National Security News

Reporting the facts on national security

National Security News

Russia Tech Ukraine War

Neighbour’s house is on fire and we are watching it burn

TIMOTHY SNYDER, professor of history at Yale University, writes for VRYE Weekblad, saying the US should not decrease its support for Ukraine.

YOU have a good neighbour. He does a lot for you. He keeps the street clean around your house.  He mows your lawn when you are away. He signs for your packages and brings them to you later. Your kids go and play with his kids. He has an alarm on his house with a camera, which you don’t, and he once chased burglars away from your house. He’s done a thing or two for you that you haven’t noticed. Like the time he stopped a crew from mistakenly taking down a tree in your garden. And the time he found your cat outside, on the street, and gave it to your kid.

And now your neighbour’s house has caught fire. The flames are just visible. There’s plenty of time to react. In fact, you happen to be standing nearby, at exactly the right place, watering your garden, with a hose in your hand. The flames are in easy reach. Your neighbor runs to you and asks you to turn the water in the direction of the flames.

You refuse. You turn off the water and walk away. Then you go to the basement and shut off the supply to your house, just to make sure your neighbour can’t be helped.

All you had to do was flick your wrist, turn the hose in the right direction. But you didn’t. It wouldn’t have cost you anything. A nickel on your water bill that you wouldn’t notice. 

And if you had helped, you’d have been a hero. Your neighbour would remember you, as would the press, as would your kids, as would everyone. But you chose not to help. Your neighbour’s house burns down.

And then yours does, too.

This is, currently, US policy on Ukraine. We are choosing to let a good neighbour burn. Ukraine does things for us that we need, and often that we neglect to do ourselves or cannot do ourselves. It does things for us that we do not notice. 

These are not small things. By resisting Russia, Ukraine shows the world there are people who care about democracy enough to take risks for it. It reduces the risk of nuclear proliferation and nuclear war by showing that nuclear blackmail does not work. It maintains the international legal order. It fulfils the Nato mission by absorbing and reversing a Russian attack, making war elsewhere in Europe unlikely. It deters China from risky action in the Pacific by showing how difficult offensive operations are.

These are all hugely important American interests, most of which we cannot fulfil ourselves. Ukraine can fulfil them, if we help, just a little, in ways we would not even notice.

Ukraine is on fire. In the past few days, Russia has launched something like 500 rockets and drones at Ukrainian civilians, including nearly 100 drones on New Year’s Eve. Russia continues to undertake offensive operations in Ukraine. Russian propagandists and leaders continue to announce the same genocidal war aims now as at the beginning of the war: the end of the Ukrainian state and the end of the Ukrainian nation. Ukrainian citizens under Russian occupation continue to be tortured and deported. 

Ukraine resists, very effectively, with the weapons it has. It has opened the Black Sea to trade, something no one expected. It is holding back the Russian advance, inflicting huge casualties. It is shooting down missiles and drones.

So we are standing here with easy access to water. It would be so easy to help. And yet we are turning away from our neighbour in need. Ukraine needs our support and some of our Congressional representatives are blocking it.

The amount in question is not meaningful, given what we spend on national security. It is about a nickel (5c) on the defence budget dollar. 

And that nickel is extremely well spent. The defence department budget, after all, is meant to keep us safe. That nickel on the dollar brings us security in the Atlantic and the Pacific, it brings us a reduced risk of nuclear war and greater international respect for law, it brings us the sense that we have friends who take risks for good things. There is no other nickel on the defence department dollar that is nearly as important as this one.

And, in fact, we don’t even really spend that nickel on Ukraine. Most of the defence money we nominally spend on Ukraine actually stays in the US. The arms Ukraine needs are in large measure weapons that  tax dollars would otherwise be spent to decommission — to destroy and throw away. For example, we have about 1,000 long-range missiles that we will soon pay tax money to take apart and drop in landfills. Those missiles, given instead to Ukraine, would seriously hinder Russian attacks and put Ukraine in a position to win the war.

We are turning off the water. Running down to the basement, caught in some strange, self-destructive fit of self-absorption, we are putting our own house at risk. Ignoring our neighbour is the worst thing we can do, even if all we care about is ourselves.

Everything  the Ukrainians are doing for us can be undone this year. Russia can win and be encouraged to start other wars, where our participation is likely to be much more direct. China can be encouraged, and we can find ourselves in a cataclysm over Taiwan. International order can break down and we can confront confusing, difficult and painful conflicts all over the world. Russia can halt food deliveries to Asia and Africa, leading to starvation and further war. Everyone can be demoralised by the realisation that those who risked their lives for democracy were sold out, just because Americans lacked the wherewithal to do what is obviously the right thing.

It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s easy to help a good neighbour. This is a conflagration that we can stop with a flick of the wrist. A bit of legislation to support Ukraine and we all have a safer year and safer lives.