By Sen. Dan Coats
Traveling across our state this week, from Elkhart to Indianapolis, I was asked the same question by many Hoosiers: What difference does the Ukraine crisis make to us in Indiana?
This is Hoosier common sense at its finest. On the surface, there is no direct link.
Ukraine is 5,000 miles away. Trade between our two countries is minuscule and shrinking. Only 30 percent of the Ukrainian population professes any religious faith. Ukraine is the source of no energy resources or critical materials. Instead, it is a country marked by instability and corruption.
So why should Americans care?
The first and most obvious answer is the central lesson of history: conflicts grow from small beginnings.
We all know that the assassination of an imperial relative in a Balkan town in 1914 led to the violent death of 37 million people in the first World War. We know that the cataclysm of WWII began with Germany’s stealth invasion of Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938, eerily reminiscent of Russia’s moves on Crimea.
A history lesson closer in time is taught by the Balkan wars of the 1990s. When Serb gunboats shelled the Croatian city of Dubrovnik in 1992, the world — and most especially Croatia’s European neighbors — did nothing. The result of inaction was the death of more than 100,000 people.
If the international community had had the collective wisdom, leadership and courage simply to tell Belgrade that major European population centers are no longer shelled in modern Europe, this suffering would have been prevented.
Policymakers should draw from such lessons. In order to avoid larger and likely more disastrous developments down the road, America must confront the choice of simply letting Russian President Vladimir Putin have his way or spearheading an international response to bring him to his senses.
A second, related American interest is the stability of the European continent itself. Ukraine is not an obscure sideshow. It is comprised of the remnants of two European empires and deeply embedded in the integrated structure, identity, economy and culture of Europe as a whole.
Disaster there threatens European security and stability, which have been at the very heart of our foreign and defense policy for an entire century. If American foreign policy and strategic interests have any permanent core, it is interest in Europe’s well-being.
Ukraine’s conflict with the remnants of Soviet-style aggression threatens the rest of Russia’s bordering nations, nearly all of which were dominated by Red Army presence and force at one time. The Baltic states must be alarmed by now, and if we do nothing, they could become Putin’s next target.
Poland has already summoned NATO councils to consider consequences for its own security and therefore the security of the alliance. Georgia painfully reflects that the paltry international response to its own war with Russia five years ago surely emboldened Putin in this latest adventure.
In other words, this could be a defining moment. It is no secret that Putin has imperial ambitions, motivated by his pathological insecurities and a quest to restore lost glories. These are dangerous delusions that, if not confronted firmly, will come to threaten us all.
Beyond history and the threats to continental security and stability, I am even more concerned about America’s place in the world and how inaction will further diminish our international prestige. The United States is increasingly perceived as a spent force, exhausted by interminable wars, politically divided and inert, financially strained and floundering without firm, determined leadership.
This is a bleak, false picture of our country that must be corrected. In many ways, the Ukraine crisis is an opportunity. America now has a chance to summon the collective will of its citizens and impose robust diplomatic and economic costs on Putin’s irresponsible behavior. This is the moment to demonstrate our nation’s return to the leadership role that the realities of this harsh world have long imposed upon us.
The Senate recently passed a resolution I introduced with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., supporting the territorial integrity of Ukraine and condemning recent Russian military aggression. While only a first step, the passage of this resolution shows that there is strong, bipartisan support for isolating and punishing Russia.
It is in the American national interest to lead the world toward solutions we know are best for us all. No one else can manage it.