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Let Europe Lead in Ukraine

When Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, many Ukrainian and European commentators warned that the foundational norms of the post-World War II international order were at stake. They were right. Yet Russia moved so quickly, and so many Europeans and Americans recalled that Crimea had been part of Russia for centuries, that the danger of direct confrontation between two nuclear great powers loomed larger than the need for a coordinated national, regional, and even global punitive and deterrent response.

That is the context in which I wrote the commentary below, both praising the Obama administration’s policy of avoiding possible nuclear escalation and recognizing that Europe had the largest economic and diplomatic stake in resolving the crisis. Today, US President Joe Biden is still walking a tightrope between offering the quantity and quality of military support and training that will allow Ukraine to defend itself successfully and avoiding a potential nuclear escalation. The United States and NATO continue to insist that they are not at war with Russia; they are helping Ukraine in
its war with Russia. Moreover, Ukrainians’ extraordinary determination to defend themselves has created the time and space necessary for NATO to come to their aid; had Russian tanks rolled into Kyiv in early March 2022, as Vladimir Putin planned, the story might have ended more like the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Europe’s role remains essential to the outcome of the current war. Without the billions of euros provided to Ukraine through EU trade and aid between 2014 and 2022 – not to mention the political and diplomatic support for Ukrainian reformers – Russia might well have been able to subvert the Ukrainian government from within. And for all the importance of US and NATO military support, when the war does end, it will be the European Union which provides the Marshall Plan-scale aid needed to rebuild Ukraine. Still, I will never again be able to write as dispassionately about Ukraine as I did in 2014. The faces of its soldiers, its women, its children, and its dead are the faces of a universal and unconquerable human spirit.
– Anne-Marie Slaughter, May 2023

WASHINGTON, DC – As Russia’s annexation of Crimea proceeds, the United States must step back; the European Union must step forward; and the international community must ensure both that Russia pays a steep economic and political price for its actions, and that Russian and Ukrainian nationalists do not lock both sides into a deadly spiral of violence.

Thus far, Western leaders have played their cards about as well as they could, barring early missteps by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who described a calculated assertion of Russia’s regional interests as the behavior of a leader who was out of touch with reality. Escalation of the crisis by the US at this stage would merely play into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hands and expose the West as a paper tiger.

To see why, it is useful to recall some history. Throughout the twentieth century, the US intervened repeatedly in Latin America to topple or subvert governments it did not like: in Cuba, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Guatemala, Haiti, El Salvador, Chile, and Grenada, to name only the most prominent cases. During the Cold War, successive US presidents were perfectly happy to send in troops, directly or indirectly, to ensure that friendly governments prevailed in the Americas (and beyond).

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