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The West is strong, not weak. It has disguised its strength behind acts of weakness and portrayed its prosperity as poverty. These lies have only ever served as excuses to abandon the West’s values, interests, and partners. 

It’s time to reverse course, abandon weakness and commit to Ukraine’s victory. 

Warmongering dictators are among the most dangerous leaders on Earth. Both for the citizens they govern and the people residing in neighboring states. Not far behind them are the weak leaders who appease them.

Compromise is interpreted by warmongering dictators not as restraint, but as weakness. To them, every transaction is a zero-sum game. They are emboldened not despite the concessions we make to them, but because of those concessions. 

Bad behavior must be punished, not rewarded. Even a child knows that rewarding someone who engages in wrongdoing only reinforces the misconduct. The same applies to bad faith actors in international politics. 

At the Munich Security Conference in 2007, then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin committed to withdrawing Russian peacekeepers from Georgia, deployed since the Georgian Civil War in the 1990s, on “an accelerated schedule.” 

Instead of following through with that commitment, the Russian Army invaded Georgia the following year. The West could’ve imposed devastating consequences on Moscow for its aggression. Rather than punishing the Kremlin, however, Russia was appeased. 

To be clear: The costs of stopping Russian aggression at this moment in time would’ve been marginal compared to the bill that countries like Ukraine and the West have paid ever since. 

French President Nicolas Sarkozy brokered a ceasefire that Moscow never respected instead. Soon after, Obama called for a “reset” in relations with Russia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel rewarded Putin with Nord Stream 1. Russia hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics. The list goes on and on.

Emboldened by the West’s feebleness, Putin doubled down on his aggressive foreign policy. To kill Ukraine’s dream of a free and prosperous Euro-Atlantic future, Russia invaded Donbas and annexed Ukrainian Crimea in 2014 — immediately after hosting the Olympics in Sochi. 

Putin gambled. U.S. President Barack Obama slapped Russia on the wrist. Western sanctions imposed on Moscow were limited in scope and scale. The Europeans rewarded Putin with Nord Stream 2. Russia hosted the World Cup in 2018. Business continued as usual, like Putin predicted. 

The West’s weakness wasn’t only exploited in the European theatre, but also in the Middle East. In 2012, Obama warned that America would intervene militarily if Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War. 

When the dictator of Damascus crossed Obama’s infamous “red line,” the U.S. didn’t follow through on its warning. Instead, Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron convinced French President Francois Hollande that the correct approach was to make a deal with Assad.

Russia brokered the agreement. Syria pledged to destroy “all” of its chemical weapons. That didn’t happen. Assad’s chemical weapons attacks continued, at least until 2018. After all, to Putin and his community of like-minded dictators, “deals” are just words scribbled on a piece of paper. 

Emboldened by the West’s inaction after the first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Russia intervened in Syria the following year. Putin helped the Assad regime and Iranian terror proxies like Hezbollah kill up to half a million people, survive the Syrian Civil War and turn Syria into a narco-state.

Years later, Western fragility was on display once again in Afghanistan. The U.S. withdrew from Kabul despite sacrificing 2,352 soldiers, investing more than $2 trillion in the war effort and spending two decades building a state that collapsed against the Taliban in 10 days

Perceiving the West as weak once more, Putin launched his second invasion of Ukraine less than six months later. Russia intended to capture Kyiv within a few weeks. To say that the war isn’t going well for Moscow is an understatement.

Ukraine has since destroyed roughly 2,200 Russian tanks. U.S. intelligence estimates the Russian Army has sustained at least 350,000 casualties. Russia has lost more than 220 vehicles and nearly 13,000 soldiers at the Battle of Avdiivka since October alone. 

Putin’s gamble failed. He overestimated what the Russian Army was capable of accomplishing. He underestimated Ukrainian bravery. Putin also misread President Joe Biden who, despite his faults, is not Bush or Obama. 

A conflict of great power magnitude has returned to the European continent for the first time since World War II. Yet what happens in Europe doesn’t stay in Europe. By failing to extinguish the fire, what began as an ember has since turned into a firestorm that risks setting the rest of the world ablaze.

The parallels between the prelude to World War II and today’s international security environment are alarming. The West could nonetheless reduce the likelihood of a world war without sacrificing a single soldier. It all starts by abandoning weakness and committing to Ukraine’s victory instead of just ensuring its survival.

Originally published by The Hill on January 1, 2024.

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