As I write this I am in Warsaw, 170 miles from Poland’s border with Ukraine. The front line, where Ukrainians are right now fighting and dying, is another 450 miles beyond that. Not so far, in other words. A long day’s drive. I am well within range of Russian missiles, the kind that have hit Kyiv, Odesa, and Lviv so many times over the past two years.
Tens of millions of other people—Poles, Germans, Romanians, Finns, Estonians, Swedes, Slovaks, Lithuanians, Czechs, Latvians, Norwegians—are also in range of Russian conventional missiles, whether launched from Belarus, Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine, or Russia itself. Anyone in Europe could also be hit by Russian nuclear weapons, of course, as Russian television propagandists so frequently like to remind us. Dmitri Medvedev, a former Russian president, in recent months has threatened Poland with the loss of its statehood, threatened Sweden and Finland with nuclear and hypersonic missiles, and said the Baltic states belong to Russia anyway.
Most of the time, the possibility of Russian aggression doesn’t affect anybody or change anything. No one talks about it. Life goes on as normal. In Finland and Romania, preparations for presidential elections are under way. In Germany, farmers are on strike. Lithuania is holding an international light festival.
The moment the Ukrainians start to lose, all of that will change. For the past few months, Western observers have been tossing around the word stalemate, as if the Russian invasion of Ukraine had settled into some kind of dull, permanent stasis. In fact, the battlefield is dynamic. The front line is constantly changing, and the changes, both material and psychological, are starting to favor Russia. The Ukrainians are just as brave as they were a year ago and just as innovative. Their drones recently hit a Russian gas depot near St. Petersburg, hundreds of miles from Ukraine, among other targets. With no navy of their own, they have pushed much of the Russian Black Sea fleet away from their shores. But on the ground, in the southern and eastern parts of their country, they are rationing ammunition. They’ve never had sufficient missiles and bullets, and now they are at risk of not having enough to keep fighting at all.
Were their front line to fall back dramatically, the horrific violence alone would trigger a shock wave through the rest of Europe. Russian occupation of more territory would continue to mean what it has meant for the past two years: torture chambers, random arrests, and thousands of kidnapped children. But an even deeper, broader shock wave would be triggered by the growing realization that the United States is not just an unreliable ally, but an unserious ally. A silly ally. Unlike the European Union, which collectively spends more money on Ukraine than Americans do but can’t yet produce as many weapons, the U.S. still has ammunition and weapons to send. Now Washington is on the verge of refusing to do so, but not because the White House has had a change of heart.
The looming end of American aid to Ukraine is not a policy decision. For two years, the Biden administration successfully led an international coalition to provide not soldiers but rather military aid to Ukraine. Officials convened regular meetings, consulted with allies, pulled in military support from around the world. Majorities in the U.S. continue to support Ukraine. Majorities in both houses of Congress do too. But now, for reasons that outsiders find impossible to understand, a minority of Republican members of Congress, in a fit of political pique, are preparing to cut it all off. They might succeed.
Many different, bad choices led to this moment. Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s decision last summer to cut Ukraine out of a larger budget bill was the first. The strange idea to link Ukraine aid to controversial changes to U.S. immigration law and border policy was the second. The ballots cast by voters in Iowa and New Hampshire then put Donald Trump on a seemingly unstoppable path to the Republican presidential nomination; Trump’s telephone calls to Republican senators, telling them to kill the Ukraine/border legislation, suddenly mattered. His motives are blatantly selfish: He wants the U.S.-Mexico border to remain chaotic so that he can use the issue in his campaign. He doesn’t want Biden to benefit from any perceived solution or progress. And he doesn’t care if Ukraine runs out of ammunition as a result.
To the outside world, none of the logic behind any of these decisions makes sense. All they can see is that the American political system has been hijacked and rendered dysfunctional by a radical, pro-Russian faction led by Trump—a disgraced ex-president who used violence and deceit to try to remain in office.
By abandoning Ukraine in a fit of political incompetence, Americans will consent to the deaths of more Ukrainians and the further destruction of the country. We will convince millions of Europeans that we are untrustworthy. We will send a message to Russia and China too, reinforcing their frequently stated belief that the U.S. is a degenerate, dying power. Less than a year ago, when Biden made his surprise trip to Kyiv, the U.S. projected confidence and unity as the leader of a functional alliance. Now, suddenly, we don’t.
Elected legislators don’t get that many opportunities to make a real mark on the world. But right now, the actions of just a few congressional Republicans could help stop a series of bad decisions from morphing into a worse one. This is their chance to make America serious again. Do they have the courage to take it?