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Schoen: Now is not the time for the West to back down in Ukraine

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy listens to a report close to the front line in Donetsk region of Ukraine during Russia's invasion, Sunday, June 5, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Presidential Press Office via AP)Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy listens to a report close to the front line in Donetsk region of Ukraine during Russia’s invasion, Sunday, June 5, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Presidential Press Office via AP)

The war between Ukraine and Russia is close to reaching a stalemate, and the West’s initial optimism about the conflict’s trajectory has largely faded as the reality sets in that it will likely be a long slog.

Heavy fighting continues, mostly in the eastern region of Ukraine – where Russia has made significant advances – and peace negotiations have stalled. There is also a growing sense of hesitancy among Western nations about maintaining such a high level of financial involvement in an overseas conflict with no end in sight.

But make no mistake, the war is now entering one of its most important phases, and the U.S. and Europe must respond accordingly. This is no time for the West to back down.

Vladimir Putin is betting that he can win the war by waiting for the will of the West to erode. For the sake of the Ukrainian people and for the cause of global democracy, it is imperative that he is proven wrong.

To be sure, Putin was emboldened to invade Ukraine based on what he perceived — reasonably so — to be a disengaged and divided Western alliance.

He felt encouraged by his largely unchecked militaristic advances over the last 15 years — the war in Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015 — and knew that NATO would not send troops to fight beyond its borders.

Just as critically, Putin sensed growing Western disunity — based on Brexit in 2016 and the election of Donald Trump, whose isolationist foreign policy created rifts with our allies — which he gambled would work in his favor when it came time for the West to rally around imposing sanctions against Russia.

Encouragingly, Putin’s gamble about the West hasn’t played out as he planned. The U.S. and our global partners have largely presented a unified front with a resolve that hasn’t manifest since the Cold War, imposing harsh sanctions that cumulatively torpedoed the Russian economy and effectively locked the country out of the international financial system.

Further, Russia’s initial military’s strategy — of conquering large sections of territory quickly and capturing major cities like Kyiv – was rebuffed by the Ukrainian military with the help of weaponry from the U.S. and E.U.

But at this stage, Putin senses — rightly so — the growing exhaustion and wariness among Western nations over the financial and human cost of the war, and is once again betting that we will back down.

Indeed, the international tenor toward the war became much more somber at the end of April when Russia refocused its military strategy mainly to the southeast of Ukraine and Donbas region, where it has since made significant advances. According to President Zelenskyy, who provided an assessment last week, the Russian army has “destroyed almost the entire Donbas,” and “about 20 percent of (Ukrainian) territory is under the control of the occupiers.”

Additionally, the Western sanctions against Russia’s economy and oil industry have taken a harsh toll in the U.S. and Europe at a time when many nations, especially the U.S., were already grappling with high inflation. President Biden and other leaders are now coming under pressure to reconcile their domestic political interests with America’s international goals.

In the U.S., the current average gas price is $4.95, which is double what it was when President Biden took office. The U.S. has also sent roughly $54 billion to help the Ukrainians fight Russia — which is likely the right decision — however, this price tag may prove increasingly difficult for Biden to defend as the election approaches.

Though Biden is facing domestic political pressure vis-a-vis the economy, in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, the president reinforced his administration’s support for Ukraine, and importantly underscored that the U.S. would not be pressuring Ukraine into accepting concessions.

“Standing by Ukraine in its hour of need is not just the right thing to do. It is in our vital national interests to ensure a peaceful and stable Europe,” later adding: “Americans will stay the course with the Ukrainian people.”

However, other Western leaders have found it more difficult to mask their fatigue with the conflict, which indicates that it will be difficult for Biden going forward to maintain the unified Western response to the war that he has been lauded for facilitating.

Earlier this week, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that Ukraine should accept concessions in order to “not humiliate Russia,” marking a clear shift in his tone from the beginning of the conflict.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently urged Ukraine to cede territory to Russia to end the invasion, which President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people broadly oppose. Zelenskyy has called on the West to stay the course, saying Ukraine has the strength and will to outlast Russia, but won’t be able to without continued Western help.

Ultimately, the U.S. and Europe must be prepared to stand firm in isolating Putin, supporting Ukraine, and squeezing Russia economically, while still calling for, as Biden has, a diplomatic solution to the conflict and underscoring that NATO does not seek to enter a war with Russia.

This is necessary not only to defend the Ukrainian people’s freedoms and right to self-determination, but to show that the U.S. and the West will not tolerate rogue dictators like Putin who believe they can destabilize, terrorize and lay claim to sovereign countries.

Though Vladmir Putin’s bet against the West didn’t pan out at the beginning of the war, he is now gambling that the West will blink. We can’t allow him to be right.

Douglas Schoen is a longtime Democratic political consultant.

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