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A ghastly feeling of déjà vu hangs over the negotiations in Europe this week: negotiations on the future of Ukraine, held without Ukraine’s participation; the democracies seeking to persuade the dictator not to invade; the dictator issuing a string of demands as the price of his forbearance; our belated attempts at deterrence fatally undermined by our history of past concessions. It is all quite sickeningly familiar – the end of our own “low dishonest decade.”

It is probably too late to save Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s demands are so extreme – not only a permanent ban on NATO membership for Ukraine (and Georgia, another victim of post-Soviet Russian expansionism), but also the withdrawal of NATO troops from existing member states in Eastern Europe – that not even the most convinced appeaser could accept them. Neither is the threat of sanctions, on its own, likely to deter him. Russia has survived worse, and sanctions have failed against easier targets.

That does not mean the Russian President will have an easy time of it. Ukraine means to fight, for the same reason Vladimir Putin means to have it: because each implies the negation of the other. Ukraine knows it is at a crossroads, the one way leading to democracy and Europe, the other to autocracy and Russification, probably for generations. Its people, especially its young, cannot accept the second. But Mr. Putin cannot accept the first: because the existence of a thriving European democracy on his doorstep will inevitably call his own corrupt regime into question.

NATO might have deterred an invasion, had Ukraine already been accepted for membership, as it was promised it would be at the Bucharest summit in 2008. But NATO cannot credibly threaten to go to war in defence of Ukraine now. Western public opinion would not support war with Russia, with the incalculable risks that entails, in defence of a non-NATO state; neither would it support a pledge of defence, supposing Ukraine were suddenly to become a member, that was entered into, as it were, retroactively, rather than in advance. And a pledge of defence that was not acted upon would throw the entire alliance into doubt.

There are good arguments for caution on Ukraine and Georgian accession. Both countries have work still to do to meet NATO standards for eligibility. Both also suffer from having lost control of parts of their territory to Russia – Crimea and Donbas, in Ukraine; Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in Georgia. It is one thing to say that NATO will protect against further Russian incursions, quite another to say that it will go to war to reverse past ones. To secure their existing territory would effectively mean giving up their claims to the rest, which I doubt either is willing to do.

But not-today does not and must not mean not-ever. The long-run case for NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia is a strong one. As a matter of principle, moreover, the right of any country to apply for membership in NATO is inviolable, as is the right of NATO members to decide whether to accept or reject them: neither can be subject to an external veto, whether by Russia or any other country.

Upholding that principle means rejecting the bogus “realism” that consigns the two to Russia’s legitimate “sphere of interest,” or the credulous moral equivalence that accepts as valid (or even sincere) Russian fears of NATO “encirclement” – as if there were the slightest chance of NATO attacking Russia – or propagandistic lies about supposed promises against NATO expansion given to Russia 30 years ago, or crackpot claims that the Maidan Revolution of 2013-14, which at its height brought 800,000 people into the streets of Kyiv, was all a bit of theatre stage-managed by the CIA.

A free and democratic Ukraine is in everyone’s interests, except Mr. Putin’s. A true realism would provide every possible assistance to Ukraine short of troops on the ground – weapons, ammunition, training, intelligence, in addition to the severest sanctions, should Russia fail to take the hint – while continuing to prepare the way for NATO membership. Where there is time there is hope, and the first necessity is to buy Ukraine more time.

But we are paying the price for our earlier failures of will. It would have been better to have drawn the line at Georgia in 2008; or in Syria in 2011; or in Crimea in 2014; or in Hong Kong in 2020; or in Afghanistan in 2021. Every time the democracies fail to stand up to the dictators, on the grounds that the price would be too great, it only raises the price of doing so later.

So it is today. If we fail to do right by Ukraine against Russia, can we pretend it will not influence China’s intentions toward Taiwan?

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