How We Let Ukraine—and the World—Down

Natali Sevriukova reacts next to her house following a rocket attack on the city of Kyiv, Ukraine, on February, 25.Emilio Morenatti/AP

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The images are shocking, frightening, and tragic. Putin’s army in Ukraine. Russian warplanes over Kyiv. Ukrainians huddled in subway stations and cellars. Others fleeing toward the border. Another war in Europe triggered by the messianic and violent visions of a corrupt megalomaniac. And this time with a thinly veiled threat of nuclear war.
Whatever happens with the US response—sanctions, military assistance, and the rest—we Americans should say to Ukraine and the rest of the world, we’re sorry.
Not because of any policy misstep made in the run-up to this catastrophe. Did President Joe Biden play this right? Perhaps. Or should he and the West have forged a more forceful preemptive stance? Send more military supplies to Ukraine before the invasion? Impose more severe sanctions prior to the attack? Would that have prevented Putin’s assault? Or perhaps Biden and the allies ought to have yielded and pledged no NATO invitation for Ukraine. Would Putin have applied the brakes? It’s too late to find out. A stronger stance or more concessions might have made no difference. After all, Putin’s pre-invasion rants focused on phony arguments: de-Nazifying a nation without Nazis (and led by a Jewish president) and protecting Russian-speaking Ukrainians in made-up republics who are not threatened. NATO was no longer the issue when Putin sent his troops into Ukraine. He seemed bent on seizing Ukraine, as if the expansion of Russian borders is his divine mission. Crusaders rarely listen to reason.
No, we owe an apology to Ukraine and the international community because the United States failed to respond adequately to a previous Putin attack—his attack on us.
As I explained, there is a direct line from the Kremlin’s attack on the 2016 presidential election to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. You can read all about it here. In a nutshell, I argue that his attack helped install in the White House an inexperienced, Putin fan boy who had no interest in constraining the Russian leader or fortifying the Western alliance opposed to Moscow’s war on Western democracy. Putin’s victory in the United States, no doubt, emboldened him to pursue his more ambitious goals of weakening the entire West and restoring the Russian empire.
What was the collective American failure in all this? We let Putin get away with it. And I do mean we. Of course, Trump, the Republicans, and their right-wing allies bear most of the guilt. They denied or dismissed the Kremlin’s attack—aided and abetted by Trump and his crew—which helped elect our 45th president. They cooked up crazy conspiracy theories—remember the one about Democratic National Committee servers ending up in Ukraine?— to deflect or distract from the Russia scandal and Trump’s grand betrayal. For them, the world could never know the full story because that would undermine Trump’s legitimacy as president. Consequently, they did not seek to severely punish Putin and demonstrate that such adventurism would not pay off for Russia. When you don’t prosecute a criminal, you jeopardize his next potential victim.
The blame doesn’t stop at Mar-a-Lago, GOP headquarters, and Fox “News” studios. Democrats and the mainstream media failed. The press never figured out how to make the covert 2016 Russian war on the United States a top story. This was most true during the campaign, when news outlets focused on the anti–Hillary Clinton leaks orchestrated by the Russian operation rather than on the Kremlin’s assault on American democracy. Reporters drooled over each tidbit from the John Podesta emails that had been swiped by Putin’s cyber-thieves and disseminated by WikiLeaks without covering the bigger story: The Kremlin was waging information warfare with the objective of electing Trump president. After Putin succeeded, the prestige media published and aired significant pieces on Moscow’s attack. Yet overall, the news industry’s performance in conveying the full import of this historic story and addressing the denialism from Trump and his henchmen on the right was woefully inadequate.
Ditto for the Democrats. Following the 2016 election, some Democratic leaders believed it was bad politics to dwell on this matter, and they were slow to call for investigations. True, Republicans controlled both houses of Congress at this stage. There were a few Democrats who did push to make this issue a priority, but the party lacked a coherent or comprehensive strategy for shaping the narrative—especially in the face of the GOP’s systematic, brazen, and traitorous disinformation campaign that claimed all talk of the Trump-Russia scandal was a “hoax” and a witch hunt. After the Democrats gained control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections, they did not fiercely pursue the Russian attack. There was no full and open inquiry. No move to set up an independent commission. No series of comprehensive congressional hearings to tell the public exactly what had happened.
Instead, the Democrats relied on special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe—a profound miscalculation, given that Mueller’s inquiry was established to investigate and prosecute possible crimes, not to uncover and reveal the complete tale of Putin’s assault and Trump’s complicity. The Mueller report and his less-than-stellar testimony were no substitute for a full accounting. And when the Senate Intelligence Committee in August 2020 released a damning bipartisan 966-page report, it did so quietly, with no public hearings. That report confirmed that Trump and his campaign had assisted Putin’s attack and disclosed that there had been “a direct tie between senior Trump Campaign officials and the Russian intelligence services.” The Democrats, though, did little to highlight its revelations. And the media? Only bare-bones coverage.
In the end, Putin’s attack received no extensive and prominent public evaluation, and the sanctions imposed on the Russian dictator for his intervention were far from robust. It was a lose-lose: The world was not sufficiently warned, and Putin was not sufficiently punished or deterred. A few weeks ago, in this newsletter, I wondered if we just can’t handle big, awful truths: the president trying to overturn an election, a foreign government rigging our system. After Putin’s 2016 attack, there was never a true reckoning. Weakened and compromised, we moved on. That was a disservice to us and to all the others Putin would go on to victimize.
As I write this, reports are coming in of missile attacks on Kyiv. People are dying and it’s fair to wonder if they are because we and others did not do all that could reasonably have been done to restrain Putin. His act of war against the United States did not involve guns and tanks—though one can argue it led to hundreds of thousands of preventable American deaths. Now Putin has returned to conventional warfare. Of course, he is responsible for the violence and death in Ukraine. Yet his position was strengthened because we did not live up to our responsibility to protect our own democracy.