Boston Globe Op Ed: To save US lives, Congress should provide aid to Ukraine

April 5, 2024

It’s not in the United States’ best interest to expect the Europeans to go it alone.

By William McNulty and Drew Lewis

As veterans in Ukraine to assist with humanitarian aid efforts, we recently sped past the apartment building in Kharkiv that had just been struck by a Russian missile. This close to the border, the air raid sirens don’t sound until after a strike. We needed to clear the area quickly since the Russian military loves a “double tap” — a quick second strike intended to kill first responders streaming in to rescue civilians.

Through fields that before the war supplied Ukrainian grain to world food markets, we now stepped gingerly between antitank mines laid by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “liberators.” Around us, a dozen young women and men wearing soft body armor poked at the earth with bayonets. Rich farmland that once fed the world — 174,000 square kilometers, an area the size of Florida — now offered only the promise of decades of dangerous work to clear the millions of mines the Russian military has sown since Russia’s full-scale invasion two years ago.

If America continues down the path it is on, Americans are barreling toward a near future in which American sons and daughters will probably be dying on the battlefields of Europe — again. We know how far away that sounds from the cacophony of daily life. But if Congress doesn’t quickly appropriate funds to aid Ukraine, US service members may soon join Ukrainian soldiers on the frontlines.

To three generations of Europeans, Russian actions over recent years offer a clear narrative: The Russians are coming. Putin didn’t stop at Georgia (2008) or Crimea (2014), and last month’s sham Russian presidential elections reinforce that there’s nothing suggesting he will stop at Ukraine. From Belgium to Bulgaria, average Europeans hear the drumbeat of Russian aggression. The parallels to their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences with Nazi Germany in the 1930s are unmistakable.

And who can blame them when this era’s dictator — in Moscow this time instead of Berlin — is pursuing similar objectives using the same false justifications as excuses for aggression. Dictators tend to tell us exactly what they are going to do; yet we are often surprised when they do it. In Oliver Stone’s 2017 documentary “The Putin Interviews,” Putin weaves a patently false tale starting with the persecution of Russian-speaking populations living in Ukraine and ending with Russia having “no choice” but to protect these ethnic minorities with military force. Hitler’s regime concocted similarly absurd tales of persecution of ethnic German populations living in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and elsewhere to justify its invasions of these places. Then, as now, these were preposterous fictions but — and this is the key — they were repeated consistently and loudly. The great mistake of the European leaders of the 1930s was to treat these German fictions like real arguments rather than dismissing them as a smoke screen for naked aggression.

Nazi messaging expert Joseph Goebbels identified a fundamental human vulnerability in his theory of The Big Lie: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie … the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie.”

For the most part, today’s generation of European leaders have remembered Goebbels’s lesson well enough to reject the Russian narratives. As the extent of the Russian threat becomes more clear, and as American support seems less assured, Europe is moving toward a “strategic awakening,” to quote President Emmanuel Macron of France. If the United States fails to lead, other NATO nations closer to the fight will be compelled to do so — several already are. The longtime-neutral Swedes and Finns have joined NATO. The French have been talking openly about putting troops on the ground in Ukraine. The Czechs are orchestrating a multinational supply of artillery ammunition to keep Ukrainian guns firing.

“So what’s wrong with this?” reasonable Americans might ask. Europe should be able to stand on its own feet. The Trump administration cast a much-needed spotlight on the shameful history of European underspending on their own defense. Now that trend is finally reversing.

But it’s not in the United States’ best interest to expect the Europeans to go it alone. By US law and international treaties (specifically Article V of the Washington Treaty), we are compelled to respond to any Russian attack on the forces or territory of our NATO allies as an act of war. If a NATO member is attacked, the United States must defend it. All of our NATO allies made this a reality after the United States was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001 — invoking Article V for the first time ever to fight alongside us.

So, it is in Americans’ interest to help the Europeans now with American “treasure” rather than later with American “blood.” No one is asking the United States to commit troops to Ukraine. Not the Europeans. Not the US government. As veterans who have served our country and our fellow citizens on the battlefield, we aren’t asking for that either. What is needed to save US service members and Europe is for Congress to approve the aid package for Ukraine so they have what they need to fight. Timely support for Ukraine is a bargain compared to spending the blood of our sons and daughters on another battlefield — again.

William McNulty is a former Marine Corps sergeant who served in Iraq as a Department of Defense contractor before cofounding Team Rubicon. He currently serves as the head of mission for White Stork, an aid organization he cofounded in Ukraine. Drew Lewis deployed in support of Defense Department taskings to Cuba, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, and Singapore. He also served as an adviser to Team Rubicon and White Stork.

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