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America must show Putin we will stay the course in Ukraine

On November 4, 1979, a group of radical Iranian students seized the American embassy in Tehran in retaliation for the Carter administration allowing the Shah to travel to the U.S. for medical treatment. The students released a small number of embassy staff, but kept 52 personnel as hostages. The Carter administration was unable to secure their immediate release.

Six weeks later, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in order to put down an Islamist insurgency that the pro-Soviet government of Hafizullah Amin had failed to stop.

The Soviets may have invaded when they did because they deduced from the hostage-taking in Tehran that the Carter administration was weak and would do nothing to retaliate against Moscow. In the event, the most significant American response to the Soviet invasion at that point was merely to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics while hostages continued to languish in the Tehran Embassy until Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on January 20, 1981.

This week marks the second anniversary of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan — a more recent example of apparent American weakness. Since that ignominious event, Washington has stood by as the victorious Taliban has been hunting down Afghans who collaborated with the U.S., closed off opportunities for women, and more generally reimposed the medieval version of Islam that marked its prior rule over the country.

Vladimir Putin was a very junior KGB officer when Moscow launched its invasion of Afghanistan. Perhaps he discerned a parallel between the Carter administration’s inability to respond to both the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion and the Biden administration’s humiliating withdrawal from Kabul and subsequent indifference to the Taliban’s tyrannical rule.

Having concluded that Washington once again would do little in the face of aggression (as indeed was the case when Russia seized Crimea), Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine six months after the chaotic American departure from Afghanistan.

Until now, Washington has proved Putin wrong by pouring billions in military and economic support into Kyiv. It has coordinated a unified NATO response to Moscow, applying increasingly tough economic sanctions against Russia. Indeed, NATO has expanded in the face of Russian aggression, with Finland joining the Alliance and Sweden on the verge of doing so. Moreover, many of the alliance’s members, as well as other American allies and friends, have followed America’s lead and are supporting Ukraine with military training and equipment as well as economic assistance.

Nevertheless, Putin is clearly playing for time, hoping that America will lose interest in supporting Ukraine and that a Republican administration will take office in 2024 and terminate American assistance to Kyiv. This, he reasons, will likely lead America’s allies and friends to follow suit.

There are also increasing indications that many Americans, driven by a large majority of Republicans, have begun to suffer from what might be termed “Ukraine fatigue.” A CNN poll released in early August showed that 55 percent of all respondents oppose additional congressional funding to support Ukraine, while 51 percent consider that America has already done enough to help Kyiv. In addition, the poll indicated that support for Ukraine now breaks down along partisan lines, with 71 percent of Republicans opposing additional Ukraine aid while 62 percent of Democrats support funding for the embattled nation.

A June Ipsos poll yielded similar results. In this case, only a relatively small majority of Democrats polled — 54 percent — would have America “stay the course” in support of Ukraine, whereas just over one quarter of Republican respondents share that view.

In a worrying but not surprising development, an increasing number of House Republicans are reflecting the increasing skepticism of the Republican base. Whereas Rep. Matt Gaetz’s (R-Fla.) February resolution opposing further aid to Ukraine attracted only 10 supporters, no less than 70 House Republicans voted in support of Gaetz’s amendment to the National Defense Authorization bill that would have cut off all aid to Kyiv.

An equal or even larger number of Republican members are likely to oppose the administration’s recent request for a $40 billion supplemental that includes $24 billion in aid for Ukraine.

The House may yet support the administration’s request if enough Republicans join Democrats in approving the supplemental. Senate support is virtually assured. Nevertheless, these developments may lead Vladimir Putin to conclude that he is correct in calculating that, once again, just as in the earliest days of his career, America will be unable or unwilling to pursue its vital interests.

It is therefore critical that Washington, and Congress in particular, continue to prove to the Kremlin autocrat that it will indeed stay the course on Ukraine, and that his perception of American weakness and fatigue is woefully misplaced.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was undersecretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy undersecretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Afghanistan Afghanistan withdrawal history Iran Iran hostage crisis Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Russia Soviet Union Soviet–Afghan War Ukraine Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin