Opposing Putin is about more than sympathy for an underdog

President Joe Biden meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin via videoconference on Dec. 7, 2021. | Presidential Executive Office of Russia via Wikimedia Commons

By Jonathan S. Tobin

Americans are so polarized that even when almost everyone basically agrees about something, their instincts tell them to distrust it. That’s what’s happening in the discussion about Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Virtually no one outside of the fever swamps of the far-right or far-left thinks that the invasion launched by Russia’s authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin isn’t an atrocity, let alone one that is defensible in any way.

Even those who expressed skepticism that the threats to Ukraine were anything that Americans should be concerned about have largely conceded that they were wrong. In the face of videos showing cities under siege, civilian casualties and millions of refugees fleeing for their lives in the wake of Russia’s onslaught, there is only one possible response: sympathy and a desire to help. But despite that seeming consensus, there is no real agreement about the significance of these events or what the United States should do about them.

Everyone agrees that the Ukrainians need help. But sadly, it’s far from clear that even a massive shipment of arms from the West or crippling sanctions on Russia will be sufficient to force an end to the fighting or restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity even if a cease-fire is put in place. The Ukrainian request for the NATO alliance to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine is a non-starter since that would make combat between Western and Russian forces a certainty. Starting a war between nuclear powers is likely to make things a lot worse for the Ukrainians — and the entire world.

Still, it’s heartening to see that when faced with naked aggression by an authoritarian power against a weaker neighbor, the usual stark divides between Republicans and Democrats, and conservatives and liberals have broken down. Hopefully, that will soon prompt the administration to stop pulling its punches on economic sanctions, as well as to take action to expand energy exploration and drilling so as to return to a position where Russian oil is no longer needed despite an ideological commitment to ending the use of fossil fuels, which has increased Putin’s leverage.

It may well be hyperbole to say that Ukraine and its brave leader, President Volodymyr Zelensky, are the avatars of democracy. But the courage shown by him and his people as they have held their own against the Russians despite fearful odds has gained them the affection of a broad cross-section of Americans as well as international opinion.

It’s also true that this tragedy might have been avoided had President Joe Biden not convinced Putin of his weakness by lifting the sanctions former President Donald Trump had imposed on the Russians’ Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Europe, coupled with his disgraceful withdrawal last summer from Afghanistan.

At the same time, the fact that some on the right, notably Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, seemed to be willing to act as Putin apologists right up until the invasion also encouraged the Russian autocrat. They were under the delusion that concerns about Ukraine were a plot by war-mongering neoconservatives and that anything that Biden and the liberal media saw as bad must somehow not be so awful. That was wrong, even if the mainstream media’s years of open bias on so many issues made it hard to believe anything they reported.

But further recriminations must be left to the historians. What matters most now is not why this debacle occurred. Rather, it’s that no matter where you stand on the political spectrum, Putin’s invasion has rallied American and international opinion behind the sound concept that aggressors should be resisted and punished.

To reassert this principle is not, however, a romantic notion or a way to relive past chapters of history. Ukraine is not a rerun of the Spanish Civil War that took place in the 1930s, which was widely, if often inappropriately, referred to as a rehearsal for World War II. Bad as he is, Putin isn’t Adolf Hitler. Moreover, what is at stake in this struggle isn’t so much the idea of preserving democracy as it is realizing that there is a new axis of rogue nations that needs to be stopped.

Ukraine is not a perfect democracy, and in the past, its nationalist movement has been associated with dark moments in world history that were particularly painful and bloody for the Jewish people. Still, its citizens deserve the right to self-determination and to not have foreign rule imposed on them. International support for them isn’t merely justified; under the circumstances of unprovoked war, it is an imperative.

That is true even if it’s being expressed in ways that reflect the profound lack of seriousness of many sectors of American society. Pouring out vodka with a Russian name — though manufactured in the United States — is the sort of empty gesture that led to renaming sauerkraut “victory cabbage” during the First World War to demonstrate hostility to Germany or to dub French fries “freedom fries” when France didn’t support America during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The fact that some arts organizations are now banning Russian artists for not denouncing Putin even if they denounce his war is equally pointless, unfair (since doing so would endanger their families and turn them into permanent exiles), and mere virtue signaling.

More importantly, the laser-like focus on Russia and its aggression also misses the larger significance of the current state of international affairs.

What is often lost in the understandable outrage against Putin is that he is allied with China, which is supporting his aggression — an ominous portent for the people of Taiwan who live under a similar threat of invasion from Beijing. Equally important is that Russia is also aligned with Iran, and that Biden’s dream of a new, even weaker nuclear deal with Tehran that will pose an existential threat to Israel, to Arab nations and to the West was made possible with Russian help.

The fact that Americans who are up in arms about Ukraine seem largely indifferent to the genocide China is carrying out in its western provinces against the Uyghurs doesn’t mean that hostility to Putin is wrong. It just shows how poorly informed they are, and how myopic and wrongheaded their leaders have been.

Putin’s authoritarian nationalism has nothing in common with the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party or the fanatical Shia Islamism that is the governing ideology of the Iranian theocracy. But all three share a desire to dominate the Western democracies and to impose a new age of reaction on the world. The more powerful these nations get — and China is on the brink of becoming a genuine superpower rival to the United States — the more dangerous the world becomes.

Seen in that light, the need to contain Putin’s Russia and to do everything short of a nuclear war to roll back his aggression is clear.

Understanding this basic fact of international life is not to be confused with a crusade aimed at imposing democracy on nations and cultures that either don’t want or can’t handle it. Nor is it equivalent to a desire for America to act as the imperial policeman of the world.

The genius of the post-Second World War system of alliances was that it was based on the notion that collective security is not based on hostility to nationalism per se or a desire to impose a Pax Americana on the world. Instead, it was a way of understanding that foreign conflicts must sometimes be viewed in a broader context that requires America to act in defense of its interests and those of its democratic allies.

Americans should care about what’s happening in Ukraine, and do what they can short of war to stop it and to aid those in need. But for the administration to demand the rollback of Russian aggression while at the same time seeking to enrich and empower an equally dangerous Iranian regime — and also failing to resist Chinese expansionism or its own crimes against humanity — is an appalling misjudgment and utterly unfettered from either morality or sound foreign-policy principles.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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