Ukraine war begs the question — will we ignore our 20th century vow of ‘never again’?
Is America doing enough to stop Vladimir Putin, a murderous dictator who has launched a devastating war on the people of Ukraine? That’s the question facing us, five months into a war that has cost tens of thousands of lives, driven millions from their homes, strained global supply chains, and roiled energy markets.
The suffering of the people of Ukraine carries grim historical echoes too familiar to ignore: targeted destruction of hospitals, schools, and churches; government-supported, systematic rape as a weapon of war; intentional targeting of train stations filled with fleeing women and children; the wholesale deportation of civilian populations; and forced impregnation aimed at wiping out Ukrainian bloodlines.
The goal of this Russian invasion is not simply to eliminate a military adversary, but rather to eliminate an entire culture. The dark history of the last century required us to invent a new word for this sort of war: genocide.
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Back to the future, again
Seventy-four years ago, the world agreed to honor the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation by preventing a recurrence of the horrors we had seen at Auschwitz, Dachau, and elsewhere. With a single voice, the international community agreed, “Never Again.”
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The main entrance at the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland, with the inscription, ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, which translates into English as ‘"Work will set you Free", Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. On Jan. 27, 1945, the Soviet Red Army liberated the Auschwitz death camp in German-occupied Poland. Auschwitz was the largest of the Germans’ extermination and death camps and has become a symbol for the terror of the Holocaust. ( )
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The railway tracks from where hundreds of thousands of people were directed to the gas chambers to be murdered, inside the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz Birkenau or Auschwitz II, in Oswiecim, Poland, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. ( )
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A wagon stands on the railway tracks from where hundred thousands of people were directed to the gas chambers to be murdered inside the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz Birkenau or Auschwitz II, in Oswiecim, Poland, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. ( )
That’s why we built a framework of international institutions (e.g., the United Nations in 1945), laws (e.g., the 1948 Genocide Convention), and practices (e.g., the 1993 International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) that have helped us strive to reach that goal. Russia is a signatory to all of these agreements and many more (down to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum specifically committing them to guarantee Ukrainian territorial integrity).
Are we condemned to repeat history . . . again?
Eighty-four years ago, the world learned the costs of appeasement in the wake of the ill-conceived Munich Agreement, which gave Adolf Hitler control of parts of Czechoslovakia in exchange for a guarantee of peace; despite existing international agreements that assured Czech territorial integrity.
Less than a year later, German tanks rolled over European borders and began six years of the sort of attrition warfare we are now witnessing across eastern and southern Ukraine. The final cost then was 80 million people dead, and it taught us a painful lesson: we must never again appease a violent expansionist opponent.
European instability has costs for America, again
Morality issues aside, a host of practical consequences await us if we do not stop the Russian onslaught now. As the conflict metastasizes, people across the world will suffer from continuing disruptions of global food supplies, further price-gouging from energy suppliers, and the extreme costs of a new round of rearmament by America and its NATO allies. This is not abstract geopolitics — the effects of this conflict are already hitting the pocketbooks of Americans.
But these are not the costs that matter most for America. In the early 20th century we strove to avoid entanglement in Europeans wars that seemed far away and of little direct consequence.
The eventual cost of that isolationist stance was 252,000 American dead, and it taught us another painful lesson: we must not hesitate to intervene early on to stop conflict lest we pay a much heavier price in blood down the road.
Individuals stepping up where governments won’t, again
The way to avoid horrible costs in the future is to do more in the present. Our governments are leaning forward with impressive volumes of military and humanitarian assistance, but are still falling short of meeting all needs.
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Ordinary people across the world have stepped into the gap, providing the Ukrainian people with aid that nation-states and large traditional charities cannot. Crowdfunding is supplying Ukrainian defense forces along the frontlines with everything from tourniquets to Turkish drones. Brave teams of international volunteers have brought in food from across Europe to feed Ukrainian civilians caught in the assault.
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A resident looks for belongings in an apartment building destroyed during fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces in Borodyanka, Ukraine, on Tuesday. (AP/Vadim Ghirda)
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Gravedigger Alexander, digs a grave at the cemetery of Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. ((AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti))
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Orthodox Sister Evdokia gestures in front of the crater of an explosion, after Russian shelling next to the Orthodox Skete in honour of St. John of Shanghai in Adamivka, near Slovyansk, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Tuesday, May 10, 2022. ((AP Photo/Andriy Andriyenko))
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Local resident Oksana walks through the destroyed second floor of her multi-generational home while searching for salvageable items on Monday, April 25 in Hostomel, Ukraine, outside of Kyiv. ((John Moore/Getty Images))
This model of international crowd-sourced logistics is something new on the world stage. In a sense, it empowers individuals to act directly on their own beliefs; on the other hand, it’s troubling to see individuals having to pick up the slack for their own governments’ failure to do their utmost.
I, Will, have been in Ukraine since February 28 and witnessed this first hand. As one of White Stork’s funders aptly put it, “This is a war run on donations. That’s f***d up.”
As the war in Ukraine rages on, we in the international humanitarian aid community will continue to do everything we can to support those suffering at the hands of the Russian war machine.
We welcome your help. But we also need governments to do more.
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You can pressure your elected representatives to that end with a simple letter or phone call. Tell them that you expect the United States to continue to hold the line against these grim historical echoes by increasing the pressure on Russia through sanctions, international condemnation, and military support to Ukraine.
Please join us. Add your voice. Never again.
Tanya Polsky – originally from Izmail, Ukraine – is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business and serves as the head of the Polsky Family Foundation.