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Opinion | How the United States Can Break Putin’s Hold on Ukraine

Over the past 30 years, Ukraine has made major strides in its experiment with democracy. Despite worrying instances of government-backed corruption — undeniably, there is still more work to be done — Ukraine has made hard-fought progress on reform in the midst of war. Six presidents, two revolutions and many violent protests later, the people of Ukraine have sent a clear message that reflects the most fundamental of American values: They will fight for basic rights, and against authoritarian repression.

A prosperous Ukraine buttressed by American support makes an authoritarian Russia unviable in the long term. Ukraine’s success would upend Russia’s irredentist aspirations for empire and highlight the Kremlin’s failures, just as West Germany’s achievements once did in comparison to the totalitarian East German state during the Cold War. It may even convince the Russian people — who share a culture, history and religion with Ukrainians — to eventually demand their own framework for democratic transition.

To be sure, this doesn’t happen overnight. A generational investment is necessary to realize such a vision. Nevertheless, the outlines of the stark contrast between a prosperous democratic Ukraine and a repressive and economically stagnant Russia are already evident. This is, in large part, why Mr. Putin needs Ukraine to be a failed state.

U.S. support for Ukraine could also help drive a wedge between China and Russia. Preventing Mr. Putin from invading Ukraine demonstrates the strength of the West’s commitment to opposing autocracy and makes Russia a less potent partner to China in their mutual efforts to undermine the Western rules-based international order.

To that end, the United States should consider an out-of-cycle, division-level military deployment to Eastern Europe to reassure allies and bolster the defenses of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This kind of deployment would signal that Russia’s aggression will result in the sort of NATO security posture Russia most wishes to avoid.

And the United States cannot adequately support Ukraine without significant European involvement. The Kremlin wishes to make NATO membership for Ukraine a central issue of any discussions. That’s a distraction right now because an assurance that Ukraine won’t be a part of NATO is unlikely on its own to stop Russia from still trying to bring Ukraine to heel.

The more important issue to consider is that negotiations with Russia should be dealt with at the level of European security. These talks should devise off ramps that alleviate both European and Russian security concerns: for Russia, NATO encroachment and ballistic missile defense, and for NATO, Russia’s over-militarized western border.

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