Editor’s note: This commentary was originally published in print on May 7 as part of a pro-con debate page. To read the counterpoint, click here.
Last year, I traveled to Kyiv with Speaker Nancy Pelosi as part of the first delegation of House members to visit the Ukrainian capital during the war. We drove through the darkened streets of a city beset by sporadic Russian aerial bombardment, watched ordinary Ukrainians carry on despite the dangers, and spent hours with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his national security team analyzing the battlefield and hearing his appeals for stronger U.S. support.
Then, and since, I have marveled at the Ukrainian willingness to fight for their democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. In the United States, where our own democracy has been under a different kind of assault, we have another responsibility — to resist our own creeping authoritarianism, to continue the struggle for voting rights and equal rights, to defend our elections and the freedom of the press. But the Ukrainian people have been called on to risk their very lives, and the question is now raised for us — should we continue to support them in doing so?
My answer is an emphatic yes.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine is one of the greatest threats to liberal democracy in recent history. The Ukrainian people are fighting Russian aggression at great cost; as of April 2023, the UN estimates at least 23,015 civilian casualties across Ukraine since Russia’s all-out invasion, including 8,574 killed, and nearly 8.2 million refugees from Ukraine displaced across Europe. That is most likely a tragic undercount. The Ukrainian people have also been the subject of horrific war crimes in this Russian war of choice, with deliberate Russian bombing of civilians, rape and murder, and the forced separation and deportation of Ukrainian children. Through our assistance, we are supporting the Ukrainian people by giving them the tools they need to bring the war to an end on Ukrainian terms, without putting American lives at risk.
In addition to unleashing untold suffering on Ukraine, Putin has brought conflict to our NATO allies’ doorsteps, and generated fear of nuclear attacks with his belligerent rhetoric. He is challenging not just President Zelenskyy and the brave Ukrainian people, but the very international rules-based order that the U.S. has championed since WWII, and which has brought enormous benefit to the democratic world. If Putin is allowed to disregard international law with impunity and remake the borders of Europe by force, what will that mean for the aspirations of other autocrats?
In a world in which democracies do not defend each other, China would be emboldened to impose its will on the democratic peoples of Taiwan. Azerbaijan may take further action to invade and occupy Armenia and Artsakh. Turkey, Iran and other nations will also take a fresh look at their territorial ambitions in a new global order in which there are no rules except might makes right.
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The NATO alliance has succeeded in keeping the peace in Europe since WWII. The benefits have been enormous for the United States – our European allies today are key security partners, trade partners, and regularly support democratic values in international organizations on issues affecting U.S. interests. NATO came to our immediate assistance by invoking Article 5 for the first time when we were attacked on Sept. 11. If we hope to continue to benefit from this alliance, we must show we are also a reliable partner and will aid NATO allies when they face a threat on their border.
Economic prosperity is another critical component of our national security. Having stable partners around the world is good for U.S. companies and workers. Ukraine has been described as the “breadbasket of Europe” and is critical to global food security. Conflict and transnational crime that directly affect Americans thrive in environments where there is instability, weak rule of law, rampant corruption and human rights abuses, and a lack of economic opportunity. To protect American livelihoods, we must continue to strengthen democracies everywhere, including Ukraine.
While the U.S. must continue to stand with Ukraine against the autocratic regime of Vladimir Putin, that doesn’t mean a blank check. We can all agree that American boots on the ground in Ukraine are not in our national security interest, but supporting our democratic allies is — freedom must prevail in this fight, and the United States must help lead the way with continued political, humanitarian, economic, and security assistance.
Adam B. Schiff represents California’s 32nd District in the House of Representatives.