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Talk of Reducing Aid Risks Rewarding Russian Malice

Ukraine Needs More

January 19, 2023
4 min read
Photo credit: Seneline / Shutterstock.com
Notwithstanding recent Russian military advances in Solidar, Ukrainian victories on the battlefield have allowed US supporters of democracy in Eastern Europe to breathe a cautious sigh of relief.

Destructive missiles are still flying, but Ukraine appears to have survived an existential threat. Some American politicians, lulled by the hopeful signs, are now questioning aid to the beleaguered nation as part of an effort to trim government spending.

As a 25-year veteran of US development work in southeastern Europe and head of a nongovernmental agency supplying Ukraine humanitarian aid, I believe that such a move is premature and unwise, and belies a superficial understanding of regional circumstances and the global danger inherent in the power politics that launched the Ukrainian crisis.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has targeted the area comprising Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and countries further west as the next testing ground for the resolve of Western nations. He has spotted small fissures in the structures erected to nurture fledgling democracies established after the demise of communism and, in Ukraine, is using a large, brutal chisel to widen the cracks. Russia is offering other struggling Eastern European nations tempting alternatives to the European Union and NATO.

Putin has enjoyed substantial success with this strategy in Hungary, where President Victor Orbán regularly proclaims friendship with the Russian dictator. As Orbán understands, friendship entails rewards and obligations. Promises of cheap Russian gas and nuclear power for his country demand payback, and he has obliged by blocking the EU’s appropriation of $18.9 billion for economic assistance for Ukraine.

Beyond Hungary, Slovak public opinion is split about the war. Many hope for a Russian victory, as do some in the eastern regions of the Czech Republic. The three countries are perhaps beguiled by nostalgia for the Soviet Union’s support, which made life easier. Gaining Russian economic favor is more urgent now that regional inflation is running as high as 20 percent. Further west, in the Balkans, Putin dangles the military enticements of Slavic brotherhood to the aspirational Republika Srpska. This threatens to destroy the unity of Bosnia’s government, which the UN pieced together two decades ago. As Bosnian Serb presidential candidate Milorad Dodik disrupts cooperation among his partners in the hope of establishing his own country, the potential for renewed sectarian violence is jangling nerves. Reduced US support for Ukraine would increase pressure in these nearby and fragile democracies.

The challenges mounted by Putin, however, range far beyond southeastern Europe. In fact, they constitute global strategic threats of the first order. What are we to make, for instance, of the growing friendship between Kremlin hard-liners and Tehran’s mullahs? The Russians have already received hundreds of Iranian drones and used them to cripple Ukraine’s electric power grid. What lies ahead in the Middle East if Putin can merge his newfound Iranian friendship into a tripartite alliance with his client state of Syria? Could a wave of Iranian drones soon fly over the Golan Heights toward Tel Aviv?

A similar scenario could be in store for East Asia. The West’s firm response to Russian aggression in Ukraine has clearly had a sobering effect on China’s threat to Taiwan. But what happens if support for Ukraine wanes or Russia’s assertion of hegemony in southeastern Europe goes uncontested?

From regional and strategic perspectives, the United States must stay closely engaged with its allies in Kyiv to ensure that Ukrainians receive the assistance they need to blunt naked Russian aggression. Military and humanitarian aid are still desperately needed, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made clear in his speech to the US Congress: “We have artillery, yes. … Is it enough? Honestly, not really.”

The US decision to provide Patriot missile systems is particularly heartening, albeit late in coming given the continuing attacks on Ukraine’s power grid. Humanitarian aid in the form of ambulances, medical supplies, lights, and generators is also needed. That is where non-governmental agencies, such as mine, help. We do what we can, but we need more diplomatic support and assistance from the U.S government.

The Ukraine invasion is not a singular event but a regional and, even, global threat. More effort is needed to staunch this breach before it spreads to other countries and regions. To do less at this critical juncture risks a worldwide resurgence of malign Russian influence.

 

The views and opinions expressed in the preceding text are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.