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Putin will only listen to force

Joshua D. Zimmerman is a professor of history and chair in Holocaust studies at Yeshiva University. His forthcoming book, “Jozef Pilsudski. Founding Father of Modern Poland”, comes out in June with Harvard University Press.

In the run-up to last week’s Russian invasion of Ukraine, the West made a strategic blunder: It publicly took the military option off the table. As the world has since seen, promises of unprecedented sanctions by United States President Joe Biden and other Western leaders were not enough to dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin from moving in the troops and tanks.  

Today, as Ukraine fights off assaults by air, land and sea, it’s not too late to make up for that mistake. In consultation with the Ukrainian government, NATO should immediately declare a no-fly zone over western and southern Ukraine and draw a line in the sand: If Russia takes Ukraine’s capital, NATO forces under American command will defend the remaining part of Ukraine and relocate its government to Lviv.

History has taught us that the only way to stop authoritarian leaders from committing crimes against neighboring peoples — including the indiscriminate bombing of civilians — is through force. If the U.S., Europe and the United Kingdom continue to be mere spectators to the dismemberment of a sovereign, democratic state in the heart of Europe, future generations will judge us harshly.  

That’s the lesson to take from Europe in the 1930s, when France and Great Britain were militarily inactive while Nazi Germany wiped Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland off the map of the Continent: The price of inaction in the face of wanton aggression can prove to be much higher than the price of committing quickly. If the West uses force to defend a democratic, free people, to defend international norms and the rule of law, Putin will finally blink for the first time.

What’s at stake here is the credibility of the liberal world order. The roots of today’s crisis go back to November 2013, when then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, under pressure from Putin, decided to back away from signing an association agreement with the European Union and cultivate closer ties with Moscow instead. Ukrainians, regarding themselves inheritors of a Western democratic tradition with close ties to Europe, took to the streets in protest, demanding his resignation, and violent anti-government demonstrations broke out in the capital. In a message to Putin that Russia cannot curb the aspirations of the Ukrainian people, Yanukovych was removed from office.

Outraged at Ukraine’s insistence on leading an independent foreign policy, Putin then brazenly ordered troops into Crimea, formally annexing it in March 2014. Emboldened, Russian separatists in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk seized government buildings and proclaimed themselves people’s republics.

Thus, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declares, as he did today, that his country should be immediately admitted into the EU, his message is a simple one: That he and Ukraine belong to the West — that it is simply untenable for the most powerful country in the world and its European allies to refrain from defending a democratic ally under siege from a foreign invasion.  

Since 2014, Western diplomats have stated that preserving the territorial integrity of Ukraine is a vital strategic interest — not only as a democratic outpost but as a buffer between Russia and Europe. Putin’s not-so-veiled threats of using nuclear weapons should be taken for what they are: evidence that he plans to keep pushing until he is stopped.  

The unprecedented sanctions and offers of military aid to Ukraine are an extraordinary show of support. But they will not halt the advance of Russian tanks in Ukraine. Two weeks from today, do we want to think back and wonder what we could have done to prevent Ukraine’s disappearance from the map of Europe, or do we want to do something now to prevent it from happening? 

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