It is an age-old truism that wars are much easier to start than they are to finish. 

A year after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his military to invade Ukraine under the false excuse that Ukraine needed to be liberated from neo-Nazi forces, the conflict remains far from over.

As Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London wrote this month for Foreign Affairs, Russia now finds itself “caught in a protracted conflict in which it dares not concede defeat even when a path to victory remains elusive.”

Ukraine, meanwhile, has earned respect for its dogged and heroic determination to resist the invasion. Its path to victory, Freedman wrote, “depends on pushing Russian forces back enough to persuade Moscow that it has embarked on a futile war.”

But while the war grinds on with no end in sight, it has already succeeded in changing the world by refocusing the West on truths that matter.

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The main lesson is that freedom, as the generation that survived WWII was always quick to say, isn’t free. Regimes that concentrate power in the hands of one person, or even one party, tend to seek power and territory for survival. They care less, if at all, about the ability of their citizens to pursue dreams, much less govern themselves.

The old Cold War struggle between free and oppressive regimes was just a latter-day extension of struggles that had occupied the world since the concept of freedom and democracy first emerged. It hasn’t gone away.

America’s constitutional system of government rests on the radical notion, boldly declared in the Declaration of Independence, of the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” 

By definition, man cannot revoke a God-given right. This notion interrupted millennia of assumptions that humans were subjects to a king or queen, or to a dictator, a political party or any other earthly source.

One of those unalienable rights is religious freedom — something many nations try hard to repress. Others include the freedom of speech, the right to assemble and many others enumerated in the Bill of Rights. More succinctly, the Declaration describes them as the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

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As the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights noted in the preface to its 2020 report, “… the American example of freedom, equality, and democratic self-government has long inspired, and continues to inspire, champions of human rights around the world, and American human rights advocacy has provided encouragement to tens of millions of women and men suffering under authoritarian regimes that routinely trample on the rights of their citizens.”

The report concludes with the thought that, “One of the most important ways in which the United States promotes human rights abroad is by serving as an example of a rights-respecting society where citizens live together under law amid the nation’s great religious, ethnic, and cultural heterogeneity.” 

The strength, then, of the United States and other freedom-loving Western nations, relies to a large extent on how its citizens act, which is a sobering thought in today’s hyper-partisan climate. Americans must do better.

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But that strength also relies on military power. Western Europe appears to be coming to realize this now, as well.

Six years ago, Jahara Matisek, of Northwestern University, and Ian Bertram, of the U.S. Air Command and Staff College, wrote an essay for the Strategy Bridge writing contest that declared, “Conventional warfare is officially dead.”

It continued, “The long-held notion of the decisive battle that brings the combat power of two nations against each other for a winner-take-all slugfest lies in the next grave. Even wars of attrition, in the model of the American Civil War, First and Second World Wars, and Korea are gone.”

It may be true that no nation wants a direct conflict with the United States, just as it’s true that terrorist groups still pose existential threats to national security.

But, one year in, the war in Ukraine has shown the world that traditional nation-state threats to freedom remain an important part of international relations, and that the United States must always be ready for these threats. 

Wars may be easier to start than to end, but the causes that compel nations to fight are not all relative. 

Freedom still isn’t free. Sometimes, as Ukrainians, unfortunately, have learned, it must be protected with blood.