Any discussion of Russia-Ukraine should begin with an acknowledgment that millions will be devastated by Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion. Lives will be lost and a great price will be paid in terms of Ukraine’s political viability and long-term prospects.
It is heartbreaking to watch a country that has made such profound and hard-won progress fall prey to the whims of an autocrat. Yet, it is our duty to watch. To bear witness. To remember.
Indeed, it is the tragedy of our modern world that technology has given us unprecedented windows into human suffering around the globe, while our political reality has made it harder to do much about it.
Western governments are trying. The sanctions announced this week will devastate Russia’s economy. What’s to come will be even worse. And yet, it’s hard to escape the feeling that our response does not amount to much.
Western citizens are now used to watching helplessly as despots trample the international order. While the reality on the ground could not be more different, the surreal emotions of this week echoed those of August, as we watched the Taliban enter Kabul.
For good reason, political leaders have decided that the alternative is far worse. Direct military engagement with a nuclear power is off the table — particularly one as volatile and brazen as Russia. And even if the U.S. were prepared to respond with force, European allies would not condone it. Inaction is nonetheless a bitter pill to swallow.
The Western role, then, is by and large a moral one. NATO allies will condemn Putin at every turn and assert their support for Ukraine. The UN Security Council will consider motions to chasten Putin, but they are unlikely to pass. Adding salt to the wound, Russian ambassador Vasily Nebenzya is presently serving as president of the council — an egregious conflict of interest in any other setting.
The failings of multilateral organizations to prevent this egregious violation of international law will not easily be forgotten, and we can expect to emerge from this a more divided world.
Centre stage in all this is U.S. President Joe Biden, a man determined to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors. His measured approach is informed by both history and memory.
Various lawmakers have invoked the legacy of appeasement and British PM Neville Chamberlain’s failure to stop Hitler in his tracks. The metaphor is powerful but self-serving. Perhaps instead of Czechoslovakia in 1938, Biden is thinking more of Afghanistan and Iraq — to say nothing of Bosnia, Vietnam or other examples of American intervention gone awry.
Yet, Biden has not explicitly made the case against intervention, choosing instead to laud NATO and emphasize his sanctions. To the bafflement of many, the U.S. will watch as Kyiv is trampled under the feet of a dictator.
In his first State of the Union address this Tuesday, the president must remind Americans why engagement is not an option — and crucially, lay out his vision for a reimagined world order. In short, he must offer a “Biden doctrine,” rooted in the lessons of certain conflicts and tied to a faction of the intelligence community that is highly skeptical of American intervention.
As we’ve seen, this administration is keen to share the rationale and context behind their decision-making, even publishing classified intelligence with unprecedented zeal.
Now it’s time for the president to do the same before a joint session of Congress, with the entire world watching. It will be the most crucial — and perhaps final — chance for Biden to spell out why the U.S. has done relatively little in the face of so much suffering.
Biden must also set the stage for where the Western alliance is headed, beyond feel-good talk of co-operation. As Biden knows well, his decisions will have consequences for decades to come.
And for once, the American president is all too familiar with those immortal words: “What’s past is prologue.”
Now he must translate that message into method.