Perspective: God bless the Ukrainian people. Their fight must inspire a new era of global engagement

We have to recognize that for Putin, Ukraine is not enough, and the world is watching how the United States responds

The world is witnessing the first war of conquest in Europe since 1938. It was Czechoslovakia then and Ukraine now. In just over a year, America’s geopolitical situation has changed dramatically for the worse as we confront two great power rivals bent on territorial expansion — Russia and China. 

What is happening to the people of Ukraine is heartbreaking. 

A woman reacts as paramedics perform CPR on a girl who was injured during shelling, at city hospital of Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. The girl did not survive. | Evgeniy Maloletka, Associated Press

I visited the nation in 2014 as an international elections monitor. During my short stay, I attended my church’s Kyiv ward sacrament meeting and a Catholic Mass in Lviv. Both services were packed with congregants. Ukrainians are good and decent people who want a democracy and to live like their European neighbors. They have no interest in being annexed to Vladimir Putin’s dystopian Russia. 

For that “crime,” they are fighting for their very lives. 

They do so alone with little help from abroad. May God bless them, and may they never give up their fight for freedom.

In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the nation via his smartphone in the center of Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022. Russian troops stormed toward Ukraine’s capital Saturday, and street fighting broke out as city officials urged residents to take shelter. The country’s president refused an American offer to evacuate, insisting that he would stay. “The fight is here,” he said. | Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via Associated Press

We must recognize that for Putin, Ukraine is not enough. Last week, he threatened the Baltic states and Finland. He even held out the prospect of nuclear war against any nation that supported Ukraine or the other countries he menaces. Make no mistake, Putin is a dangerous autocrat who wants to rebuild the Russian empire. He is not a person to be admired, no matter how charming, cunning or clever he is portrayed to be.

Backing him up 100%, waiting to see how the West reacts to the invasion of Ukraine, is Chinese Communist Party Chairman Xi Jing Ping. Chairman Xi has his own conquests in mind — starting with Taiwan but looking at large swathes of India and the South China Sea.

Beijing’s increased aggressiveness toward Taiwan has led some commentators to argue that we should ignore Putin’s Ukraine gambit and focus solely on China. While this sentiment is understandable, it misses the point: Beijing is watching how Washington responds to Moscow as it gauges what it should do next. If Russia faces a determined Ukrainian defense, supported by the West, finds its economy shut off from Europe and North America, watches its oligarchs’ assets frozen and tied up worldwide and is bordered by a united and strong North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the CCP will surely think twice before attempting to conquer Taiwan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he leaves after visiting the construction site of the National Space Agency on the premises of the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Centre in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. | Sergei Guneyev, Sputnik, Associated Press

It is a maxim that weakness in international affairs is provocative. The catastrophe of our Afghanistan withdrawal, the underfunded defense budget submitted by the administration, the gift to Russia and Germany of Nord Stream 2 sanctions relief and the message to China that we are prepared to lift tariffs unilaterally all damaged U.S. credibility in the eyes of our foreign adversaries.

Unfortunately, our nation also has domestic woes that are being tracked abroad. America’s massive budget deficits, inflation, open borders, loss of our energy independence, rampant crime in our large cities with smash-and-grab robberies and home invasions, and the polarized nature of our politics — fueled by clashes over COVID-19 mandates, woke cancel culture and critical race theory being taught in our schools — show foreign foes a very divided country.

Our current situation looks a lot like the 1970s and early 1980s. The U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam then preceded the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran hostage crisis and the global adventurism of the Soviet Union and Cuba during that era. Last year’s Afghanistan debacle appears to have emboldened Russia, China and Iran today.

“It is a maxim that weakness in international affairs is provocative.”

The good news is that notwithstanding our challenges, America remains fundamentally strong. We can turn our circumstances around just as America did starting in 1981 by returning to a peace-through-strength national security posture. 

With respect to Ukraine, we must immediately impose significant costs on Putin for his war by cutting Russia off from the West financially. Former National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow suggests sanctioning the Reserve Bank of the Russian Federation, so that Russia will not be able to engage in international trade. He is right. Further, all Russian financial institutions should be barred from the SWIFT system, not just selected banks as was announced by the U.S. and EU on Saturday.

On the energy front, the U.S. can drive down the high price of oil that is funding Russia’s war machine by building the Keystone XL pipeline, allowing energy leases on federal land and encouraging our oil companies to drill additional wells in existing fields. These steps will have the added benefit of helping American consumers at the pump.

“With respect to Ukraine, we must immediately impose significant costs on Putin for his war by cutting Russia off from the West financially.”

On the defense front, the U.S. should move with dispatch to complete the modernization of the nuclear triad that the Trump administration started, so that America can never be blackmailed by Putin or Xi or Kim Jong Un or the ayatollahs.

It is past time to build America a 355-ship Navy. Keeping the Atlantic and Pacific oceans well defended and free will protect our nation from the massive People’s Liberation Army Navy fleet and the deadly nuclear submarines of Russia.

American allies are critical to defending the free world. In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden should both be encouraged by America and our European friends to seek NATO membership. They would strengthen the alliance’s northern flank, including in the critical Arctic area. In the Indo-Pacific, the Quad partnership of India, Japan and Australia should be formalized and strengthened on the military front to form a bulwark against CCP expansionism.

Former national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien listens during a news conference at the White House on Sept. 4, 2020, in Washington. | Evan Vucci, Associated Press

Restoring our industrial base is critical to long term U.S. prosperity. We must never again be dependent on China for our critical supply chain as we were at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Staying ahead in the technology race and manufacturing key components at home is important in the advanced semiconductor, space, cyber, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and quantum computing areas. 

We have a vibrant Silicon Valley with its satellite centers in Salt Lake, Austin, Seattle and Boston. Elon Musk is a force of nature in Texas, and our allies in Tel Aviv are building a world-class tech sector, so I am confident we will prevail. The CCP is pumping scores of billions into these same tech areas and stealing what IP it can from our centers of excellence, so we cannot be complacent.

Accordingly, the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which passed the Senate with bipartisan support and is moving to conference, is legislation worthy of the moment. The scale of today’s challenge exceeds the ability of U.S. companies and capital markets to retake leadership without government support. Whatever legislation eventually clears conference should include the $52 billion now in the CHIPS Act to fund homegrown semiconductor design and manufacturing. 

Each of the above policy recommendations should receive bipartisan support and they are all popular with the American people. Implementing these items will project marked American strength abroad and provide momentum for finding additional common-sense solutions to the border, crime and spending issues that vex our nation. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a wake-up call to the American people. We must come together and project strength at home and abroad. A strong America always results in a safer and more peaceful world.

Robert C. O’Brien is the chairman of American Global Strategies. He served as the 28th U.S. national security adviser.