In Putin’s Evil Vs Good War Against Ukraine, the Forces of Good Triumphed Out at NATO This Week

Frederick Kempe is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Atlantic Council.

This is a story of evil versus good.

It is the story of a despot’s relentless attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine, versus the historic, yet insufficient, rally of democratic states to save the country.

On Monday afternoon, about 1,000 men, women and children in the central Ukrainian industrial city of Kremenchuk, serenely on the Dnipro River, wandered Amstor’s shopping center, trying to enjoy some normalcy amid a brutal war.

About 185 miles away and a few thousand feet overhead, Russian bombers flying over Russia’s Kursk region, likely Tupolev Tu-22M3s, have at least two Kh-22 medium-range, 2,000 lb. cruise missiles, developed in the 1960s to destroy aircraft carriers. An air raid siren sounded and Ukrainians, well trained in the fifth month of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war, scrambled for safety.

Around the same time at the luxurious retreat of Schloss Elmau in Germany’s Bavarian Alps, the leaders of the Group of Seven, representing the world’s largest democracies, were huddled around conference tables in an effort to strengthen their far-reaching sanctions against Putin and Russia. They discussed options to stifle the finances fueling Putin’s war, including imposing a price cap on oil sales to Russia that could reduce the $1 billion dollars the world pays Russia for energy every day.

As they struggled to make progress, one of the rockets screamed down at the mall. A CCTV video captured a rural day, with wispy clouds adorning the otherwise blue sky, then the huge fireball of the explosion and curling up of a giant black plume of smoke. Broken glass and debris flew past the camera.

A day later, as Ukrainian officials counted the death toll — at least 20 killed and 59 wounded in a war in which Putin’s army has already killed tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians — NATO leaders gathered for the summit that brought me to Madrid. They were bustling over the timing of Putin’s shopping strike at the mall, knowing it was aimed at them as much as it was at Ukraine.

“Talk as much as you want,” Putin seemed to tell them. ‘Sign whatever documents you want. I will survive you and your spoiled societies with my war of attrition, restore Imperial Russia and seal my place in history, even as your decadent West continues to decay.”

Putin was confident that despite historic agreements in Madrid this week and while arms shipments from the United States and its partners are increasing in number and quality, no one was yet willing to deliver the heavier, higher-precision weapons that could have prevented the mall’s strike and so many others, and could permit an urgently needed counter-offensive.

Yet NATO achieved a level of unity unseen in more than 30 years.

At the end of a marathon, hour-long negotiating session with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, the parties reached an agreement that paved the way for Finland and Sweden join NATO and, in Sweden’s case, end two centuries of neutrality.

The next day, NATO leaders were to sign a new Strategic Concept, highlighting Russia as their most current threat, but including China as a matter of common concern for the first time. The leaders of Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand attended a NATO summit for the first time as partners and guests.

NATO’s Chinese language indicated that the alliance understood it faced a global and interrelated challenge. Considering that 30 countries had to sign the text, many of them still with China as their main trading partner, it’s a powerful read.

“The declared ambitions and coercive policies of the People’s Republic of China pose a challenge to our interests, security and values,” the statement said. It later continues: “The PRC seeks to control key technology and industrial sectors, critical infrastructure and strategic minerals and supply chains. It uses its economic influence to create strategic dependencies and increase its influence. It strives to promote the rules-based international order including in the space, cyber and maritime domains.”

There was much celebratory talk among allies about their increased unity and deeper purpose, including President Joe Biden’s statement that NATO sent an “unmistakable message” to Putin.

NATO acted, among other things, to strengthen its eastern and southern flanks, and the US military will send a corps headquarters to Poland and more troops to the Baltic States and Romania. NATO pledged to expand its high-readiness forces from 40,000 to 300,000 even as Sweden and Finland brought it significant new military weight.

Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares announced the summit as potentially as important as Yalta (heaven help us) or the fall of the Berlin Wall.

At a NATO public forum co-hosted by the Atlantic Council on the fringes of the summit, I asked French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna how she would assess the historic moment.

“History will tell,” she said.

No one should miss Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s message to G-7 leaders this week that they must provide him with the means for a counter-offensive to push back Russian forces before winter sets in and Ukrainian allies lose interest in the war. light of growing economic headwinds.

“Russia is currently fighting two wars,” Greg Ip wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “A hot war with Ukraine whose costs are measured in death and destruction, and a cold war with the West whose costs are measured in economic hardship and inflation.”

Putin could, in time, fold in the face of a more determined West and better-armed Ukraine, Ip writes, but he bets he could “impose enough costs on Western consumers in the short term that political support for Ukraine will crumble”.

I am leaving Madrid, encouraged by an increased consensus among European and Asian democracies that a Ukrainian defeat would be disastrous for Europe and the world order, as other despots calculate their own odds.

But I also come away discouraged that despite all the progress this week, military support and sanctions are still not equal to historic commitment.

In this struggle between a determined despot and uniting democracies, the forces had a once-in-a-lifetime excellent week. If they don’t build on it, and quickly, it’s not enough.

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