Cold War with Russia over Ukrainians’ independence. But if we force Ukraine to surrender, rather than sacrifice lives in a fight for which we have no stomach, then we must accept that it is a surrender, too, for NATO, for Europe and liberal democracy, and for American global leadership. That is the choice before us.
Ben Judah is the author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love With Vladimir Putin.