WALL STREET JOURNAL
Appeasing Putin has cost the free world dearly. We have an opportunity to rediscover our values.
By Garry Kasparov
May 16, 2022
Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has again been scaled back amid courageous Ukrainian resistance and international support in the form of weapons, financial aid and sanctions against Russia, Mr. Putin and his oligarch mafia.
As pleased as I am by this, it’s hard not to be wistful about what might have been—and how many lives would have been saved—had such actions been taken to deter Mr. Putin years ago.
Instead, we have a conflict with global ripples affecting everything from Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas to the food supply of several African nations. This is the high price we must pay to stop Mr. Putin now to avoid an even higher price later—the eternal lesson of appeasement.
There are still signs that some Western leaders haven’t yet learned that isolating Mr. Putin and responding to him with strength is the only way to make lasting progress. French President Emmanuel Macron spoke last week about the need to negotiate with Mr. Putin, to give him face-saving off-ramps. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called his Russian counterpart Friday to urge a cease-fire, potentially leading to the sort of “frozen conflict” Mr. Putin loves because he simply ignores the restrictions while consolidating and rearming.
I’ve long said that Mr. Putin is a Russian problem and must be removed by Russians. But the West needs to stop helping him. Every phone call that legitimizes his authority, every cubic meter of gas and every barrel of oil imported from Russia is a lifeline to a dictatorship that is shaking for the first time.
If the goal is to save Ukrainian lives, as Western leaders say, then the only way to do it is to arm Ukraine with every weapon President Volodymyr Zelensky wants as quickly as possible. A cease-fire that leaves Russian forces on Ukrainian soil would only allow Mr. Putin to continue his genocide and mass deportations under cover, as he’s been doing since he first invaded in 2014.
There are also those who openly take Mr. Putin’s side even now. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is blocking a European Union ban on Russian oil imports, a supply that is putting tens of billions of dollars every month into Mr. Putin’s war machine. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is threatening to disrupt Finland’s and Sweden’s accession into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, although it’s likely he’s looking to gain something for himself, as usual. In the U.S., Sen. Rand Paul has held up a new emergency financial-aid package to Ukraine—money, by the way, that would mostly be spent with American suppliers.
On May 9, President Biden signed the first lend-lease bill since World War II to speed aid and armaments to Ukraine. It was perfectly timed for Russia’s Victory Day, the annual celebration of the Nazis’ defeat, which has been turned into a perversion of patriotism that frames anyone or any nation that opposes Mr. Putin as a “fascist.” The real fascism is in the mirror as hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing for the exits realize.
As for the 144 million Russians remaining in Mr. Putin’s police state bombarded with increasingly toxic propaganda for more than two decades, they have hard choices to make as Mr. Putin’s facade of stability crumbles and defeat in Ukraine looms. A dozen recent attacks on Russian military-recruiting offices are an indication of what might be coming.
The original Lend-Lease Act of 1941 allowed the Soviet Union to fend off Hitler’s invasion. Now the army boot is on the other foot if the U.S. reclaims its honorable heritage as the arsenal of the free world to help Ukraine defeat Mr. Putin’s invasion.
The bill is also a sign that Mr. Biden is finally shaking off the legacy of his days as vice president, the crucial period when Mr. Putin went from aspiring autocrat to full-blown dictator as the free world sat on its collective hands. When Mr. Putin invaded Georgia in 2008, Western leaders said it was better to maintain economic and political ties rather than punish him. This is the engagement policy we were told would eventually liberalize Russia—and China—by tying it to the free world.
Barack Obama epitomized the trend. As a candidate, under pressure from John McCain’s campaign, he condemned Mr. Putin’s incursion into Georgia. But President Obama was quick to make clear to Mr. Putin and other dictators that America would be leading any remaining freedom agenda from behind. The now-infamous “reset” renewed Mr. Putin’s credentials as he cracked down on the vestiges of Russian civil society. In a 2012 debate, Mr. Obama’s mocked Republican challenger Mitt Romney for stating, accurately, that Russia was America’s top geopolitical foe.
This attitude led to 2014, when Mr. Putin was emboldened enough to cast off any democratic trappings in Russia, invade Ukraine, and 2016, when he interfered in British and U.S. elections. In Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed ahead with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, increasing dependence on Russian energy when the opposite was needed. Now it’s being done abruptly and painfully. Perhaps Mr. Obama and Ms. Merkel could tour Kyiv together to see the damage they helped cause and to apologize to the Ukrainian people.
Mr. Putin’s corrupt and incompetent military is good only at brutality and massacring civilians, but has had eight years to entrench in the occupied east that Ukraine’s forces are now approaching. We will see how committed Ukraine’s allies really are as the war moves into a new phase in which defense is not enough. Will they help Ukraine win, to destroy Mr. Putin’s war machine, and to restore all Ukrainian territory? Will they keep sanctions in place to increase domestic pressure on Mr. Putin and to let his mafia know that there is no way back to the civilized world for them and their families while Mr. Putin is in power?
The free world that won the Cold War is remembering how to fight and rediscovering the values that give meaning to the fight. That’s bad news for Mr. Putin and the other dictators watching closely, from Beijing to Tehran to Caracas. Ukrainians are fighting for their lives and their nation, and for the free world. Let it not be as a proxy, but as a partner.
Mr. Kasparov is chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative.