“May the Lord grant strength to His people. May the Lord bless His people with peace.” (Psalms 29:11) This verse, the last of Psalm 29, is familiar to all Jews who attend synagogue regularly, but do we think much about its meaning? In particular, do we pay attention to the juxtaposition between strength and peace, and what it implies?
Experience teaches that the surest way to stop aggression, and thus to preserve peace, is with strength. This is true whether the aggressor is a schoolyard bully or an authoritarian dictator. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, in 1938 thought that he had appeased Adolph Hitler and secured peace, by letting Hitler swallow part of Czechoslovakia, but he only whetted the German dictator’s appetite for conquest. What he achieved was not peace but the costliest war in human history.
How does the lesson of 1938 apply to the current war in Ukraine? Most Americans instinctively recognize Russian President Vladimir Putin for the murderous thug that he is, but there are significant differences as to how to respond to his invasion. On the one hand, the economic sanctions are inflicting pain on the Russian economy, and the US has supplied weaponry to enable Ukrainians to keep up the fight. On the other hand, the slaughter of Ukrainian civilians has been heartbreaking.
Of course, there is a complication in this situation that didn’t apply in 1938–nuclear weapons. The possibility that a direct military confrontation with Russia could turn into a nuclear cataclysm is enough to give anyone pause and has been responsible for the extent of caution. For example, the US has been reluctant to supply Ukraine with badly needed fighter jets, fearing that the Russians might see it as an escalation of hostilities. At the same time, excessive caution also has its price. If a victory over Ukraine emboldens Putin to the extent that he invades a NATO country, then the world war that the US is trying to avoid may happen anyway. The best way to avoid it is for Putin to believe that we will respond with military force.
We can quibble as to whether our assertion, before the Russian invasion, that we would not go to war over Ukraine, emboldened Putin to go to war. Whether or not ambiguity as to the limits of our assistance to Ukraine would have been wiser, it is clear that any such ambiguity as to our intentions in the event of a Russian attack on a NATO ally would almost certainly guarantee such an attack.
I find it shocking that, even now, some allegedly responsible pundits argue that the US is partly at fault for expanding NATO eastward after the Soviet Union collapsed. There were those at the time who believed in good faith that a post-communist Russia would become a peaceful democracy. At the time, that may have been a viable position to take. One thing that has been killed – along with thousands of innocent Ukrainians – by this invasion is any such illusion. The whole world now knows the inherently expansionist character of the Russian State. If we still haven’t learned that the best guarantee of peace is the ability to wage war, then truly there is no hope for us.