Lessons Yet to be Learned: War in Ukraine

Written by: Ken Wang

In the past few weeks, almost all of the news that we have seen is related to Ukraine, Russia, or sanctions in some capacity. There are daily updates on military actions in Ukraine and economic sanctions imposed on Russia followed by statements and/or reactions from the White House, American allies in Europe, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and of course, the Ukrainian people. Despite continuous updates about the Ukraine crisis, actual news coverage contains little about what the Ukraine situation means regarding U.S. foreign policy, especially concerning its relationship with Russia and how the collateral damage from a war in Ukraine will affect America’s European allies. 

On February 21st, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the two separatist regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, and ordered troops to exercise “peacekeeping” missions. On Feb. 22, Putin asked for permission from Russian lawmakers to use force outside of the country. Later, U.S. President Joe Biden called Putin’s actions “the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.” Prior to the escalation, the United States shut down the embassy in Kyiv. 

Russia has had its eyes on Ukraine for almost a decade, beginning with the annexation of Crimea in 2014. In light of recent developments, Putin attempted to justify his actions by denying Ukraine statehood, completely disrespecting its sovereignty and arguing that it has always been a part of Russia. 

Putin’s actions set a dangerous precedent for global superpowers. It is clear that when Putin recognized the separatist regions of Eastern Ukraine, he violated the international norm of respecting each country’s sovereignty and independence. The fact that Putin tried to rewrite history to justify his denial is unbelievably uncommon. Putin only has one objective, and that is to restore present-day Russia to the equivalent status of the former Soviet Union, which can not be achieved without the invasion of Ukraine. 

On another note, both the West and Russia made the effort to prioritize diplomacy in early February. Biden said he would meet with Russia if Putin held off the invasion. Before this, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited the White House and French President Emmanuel Macron visited Moscow, while the Kremlin said they would also consider diplomacy. What we do know now is that prior to the invasion, leaders from the Western hemisphere attempted to talk Putin out of military actions near the Ukrainian border and Putin denied the possibility of an invasion. 

However, given the recent escalation and military actions, with Washington sending more troops to the Ukraine region, appeasement as a military strategy has obviously failed. Similar to their reaction to current Russian aggression, the U.S. and its NATO allies also acted in appeasement when Europe faced German aggression under Hitler.

Just before World War II, Hitler sought to expand German territory and wanted to restore the pre-1918 German-Austrian Empire. The Allies believed Germany would stop its aggression if they gave Hitler what he wanted. Therefore, Germany annexed the Sudetenland and remilitarized Rhineland. Obviously, appeasement did not work.  

History has now repeated itself. Putin successfully annexed Crimea in 2014 and has launched a full-scale invasion in Ukraine, exactly like when Hitler annexed Sudetenland and invaded Poland through a Blitzkrieg. It is interesting that the West’s primary strategy has always initially been appeasement at the beginning of a military conflict. 

Due to the continuing escalation, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken canceled the meeting with his Russian counterpart, signaling a tension-filled diplomatic relationship. When two countries stop normal diplomatic relations, this is an implication of war or military conflict. 

Washington needs to realize that, if we look at history,  appeasement or diplomacy never works in resolving continuing aggression and direct force. Even if the United States is scared of the possibility of a nuclear attack, the mutually assured destruction mechanism is in place for exactly this reason: to prevent a nuclear fallout despite the escalation in the conflict between the two states. 

Just like any war, the civilians in Ukraine will suffer the most. Although Ukrainians have been receiving military training from the U.S. military, they will not be prepared enough to win the fight against professional soldiers with elite training from Russia. 

Many civilians share the sentiment that “[they] love Ukraine but [they] will not die for it” amid the crisis, which implies that there might be a new wave of refugees fleeing Ukraine to neighboring states. It is safe to say that Russia will launch some attacks but whether that will lead to full-scale war is still difficult to predict. Russia has set a dangerous precedent for international norms as it has moved its military into the two regions held by separatists in Eastern Ukraine and initiated the invasion. It is clear that the West, specifically the U.S., needs another strategy other than appeasement that is stronger to deal with future foreign aggression. 

But what strategies can Washington implement to prevent such tragedy from happening again? When there is enough intelligence indicating military action and/or aggression that may violate international norms, policymakers should prioritize an equally strong military response in return. 

The lesson that Ukraine has taught us so far is that neither appeasement nor sanctions effectively work against strong military aggressions. Sanctions take time to inflict damage but war is imminent. An equally strong military response will serve as an effective deterrence as it once did for the Cuban Missile Crisis. More importantly, only an effective, strong deterrence with real potential to inflict costly damages will pave the way for diplomacy.