Oddly enough, a visitor to Kyiv these days is unwittingly reminded of Israel, of all places. With sunbathers on the beach by the Dnipro, busy (though not completely full) restaurants and cafés, and hipsters and skateboarders, it is sometimes hard to wrap one’s head around the fact that this is a country at war.
Yet the war is omnipresent. Each day is punctuated by air raids, mostly ignored by the locals. Roadblocks and checkpoints around the city are being fortified instead of removed in anticipation of another possible attack on the capital. Just twenty minutes from downtown, one can see the devastation of Irpin, where Russians spent weeks shelling apartment blocks, family houses, and children’s playgrounds, while locals hid in their basements without water, electricity, medicine, or food. In the village of Bucha next door, dozens of civilians were summarily executed simply for being Ukrainian.
Much like Israel, facing threats from much larger Arab nations for much of its existence, Ukrainians are aware of the stakes of the current conflict. If the Russians stop fighting, the war ends; if the Ukrainians stop, it is the end of Ukraine.
A recurrent theme of conversations I had in Kyiv last week was Ukrainians’ determination to fight. 'We have made a decision,' people of all political stripes were telling us, 'that we are going to win this war – with or without the West.'
Truth be told, more Western assistance would improve Ukraine’s prospects dramatically. In the Donbas, Russia’s numerical advantage in artillery, for example, might be as large 13 to 1 – a difference that will not be remedied by deliveries of Western rocket launchers that count in single digits.
The collective West, from Washington to Berlin, finds itself in a paradoxical position. Clearly, Russia’s aggression is unacceptable, and everyone wants to prevent Vladimir Putin from winning. Yet the same leaders do not seem to be fully committed to doing everything in their power to ensure Ukraine’s victory either.
The reasons are unconvincing. For one, the fear of escalation runs in the face of experience of the past 12 years. Putin advances not when faced with strength and resolve but rather when he senses weakness. While one can never rule out a Russian attack on Nato countries, most have seen only below-threshold warfare – unlike countries outside the protective umbrella of the alliance, such as Georgia and Ukraine.
The idea that helping Ukraine by shipments of modern weapons systems – artillery, fighter jets or tanks – is too expensive does not hold water. It is far cheaper to use this opportunity to degrade, via Ukrainian defenses and with Western aid and training, Russia’s military capacity for a generation as Russians are decimated and driven out of the country than to face an emboldened Russia, ruling over an expanded territory.
The Balts, the Poles, and the Czechs understand well that Putin’s ambitions do not stop in Ukraine and their countries are next on the list. Unless soundly and definitely defeated in the East and South of Ukraine, expect more blackmail, threats, gray zone warfare, and possibly even a test of Nato’s Article 5, the principle that an attack on one member of Nato is an attack on all members. The price tag for the United States in this situation would be far, far higher than the $40 billion (£30 billion) allocated through the recent supplemental bill.
At the same time, responding to the war is not merely a question of the West’s interests, which happen to be aligned with those of Ukraine. On my last day in Kyiv, our group met with Stanislav (or 'Stas') Aseyev, a blogger who was held for over twenty months in a secret prison, known as 'Izolatsyia', in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. Tortured with electricity, he confessed to some of the bogus charges, including 'spying' for Ukraine. Stas was lucky, as he was eventually released as part of a negotiated prisoner’s exchange. Many others disappear without a trace: tortured and shot just for being Ukrainians.
This is evil, pure and simple. The choice to accommodate it or compromise with it is not just unrealistic – contrary to the 'realist' label claimed by Russia’s appeasers – but also morally aloof to the point of being repugnant. Alas, too many Western leaders, to their eternal shame, appear more than ready to make precisely that choice. They must do better.