By Lt. Gen. (Ret.) James M. Dubik
That there has been no major war in Europe since 1945 isn’t an accident. It is because that generation of American leaders — political, diplomatic, economic and military — came together to defeat Adolf Hitler’s expansionist, war-crime-filled aggression. This same set of leaders then designed a set of structures that (a) provided near-term stability in a very turbulent and quite violent post-fighting Europe that (b) laid a foundation for a long-term peace — NATO and the European Union — from which almost four generations have benefitted. That is, until Russia invaded Ukraine.
American and European leaders worked together to fashion post-war European security, economic, and political institutions that were mutually beneficial to all — including America. Many of these leaders had very visceral reasons to succeed at this monumentally difficult task: They had lived through or fought in two world wars. America falsely believed that “what happened in Europe doesn’t affect us,” only to be drawn into World War I and suffer almost 260,000 U.S. killed and wounded. And again, when an aggressive dictator went unanswered for too long: World War II, in which millions of civilians and hundreds of thousands of those fighting were killed or wounded in Europe alone — including approximately 552,000 Americans.
The scale of death, destruction, famine and the massive displacements of European civilians, many parentless children, all led senior leaders of the period to the same conclusion — never again. “The enormity of the task before all of them,” said Dean Acheson in the opening of his memoir Present at the Creation, “began to appear as just a bit less formidable than that described in the first chapter of Genesis.”
The men and women who fought, and then built the Europe most of us inherited, would be appalled by the growing attitude today among too many American leaders and citizens of not supporting Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression is a crime. And, if allowed to succeed, the criminal will not stop with Ukraine. Nor will the list of Russia’s war crimes stop with those committed in Ukraine. The Zelenskyy government is fighting for what it already had — its political sovereignty and territorial integrity. The United States, NATO and other allies must support Ukraine to ensure Putin’s crimes do not stand. Such a task would be perfectly clear to our World War II predecessors. But it seems too many American leaders are faltering before four main tasks they face:
1.) Support the fight to eject Putin’s forces. Wars are won when one side achieves its strategic political aims or both sides decide to quit. Neither Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy nor the Ukrainian people are going to quit. They will fight as long as the supplies they need keep coming. Their life as a political community depends upon not only their determination but that of the allies. Dropping out U.S. funding for Ukraine in the just-passed congressional continuing resolution will have a direct, negative effect on Ukraine’s ability to sustain its counteroffensive.
Putin isn’t going to quit unless he’s forced to. Given the poor state of the Russian forces, he’s barely been hanging on militarily and is counting on U.S. and NATO support to wane. By cutting aid to Ukraine, Congress is directly supporting Putin’s desire to divide the alliance and weaken their resolve.
2.) Supply Ukraine with what it needs to win. The allies have not delivered on their promised support at a pace that the momentum of a counteroffensive requires. In 2022, they started, and remain in, a “give them some of what they need, slower than they need it” approach. Putin cannot widen the war; he can barely sustain defensive operations. He is hoping the episodic allied logistics flow will give his troops another winter lull so that he can strengthen his defensive positions and bolster his forces with more “cannon fodder.” And given NATO’s capacity, Putin’s weakened domestic position, and warnings from Russia’s supporters, he is unlikely to escalate to the nuclear level.
Zelenskyy’s forces are on the attack because of allied equipment, supplies and ammunition, but their counteroffensive would be much stronger, and perhaps advancing at a more rapid pace, if the allies would drop their self-imposed fear of what Russia might do and base the speed and volume of logistics flow on what the Ukrainians must do. The recent U.S. continuing resolution signals to Putin that he may enjoy a second respite this winter.
3.) Fund Ukraine’s ability to sustain its fight. Ukraine’s ability to fight for rights stolen by Putin’s illegal aggression rests on not only military capacity but also economic and civil capacity. The fiscal requirement is huge, especially for a Ukrainian economy intentionally wrecked by Putin’s war strategy. The allies should combine what appears to be a short-term aid approach with a more long-term funding strategy. Such a strategy would combine humanitarian aid with economic reform grants and low-interest loans to be repaid upon Ukraine’s economic recovery. This approach would broaden the financial burden and provide some return on allied investments. To administer this kind of comprehensive recovery program, the allies should establish an autonomous organization designed to ensure all money is spent wisely and without corruption.
Executing such a policy is in the enlightened strategic self-interest of the U.S. and NATO. Congress’s recent decision reflected in the continuing resolution is anything but enlightened self-interest; it’s a failure of foreign policy leadership.
4.) Prepare for a post-fighting transition period that will be dangerous and difficult. Recovery from this war will not be easy or fast. What Putin loses on the battlefield he will try to regain in the post-fighting transition period. He will foment dissent. He will seek to discredit the Zelenskyy government. He will disrupt refugee returns, economic recovery and reconstruction in any way he can. He will use “deniable” forces to instigate violence, intimidate witnesses to war crimes, and make return to normalcy as hard as possible. And he will try to weaken other states in the region in preparation for further aggression.
Putin’s war against Ukraine will not stop when the fighting ends, and the allies must begin planning for this fact now. But Congress’s recent action does not manifest the strategic leadership the world expects of the United States. It does not bode well for Ukraine’s future, or America’s.
The predecessors of current American and European political, diplomatic, economic and military leaders met the difficult challenges they faced following World War II. Too many current leaders seem bent on destroying that work, not sustaining it. Structuring a successful way ahead was not easy in the post-World War II period, and it’s not easy now. If the voices of the "Greatest Generation" could whisper advice to today’s leaders, it might be: “End this war before it spreads. If you think it’s hard now, it can get worse. The world needs American leadership — so, lead.”
About the Author
James M. Dubik, Ph.D., a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. His military command and operational roles were in Bosnia, Haiti and Iraq and he has trained forces in many countries.
This was originally published in The Messenger here.