This same thinking explains Putin’s support for the brutal dictator in neighboring Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, who stole the 2020 election and launched a vicious crackdown on peaceful protesters. It also explains the Russian-led intervention through the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Kazakhstan in January to ensure President Tokayev was not removed from power as a result of popular protests.

The Western response to Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine was halting. It took Russia shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014, and the deaths of the 298 people on board, for NATO and EU members to impose serious sanctions. While those sanctions may have kept Putin from marching farther into Ukraine, it was Ukrainian resistance to that aggression that made the key difference.

Putin’s intervention in Syria the next year to prop up the murderous Assad regime led to accusations against Russian forces of widespread human rights violations and crimes against humanity. Putin has also used the Wagner mercenary group to carry out Russian policy around the world, including sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Wagner, too, has been accused of gross human rights violations, and its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been sanctioned again by the Biden administration.

Since Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainians in Russian-controlled parts of the country have endured a human rights crisis under the thuggish rule of Russian authorities in Crimea and Russian proxies in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The rule of law had disappeared in these areas, while persecution of ethnic minorities (i.e., non-Russians), arbitrary arrests, and unlawful detentions became everyday occurrences.

Today, as Russian forces move farther into Ukrainian territory, they are waging their campaign with total indifference to the basic tenets of the laws of war and to civilian suffering.

The current crisis is a result of Putin’s fear that a successful, democratic Ukraine that looks westward instead of to Moscow poses a threatening alternative to the kleptocratic, authoritarian system that he oversees in Russia.

Putin sought to destabilize Ukraine so that the West would lose interest in it. He failed. For all its fits and starts, Ukraine has been moving in a positive direction. It deserves Western support and eventual membership in NATO and the EU. Through his first invasion in 2014, Putin inadvertently renewed in Ukrainians a strong sense of national identity as a proud, independent state.

He also produced a spike in support for joining NATO, which before 2014 had been supported only by a small minority of the country. Just before the latest invasion, more than 60 percent of Ukrainians supported joining NATO for its Article 5 security guarantees.

In the lead-up to this latest crisis, the Biden administration did an excellent job of coordinating with allies and preparing an unprecedented package of sanctions in the event Putin invaded. The sanctions have been swift and have already had a major impact on the Russian economy.

The ruble has plummeted in value while interest rates in Russia have soared. Russian oligarchs are desperately trying to shield their ill-gotten yachts and property from law enforcement. Putin himself has been sanctioned and is rightly viewed as a pariah.

In addition to sanctions, the United States and its allies have supported Ukraine by providing a significant increase in lethal military assistance, and have deployed more in forces in NATO member states that border Russia and/or Ukraine.

But more must be done to prevent widescale casualties and a potential bloodbath. Pursuing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, significant as such steps are, takes time. They won’t stop the bloodshed. Estimates suggest that that number of Ukrainian refugees could reach 5 million, more than 10 percent of the population.

Several thousand Ukrainians have already died from Putin’s latest aggression, on top of the more than 14,000 killed following Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine in starting in 2014. Ukraine is facing a severe humanitarian disaster, and the effects are reverberating across the European continent and beyond.

President Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg have stated that neither the United States nor NATO will engage Russian forces on the ground in Ukraine. No one wants a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia. The risks of escalation are too great.

But not doing enough to prevent Putin’s onslaught has its own risks. Today Ukrainians are the targets of Putin’s aggression; tomorrow it could be Moldovans, Poles, Romanians, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, or Georgians (once again).

It is time for the United States and NATO to step up their help for Ukrainians before more innocent civilians fall victim to Putin’s murderous madness. Ukrainians are courageously defending their country and their freedom, but they need more help from the international community.

There are some who have commented that Putin has reinvigorated NATO, caused a revolution in German foreign and defense policy, and brought the democratic world together like never before. That is all true and good, but the slaughter of Ukrainians continues apace. Some would have us all “relax” because Russia’s military is “stalled out in Ukraine.”

The Ukrainians cannot relax. Others argue that focusing on Russia and Ukraine distracts us from where we should be focusing—China. Without taking anything away from the serious challenge China poses, perhaps these commentators need reminders that Europe is the continent where two world wars began.

It is possible that Putin has made a fatal political move in invading Ukraine. His ugly crackdown inside his own country does not reflect a leader confident in his persuasive skills or in his support among the Russian people. Regimes like Putin’s seem stable until the moment they fall. But until his reckoning comes, Putin is wreaking havoc on a country of 43 million people.

It can be tempting, watching from thousands of miles away, to conclude that as long as the Ukrainians are fighting and dying for the cause of freedom, we are winning. This is false. We only win when Ukraine succeeds, and Ukraine’s future as a successful democracy becomes more endangered with every murder of a civilian, every bombing of an apartment, every atrocity committed against its people.

If we will not help the people of Ukraine for their own sake, because it is our duty as Americans and as human beings, then we should help them for our sake. They are fighting one of the great enemies of human rights and dignity in modern history. Their fight is our fight, too.

NOTE: David J. Kramer is Managing Director for Global Policy at the George W. Bush Institute, Dallas, Texas, and served as assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the George W. Bush administration. He serves as a Senior Advisor to the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council (USUBC) www.USUBC.org

LINK: https://www.thebulwark.com/what-the-ukrainians-are-fighting-for-putin-russia/