With Russia bearing down on Ukraine and Western nations demonstrating more willingness to deter Moscow from starting another shooting war on the European continent, some on the American right are wondering why the West is invested in Ukrainian security at all. Indeed, they don’t see America’s commitment to deterring Russian aggression as deterrence. It is, to them, America sleepwalking into a disastrous conflict that is none of our business. They have gotten the stakes of this standoff and America’s interests precisely wrong.

One of the primary sources of confusion among those on the right who favor a more introverted American foreign policy is that they have adopted Moscow’s confused rationale for its own aggression. Of this impulse, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s analysis is instructive.

In his latest column, Douthat lays most of the blame for the current crisis at the Kremlin’s feet, but not all of it. He writes that, in the supposedly bygone era in which the United States was a “hyperpower,” America backed the eastward expansion of NATO that was both provocative and risky. This, he writes, was an aspirational foreign policy, not one that accounted for “the realities of power.” Douthat adds, “the attempt to draw Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit, the partway-open door to Ukrainians who preferred westward-focused alliances, was a foolish overcommitment even when American power was at its height.” This outlook is flawed in two ways.

First, it assigns all agency to Washington and robs America’s non-allied partners of sovereignty. Washington didn’t grab Ukraine by the hand and guide it toward integration with the West. Ukrainians themselves have made that desire plain, and they have demonstrated a repeated willingness to fight for it.

Ukraine’s present conflict with Moscow arguably began with the “Orange Revolution” of January 2005, which culminated in the ascension of Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency. Almost immediately after that regime change, Ukraine and NATO inaugurated an “intensified dialogue” around a Membership Action Plan (MAP) that would one day result in Ukrainian ascension into NATO. But the conditions NATO attached to ascension were never met and, by 2008, a NATO summit in Bucharest that agreed to Ukraine and Georgia’s ascension only in the distant and indefinite future signaled the end of Ukraine’s progress toward becoming a NATO member.

At the same time, the rise of “non-aligned” Viktor Yanukovych to serve as prime minister and, eventually, the president seemed like a concession to the “realities of power” in the region. But that proved a concession that Ukrainians were unwilling to make. A second revolution in 2014 ousted the Yanukovych regime, but the Ukrainians who fought and died fighting their own government in Maidan weren’t carrying NATO flags to the front. They carried the flags of both Ukraine and the European Union because the event that catalyzed that rebellion was the Yanukovych government’s unilateral suspension of a free trade agreement with the EU, not NATO’s enlargement.

Westward alignment isn’t something that Ukrainians are ambivalent about. As recently as December, polling indicated that only about one-fifth of Ukrainians support joining a customs union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. They back integration with the EU and NATO by 58 and 54 percent respectively—a national ambition so central to Ukraine’s identity it is codified in its constitution. Consigning Ukraine to the Russian sphere of influence wouldn’t be the natural course of affairs if we only extricated ourselves from Europe’s complexities, and that sentiment won’t go away just because we want it to.

That brings us to the second flaw in Douthat’s analysis: Ukraine’s ascension into NATO was and remains a distant prospect. It is Kyiv’s desire to integrate economically and politically with the West that Moscow views as an imminent threat. Russia retails the notion that the present crisis is a response to the West’s heedless expansionism, but there’s no reason to lend credence to that dubious narrative. It’s Ukraine’s independence that so irritates the Kremlin.

Douthat proposes an “ideal retreat” from Ukraine which would leave “NATO expansion permanently tabled, with Ukraine subject to inevitable Russian pressure but neither invaded nor annexed, and with our NATO allies shouldering more of the burden of maintaining a security perimeter in Eastern Europe.” He concedes that it would be a struggle to execute an immaculate retrenchment, as our bitter experience in Afghanistan suggests. But it might be the “least-bad” of our available options.

This is exactly the concession Russia is demanding from the West. How else could you interpret Moscow’s demands in exchange for ratcheting down tensions? The Kremlin has insisted, in writing, that the United States and the West must commit not just to halting NATO expansion but must remove all troops and weapons from nations that entered the NATO alliance after 1997; namely, the entire former Warsaw Pact. Thus, Russia has effectively asked the West to gift them a sphere of influence they cannot secure militarily, diplomatically, or economically. To do so would abrogate the sovereignty of our partners and allies in Europe, shatter confidence in America across the globe, and represent a profound misreading of the imbalance of forces arrayed against Russian interests in its own backyard.

Those who are attracted to Douthat’s argument appear to believe that the West’s only course of action short of war with Russia is retreat. There is, in the estimation of the American Conservative editor Rod Dreher, an “eagerness” among “American elites” to get involved in a real shooting war with Russia. “We have no realistic choice but to cede to at least some of Russia’s demands,” he writes, lest we abandon the geostrategic imperative of containing a revisionist China. Such a theory confuses deterrence with war-making. The dispatching of lethal arms into Ukraine, as well as the deployment of troops, naval assets, and area denial technology, is designed to raise the stakes of conflict to the point that Moscow blinks. That would be the best of all imaginable resolutions to the present conflict, because the refugee crisis, economic disruptions, and war of attrition in Europe that would follow a Russian invasion would be catastrophic. After all, the likelihood that U.S. could avoid becoming entangled in a conflict on NATO’s borders that involves America’s ratified allies is negligible.

Nor is deterrence a zero-sum game. Both the Chinese and Taiwanese are watching events in Eastern Europe closely, the latter with a sense of existential dread. In recent weeks, Taiwan has committed to deepening its bilateral ties with post-Soviet states (in particular, Lithuania) including the establishment of a billion-dollar fund designed to offset Beijing’s economic pressure on these and other nations to abandon Taipei. In a 2019 report to Taiwan’s parliament, the country’s National Security Bureau warned that “the Chinese Communist Party is copying the methods used by Russia to annex Crimea against Taiwan.” The Taiwanese would rightly view a Western capitulation to Russian demands that acknowledges the legitimacy of a security architecture that robs Kyiv of its right to freely join foreign military alliances as a precursor to its own abandonment.

Douthat is wrong insofar as the “least-bad” resolution to the crisis in Europe would be to defuse it without sacrificing either the post-Cold War order or Westphalian sovereignty. And the only way to secure that outcome amid the crisis Moscow has inaugurated would be to force it to back down—through troop deployments, diplomatic offensives, preventative sanctions, or even the provision of face-saving offramps like the restoration of defunct security agreements. But back down it must.

What we cannot do is consign Ukraine to Russian domination. Even if we could, the Ukrainians themselves have proven they would never accept it. That is a challenge, indeed, but it’s a manageable challenge. By contrast, the wages of appeasement would be too costly to bear.

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