The Excessive Worth of Dropping Ukraine

(This evaluation is a part of a two-part collection first printed by the Institute for the Study of War. Their model consists of detailed footnotes.)

GUEST ANALYSIS  — Permitting Russia to win its battle in Ukraine can be a self-imposed strategic defeat for america. The USA would face the chance of a bigger and costlier battle in Europe. The USA would face the worst menace from Russia for the reason that collapse of the Soviet Union, as a victorious Russia would seemingly emerge reconstituted and extra decided to undermine america — and assured that it could possibly. A Russian victory would diminish America’s deterrence world wide, emboldening others with an specific or latent intent to hurt america. A Russian victory would create an unpleasant world wherein the atrocities related to Russia’s manner of battle and manner of ruling the populations below its management are normalized.

Most harmful of all, nevertheless, US adversaries would study that they will break America’s will to behave in assist of their strategic pursuits. The bottom truths of this battle haven’t modified: Russia nonetheless explicitly intends to erase Ukraine as an idea, folks, and state; Ukraine’s will to combat stays robust; Russia has made no operationally important advances this 12 months; and Ukraine’s will mixed with the West’s collective functionality (which dwarfs Russia’s) can defeat Russia on the battlefield. US pursuits nonetheless embody stopping future Russian assaults on Ukraine and serving to Ukraine liberate its folks and territory. Supporting Ukraine remains to be the most effective path for america to keep away from increased prices, bigger escalation dangers, and a better Russian menace. What’s altering is People’ perceptions of their pursuits, not the pursuits themselves. That American perceptions are altering is just not an accident. It’s, in actual fact, exactly the impact the Kremlin has been in search of to realize. The Kremlin’s principal effort is destroying America’s will by altering People’ understanding of their pursuits, and this effort seems to be working. If Russia wins in Ukraine due to the collapse of Western help, will probably be as a result of Russia has managed to form People’ understanding of actuality such that america willingly chooses to behave in opposition to its pursuits and values with out realizing that it’s doing so. Russia could have manipulated America into abandoning its personal pursuits in a combat it might and may have received. That’s a harmful lesson for China, Iran, and different US adversaries to study. America’s safety now and sooner or later, in Asia and the Center East in addition to in Europe, is dependent upon remaining solidly linked with our strategic pursuits and values and demonstrating that we are going to not fall prey to efforts to govern our perceptions of these pursuits.


One other battle below worse situations

A self-imposed defeat in Ukraine will confront america with the true danger of one other battle in Europe with increased escalation dangers and better prices. Chopping help to Ukraine is not going to freeze the frontlines, as ISW has assessed. It would as an alternative diminish Ukraine’s capability to carry off the Russian army and speed up Russia’s army drive additional and additional west as a result of the basic driver of this battle — the Kremlin’s intent to eradicate Ukraine’s id and statehood — has not modified. Putin recurrently restates this intent, most not too long ago on December 19. If Russia defeats Ukraine’s typical army, Ukrainians will seemingly flip to an insurgency, as their will to defend in opposition to the existential menace stays robust. Such an insurgency will seemingly final years if not a long time and is unlikely to be contained inside Ukraine’s borders. The USA and NATO will seemingly face a Russian army deployed alongside the NATO border from the Black Sea to the Arctic Ocean and face monumental prices and dangers in deterring additional Russian aggression in opposition to NATO itself, as ISW has assessed. In another state of affairs wherein Russia will get a reprieve by way of a untimely ceasefire or inadequate Western help that halts Ukraine’s advance, however with out permitting Russia to finish its conquest, Russia will rebuild and launch new assaults on Ukraine. The USA would face the excessive probability of one other Russian invasion of Ukraine to finish the conquest at the next price of Ukrainian lives and US taxpayer {dollars}, the identical or worse escalation dangers, and below situations that favor Russia, together with degraded international assist for Ukraine, degraded cohesion inside Ukraine, a strengthened Putin regime, a stronger Russian army and narratives, extra advantageous beginning strains for Russia in comparison with February 2022, and better Russian immunity to coercive measures.

Take heed to Cipher Transient CEO & Writer Suzanne Kelly’s dialog with Nataliya Bugayova on ‘The Battle’ Podcast centered on Life and Conflict in Ukraine, accessible wherever you hearken to podcasts

The USA dangers needlessly selecting a path antithetical to its pursuits and values when it could possibly nonetheless assist Ukraine succeed. The army problem dealing with Ukraine is nice however not insurmountable. The West already has in its arsenals the capabilities mandatory to deal with practically all challenges confronting Ukraine on the battlefield, as ISW assessed. Russia, alternatively, has not but gotten onto the best aspect of the aptitude curve. The Kremlin has been investing in regaining its offensive functionality in Ukraine and with time Russia might be able to accomplish that, however it has not been in a position to take action but. The window to expel Russia from Ukraine stays open. The West has the instruments to disclaim Russia the reprieve on the battlefield and entry to international assets Russia must reconstitute and finish the battle on the West’s phrases and within the West’s pursuits.

Higher Russian menace to america

A Russian victory in Ukraine would current the West with a reconstituted and emboldened Russia that’s extra decided to undermine america. There isn’t any going again to the pre-2022 established order. The USA is on observe to be blindsided by Russia’s transformation — once more.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has completely modified Russia. It has cemented an ultra-nationalist ideology that believes in enlargement by pressure and that’s inherently anti-Western. A Russian victory in Ukraine is a sure path to a different Putin or worse. Putin has been consolidating Russia’s elites and society round his pro-war agenda by means of a ‘get out or get in line’ method. His invasion essentially depends on Russians who assist the battle, are prepared to rally assist, or are merely prepared to get in line. This reliance has illuminated and nurtured the complete vary of Russian nationalists — from the ultra-nationalists prepared or seemingly prepared to pursue Putin’s expansionist targets in Ukraine whatever the price to these largely subscribed to Putin’s targets however diverging on methods to realize them. Putin has chosen to not silence and, in some circumstances, has empowered the Russian milblogger neighborhood and the nationalist constituency they symbolize, as they’ve proven themselves to be efficient at rallying Russians in assist of the battle. Russian nationalists in energy and society are intent on restoring Russia’s greatness and undermining america. They’re inherently anti-Western. They’re additionally, satirically and depressingly, the closest factor to civil society Russia presently has. If Russia loses in Ukraine, their future is unsure. Their energy will most actually develop if Russia retains its positive aspects in Ukraine, nevertheless, as Putin could have demonstrated by success that Russia can afford to pay horrific prices and nonetheless win as a result of the West will finally again down. He and his successors will search to use that lesson to a bigger sport — the destruction of NATO.

The subsequent Russian chief after Putin might or might not be like or worse than Putin if Russia loses in Ukraine. A Russian victory in Ukraine is a virtually assured path to a different Putin or worse, nevertheless, due to the political imperatives that an empowered nationalist neighborhood would create. Putin not too long ago revived his expansionist narratives that deny Ukrainian territorial integrity as a part of his presidential marketing campaign, prone to attraction to those communities. The nationalists will carry Putin’s intent ahead (the identical intent towards Ukraine, america, and NATO that led to the full-scale invasion) and will even generate and pursue a extra excessive model of this intent.

The Kremlin is rallying Russians for a long-term combat with the West. The anti-Western narrative will turn into the inspiration of the Kremlin’s subsequent nationwide fable if Russia wins. The narrative of confrontation with the West has more and more outlined Putin’s rule. Lacking Putin’s accumulating grudge is strictly why the West has been strategically shocked by Putin previously. The 2022 invasion has taken anti-American narratives in Russia to new heights. Confrontation with the West has turn into the Kremlin’s central home justification of this battle and a key justification for its personal more and more authoritarian rule — after the preliminary justifications about denazification, demilitarization, and many others. turned much less resonant. Anti-Western rhetoric in Russia is available in many kinds: from the Kremlin speaking heads discussing a possible nuclear strike on the US; to Deputy Chairman of the Russian Safety Council Dmitry Medvedev’s insinuations a few civil battle within the US; to fixed specific and thinly veiled threats in opposition to NATO states, together with Russian propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov’s statements that one “Sarmat” [nuclear] missile is sufficient to drown the UK; to falsely blaming america for the Kremlin’s failures, and even implying that america helps terrorism in Russia. It’s simple to dismiss these statements as lunacy. However narratives rule Russia, they’ve us the place we’re right this moment with Russia, and they’re going to form Russia’s international coverage for years to come back. If Russia wins in Ukraine, these narratives will function the premise for the following Russian nationwide fable.

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The Kremlin explicitly intends to reconstitute its large-scale warfighting functionality — an effort that disproportionally is dependent upon whether or not Russia retains or loses its positive aspects in Ukraine. Russia has considerably depleted its army functionality in Ukraine. However, in contrast to in 2022, the Kremlin right this moment is aware of its functionality hole and seeks to shut it. Russia is pursuing large-scale army reforms, revamping its protection industrial base (DIB), investing in technological adaptation, and reconfiguring its worldwide net of functionality companions. The Russian army makes use of Belarus’ trainers and coaching grounds to enhance Russian pressure era capabilities. The Kremlin has accelerated its militarization of Russian society by instituting obligatory patriotic and army schooling in Russian colleges, amongst different measures, because it seeks to broaden Russia’s future recruitment base by way of the indoctrination of its inhabitants. The Kremlin’s progress is constrained by its resolution to make use of half-measures for DIB revitalization, in addition to the invasion cannibalizing Russia’s long-term army reforms. However the potential for Russia to rebuild its army shouldn’t be underestimated if the Kremlin will get a reprieve or a win in Ukraine and might deal with reconstitution with full pressure, new information, stronger dedication, and a resilient net of army functionality companions — like Iran and North Korea — that the Kremlin has codified all through the invasion.

Russia would soak up — not simply management — any areas of Ukraine and Belarus it seizes, increasing Russia’s army footprint and useful resource base. Russia has made alarming progress in normalizing a steady army presence in Belarus, together with securing unprecedented basing entry and freedom of motion even past Belarusian army infrastructure. A Russian victory in Ukraine would unencumber the Kremlin’s capability to finalize its management over Belarus. However in such a case the Kremlin will seemingly transcend management and use Russia’s ‘digestion’ playbook (its brutal fast model in Ukraine and a softer slower model in Belarus) to erase native id in any areas of Ukraine and Belarus that Russia manages to manage.

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The Kremlin is prone to pursue an outright absorption of Belarus and areas of Ukraine it manages to grab for 2 causes. First, Ukraine and Belarus are core to Putin’s imaginative and prescient of the Russian world and likewise to Putin’s accelerated effort to reverse the Slavic demographic decline to forestall a looming social cohesion disaster in Russia. (For comparable causes Putin has been obsessive about growing the start fee amongst Slavic Russians, russification of non-ethnic Russians, and deporting and reeducating Ukrainian kids in Russia.) Second, in contrast to within the pre-2022 world, Putin might assess that the one approach to clear up the Ukraine and Belarus drawback for good (that’s, to eradicate the chance that they may drift away from Russia sooner or later) is to soak up any areas Russia manages to manage. Any areas in Ukraine or Belarus that Russia will get would additionally turn into everlasting de facto or de jure Russian army basing. (Russia occupies 17.8 % of Ukraine right this moment, in comparison with 7.1 % in 2021, and stands on this state of affairs — at a minimal — to soak up this territory to remodel it right into a lodgment from which to launch future offensives. The top of Western army help would permit Russia to broaden the world it controls dramatically.) Expanded Russian basing alongside NATO’s border will impose main dangers, prices, and obligations on the alliance to defend in opposition to this expanded Russian posture. Absorbing elements of Ukraine and Belarus would considerably enhance Russia’s energy, including tens of millions of individuals, together with the expert labor and industrial belongings that stay and the territory not scorched, for the Kremlin to make use of for the reconstitution of the Russian army.

A Russian victory in Ukraine would enhance the probability of army motion in opposition to different Russian neighbors. The Kremlin nonetheless intends to re-establish management over its different neighbors. Solely now the Kremlin might must depend on pressure to regain affect, as a number of former Soviet international locations have tried to diversify away from Russia whereas the Kremlin has been preoccupied with Ukraine. The Kremlin is aware of this drift, with Kremlin shops suggesting that Russia ought to invade Kazakhstan, Medvedev threatening Georgia with Russia’s functionality to annex South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Kremlin proxies making an attempt to destabilize Moldova. In a world wherein Russia retains its positive aspects in Ukraine, little will cease Putin from integrating different territories it chooses to understand as its sphere of affect by pressure by way of its hybrid schemas (e.g., breakaway republics) or an outright absorption.

The Kremlin would resume its presently constrained effort to broaden its international army footprint and broader affect. The Kremlin nonetheless intends to broaden its foothold within the Arctic and set up management over the Northern Sea Route, pursue broader affect and army basing in Africa, and it has maintained its marketing campaign within the Balkans. The Kremlin will pursue these and different efforts with new power, legitimacy and assets if it solidifies its positive aspects in Ukraine.

The Kremlin would get nearer to an actual alternative to interrupt NATO. Putin sought to make use of its invasion of Ukraine to interrupt NATO — an goal he failed at however continues to pursue. A key Russian menace to NATO is the chance of the Kremlin manipulating NATO into disavowing its rules. NATO will probably be discredited if Russia retains its positive aspects in Ukraine and its protection ensures will probably be undermined. NATO’s Article 5 — the dedication to mutual self-defense — is just not a magic protect. It attracts its legitimacy partly from america’ persistent resolution to decide to its companions. American leaders should bear in mind, because the Russians certainly do, that any NATO state below assault can invoke Article 5, which states that within the case of an armed assault on a member state, one another member state shall take “forthwith, individually and in live performance with the opposite Events, such motion because it deems mandatory….” Article 5 doesn’t mechanically and legally commit each member of NATO to make use of army pressure to defend a member below assault. Every NATO state must resolve the right way to act. The query of the resolve of all NATO member states to go to battle in protection of a member below assault is thus paramount within the efficacy of Article 5 in deterring aggression. That efficacy, subsequently, is under no circumstances impartial of the demonstrated willingness of america and different NATO states to face by commitments to non-NATO states. If america abandons Ukraine, because it deserted its companions in Afghanistan, the understanding that america would combat Russia in protection of, say, one of many Baltic States, will probably be harmed. There may be each purpose to assume that america will, in actual fact, honor its Article 5 obligations — but in addition each purpose to worry that Putin and his successors will assess that it’ll not, on this state of affairs. Deterrence can be weakened, and the chance of a NATO–Russia battle would enhance. Putin will go after NATO’s cohesion with new pressure, as on this state of affairs Russia could have an expanded army footprint on NATO’s border and an elevated capability to focus on societal and political cohesion throughout the alliance. Russia may also speed up its info operations making an attempt to persuade People that america merely doesn’t want NATO — a marketing campaign that’s extra seemingly to reach a state of affairs the place the Kremlin already managed to persuade america to lower or stop its assist to Ukraine. The way forward for NATO is sure up with the way forward for Ukraine way more tightly than most individuals perceive.

Degrading America’s will

Russia targets what it perceives to be the US heart of gravity — America’s will to behave. The Kremlin is utilizing its information-based warfare along with army operations to steer america to decide on inaction in Ukraine. If Russia succeeds, it is not going to solely lead to catastrophic penalties for Ukraine, but in addition set up that the Kremlin’s reflexive management is an efficient uneven warfare functionality in opposition to america — for different US adversaries to make use of if they will grasp it.

The Kremlin seeks to strip America of its will to behave. This is among the only a few methods, and definitely the quickest, for Russia to realize the benefit in Ukraine and restore its energy globally. The Kremlin perceives america to be the one sovereign state that stands — by way of will and functionality — between Russia and the Kremlin’s ‘rightful’ place in Ukraine and globally. Moscow sees america as an enemy. The Kremlin thus seeks not simply to compete with america however to decrease US energy and international affect. The US Division of Protection (DoD) defines a middle of gravity as a supply of energy that gives ethical or bodily power, freedom of motion, or will to behave. The Kremlin has limits on its capability to compete with or meaningfully degrade US bodily power. The Kremlin has been, subsequently, centered on diminishing America’s will to behave, which it seemingly sees as America’s heart of gravity. Russia seeks to form America’s conduct to behave in opposition to its pursuits and values, to strip america of the desire to behave altogether, and to persuade the world that america can and needs to be dismissed.

The Kremlin is engaged in a number of strains of effort in assist of this goal:

  1. Russia seeks to undermine People’ perception within the worth of motion as such. Putin wants america to decide on inaction in Ukraine, in any other case, Russia can not win. This mannequin has labored for Putin domestically, the place the Kremlin has established inaction as a default response by Russian residents to exterior and inside stimuli. Putin satisfied Russians that a substitute for him is both worse or too expensive to combat for. The Kremlin seeks to persuade america that Ukraine’s victory is unattainable, too expensive or not in America’s curiosity.
  2. Russia seeks to undermine the notion of US credibility, energy, leverage, and righteousness world wide to decrease America’s capability to encourage others to behave. Even when preoccupied in Ukraine, Russia is investing in anti-US narratives, usually supported by bodily means, from Africa to South America. The Kremlin can also be concentrating on US allies and companions — a core pillar of US energy — whereas concurrently investing in an anti-US coalition in assist of the identical effort.
  3. The Kremlin is concentrating on international will to behave. Putin is working to create a world order that may merely settle for, and by no means combat, Russian rules — such because the Kremlin’s claimed proper to personal Ukraine and commit atrocities within Russia and globally at will.  Russian officers body this effort as Russia’s objective to “architect a good international future.”

If Russia wins in Ukraine, US adversaries will study that america could be manipulated into abandoning its pursuits in a winnable combat. Russia can not obtain its targets in Ukraine if Ukraine’s will to combat persists together with enough Western assist. The Kremlin has lengthy understood that one of many only a few methods to reconcile its targets and means in Ukraine is to gradual Western assist to purchase Russia time to regain the battlefield initiative and rebuild functionality (which is what occurred in winter 2022–2023) or, ideally, persuade the United States to cease supporting Ukraine altogether. The Kremlin has invested closely on this effort. A current show of confidence by Russian propagandists and Putin amid hesitations in Western discourse seemingly signifies the Kremlin’s notion that the United States is beginning to act in Russia’s curiosity. If the West cuts its assist for Ukraine, it can seemingly be as a result of the United States let Russia form its conduct — as the basics of this battle, reminiscent of US pursuits, capabilities, and Ukraine’s will to combat, haven’t modified. The worldwide anti-Western coalition will study that it could possibly asymmetrically defeat the West by means of manipulation and by outlasting it. Studying the right way to diminish US resolution superiority is a harmful lesson for US adversaries, particularly China, to study.

This state of affairs would essentially imply that one of many few Russian capabilities that poses an actual menace to america — information-based warfare — has obtained a serious enhance. Russian information-based warfare and reflexive management particularly have been among the many stronger Russian capabilities and a core ingredient of Russia’s technique in opposition to america for years. Reflexive management is how Russia fights, and it is among the true methods wherein Russia poses a menace to America past its nuclear arsenal. Russia’s true sphere is its international info area — communities penetrated by the Russian narratives, together with in america. If Russia wins in Ukraine, it can seemingly imply that Russia has managed to alter America’s notion of itself, its pursuits, and the dangers and prices it’s prepared to incur — and for what objective.

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Altering America’s will isn’t any small factor. America is an concept. America is a alternative. America is a perception within the worth of motion. US home resilience and international energy are available in no small half from folks and international locations selecting america and from People preserving their company to behave with intent. An adversary studying the right way to alter these realities is an existential menace — particularly when concepts are that adversary’s core weapon.

A geostrategic atmosphere that favors US adversaries

Permitting Russia to win in Ukraine would lead to a reshaped international order that favors US adversaries and normalizes the next concepts:

Russia (and different states robust sufficient) deserves its perceived sphere of affect, no matter its neighbors’ will.

Predators can redraw borders by pressure and victims should justify their proper to exist.

Western worldwide establishments fail to satisfy the very missions they have been constructed for.

Russia can deal with folks in areas it controls any manner it desires, together with subjecting them to perpetual atrocities.

The USA will face a world atmosphere wherein ethical relativism additional resurges and values additional erode, fueled by arguments to the impact of if Russia received, possibly they weren’t that dangerous, possibly it wasn’t a black and white difficulty in any case.

These rules are antithetical to the rules-based worldwide order, which stays a pillar of US prosperity and safety.

An unpleasant world

Russia profitable in Ukraine would lead to a world accepting of the Russian manner of battle and of life. Billions of persons are watching this battle. They won’t bear in mind the nuances. They may bear in mind the outcomes, together with the rules that humanity collectively confronted or tolerated. If Russia wins, many horrific practices that the Kremlin is making an attempt to justify will probably be normalized. To call just a few:

Atrocities as a manner of battle that aren’t solely not condemned however are sometimes lauded by the Russian media, reminiscent of Russia’s deliberate assaults on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure.

Brutality as a lifestyle — each as a way to manage civilian populations and to self-discipline warfighters, just like the horrific follow of late PMC Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin having his personal males executed with sledgehammers and ‘Prigozhin’s sledgehammer’ then changing into a lauded image throughout the Russian nationalist neighborhood.

A playbook for ‘disappearing’ or ‘digesting’ a nation by means of an id and statehood eradication marketing campaign that Russia is endeavor throughout occupied Ukraine, together with forceful deportation of youngsters.

If Russia wins, it can refocus its info efforts on rewriting historical past and launching narratives for why the abovementioned actions have been justified by means of its info sphere of affect.


The price of failure for america in Ukraine is increased than the dangers implicit in serving to Ukraine win.

There’ll all the time be a danger of escalation, together with when Putin invades Ukraine once more if Russia is allowed to freeze the strains. On this state of affairs, nevertheless, america would seemingly face a good bigger escalation danger as a result of Russia will probably be nearer to a direct confrontation with NATO. Basing US coverage on the idea that america can by no means run the chance of a nuclear escalation means america has subordinated its nationwide safety to any nuclear energy. Until america chooses to take action, accepting the chance now to lower the probabilities of a bigger danger of escalation sooner or later stays a prudent plan of action.

The West must recalibrate its notion of escalation primarily based on the expertise of the previous two years. The Kremlin has shifted its a number of acknowledged ‘pink strains’ and has not modified its response even to direct assaults on its prized Black Sea Fleet, in addition to drone strikes and operations deep into Russia.

Putin stays a rational actor and sometimes a risk-averse one. He invaded Ukraine at a second when he anticipated minimal resistance from Ukraine and the West as evidenced by his evaluation that Russia might conquer Ukraine in a matter of days.  He additionally invaded solely after he had ensured that his home grip on energy was strong. Each information are indicative of a risk-aware actor. Putin additionally has been cautious about testing the boundaries of the Kremlin’s info management — as the soundness of his regime partly is dependent upon it. Putin nonetheless refuses to name Russia’s battle a battle and isn’t exactly defining his imaginative and prescient for the tip of the battle. The “particular army operation” framing seemingly reaches the restrict of what Putin assesses he can demand of the Russian folks, as he tries to hide the sacrifices that Russian folks might want to make to assist this battle — i.e., mobilization. His evaluation of his regime’s stability has self-confined him to suboptimal methods of preventing.

The danger of nuclear battle is inherent in any try to withstand the aggression of any nuclear-armed state. It will likely be manifest if Russia assaults Ukraine once more or if it threatens or assaults NATO. It will likely be current if China assaults Taiwan. An American coverage that refuses to just accept any danger of nuclear use anyplace is a coverage of everlasting and limitless give up to nuclear-armed predators. Such a coverage will encourage their predation and it’ll additionally encourage different predators reminiscent of Iran to accumulate nuclear weapons.


A Russian victory in Ukraine would create a world basically antithetical to US pursuits and values with an empowered anti-Western coalition. US deterrence energy and geopolitical standing will diminish. The price of defending the homeland and working globally will rise, as will the variety of nationwide safety points america must deal with. Extra states and teams will problem America at dwelling and overseas. Latent adversarial intent is extra prone to rework into motion — which is how we bought right here within the first place, when Russia perceived the West to be weak.

The asymmetry goes each methods: Ukraine is the lynchpin on which the way forward for Russia’s energy hinges. Russia’s capability to reconstitute; to keep up and enhance its management and affect over its neighbors; the facility of the Kremlin’s international narratives and talent to govern US will and perceptions; and the power of Russia’s coalitions, together with with US adversaries, all rely upon whether or not Russia wins or loses in Ukraine. Serving to Ukraine win wouldn’t solely forestall Russia from erasing an impartial nation and save the Ukrainian folks from Russian atrocities and homicide however would additionally land an uneven blow to the Russian menace and the anti-US coalition.

So long as Ukraine stays dedicated to defending itself in opposition to Russia’s aggression, the most effective plan of action for america is to decide to the trail of serving to Ukraine win.

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