What John McCain Would Say About Putin and Ukraine

The late senator would have rallied the West to embrace its obligation to advance the cause of freedom and justice in the world.

A split-screen image of John McCain and Vladimir Putin
Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg / Getty; Alexei Nikolsky / TASS / Getty; The Atlantic

Usually I’m reluctant to put words in the mouth of my late employer, Senator John McCain, other than those he instructed me to write at some point during our long association. Yet since his death I have so missed not only his company, but his voice in our national affairs, that I have at times been tempted to conjure it from my knowledge of the values and views that animated his distinctive appeals to Americans and the world.

I wanted to hear him during President Donald Trump’s two impeachment trials. I wanted to hear him react to the travesty of January 6. I wanted to hear him when the United States abruptly withdrew its forces from Afghanistan. And I want to hear him summon Americans and the West to the aid of Ukraine, a country whose independence he championed as if it were his own, as it faces the possibility of another Russian invasion.

Dissuading Russian President Vladimir Putin from expanding his war with Ukraine appears unlikely. He knows that the U.S. and our NATO allies will not accept his principal demand—the permanent exclusion from NATO of Ukraine and any other former Soviet republic—yet he maintains that it is nonnegotiable. McCain would have assumed that the demand was not intended as anything other than a pretext. Its certain rejection provides Putin a rationale for a war to recover territory he believes belongs to Russia, and to advance his grand ambition of scrapping the principles of the Helsinki Final Act and Paris Charter, thus returning Europe to the disorder of great-power competition, in which national borders are redrawn by force and threats of force.

If McCain saw Russian forces, more than 100,000 strong and building, poised to invade Ukraine from the east, south, and, most alarmingly, north, where they could threaten Kyiv, he would contend that any hope of restraining Putin would depend on convincing him that his military objectives would result in the destruction of Russia’s economy and the destabilization of his own political security. To that end, McCain would argue, the U.S. should outline the nature of those consequences without ambiguity.

The Biden administration has shared with Russia a range of sanctions that could be imposed if Russia invades, which purportedly are some of the severest imaginable, including canceling the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and banning Russian banks from SWIFT, the global electronic-payment network. Such draconian steps would be devastating to Russia, and harder for Putin to bear than the sanctions imposed by previous American administrations. They would also likely result in exacerbated energy shortages in the West, driving up prices for oil and gas and worsening inflation. But well-publicized divisions among the U.S. and its allies over whether to impose such severe sanctions may confirm Putin’s doubts that the West could find the unity and fortitude to resort to them.

To convince him otherwise, McCain would urge the U.S. and its allies to announce publicly that we have agreed on the harshest sanctions. To reinforce the public threat, U.S. and European political leaders should begin to prepare their respective publics for the effects of such sanctions on our economies.

McCain would also stress the importance of making Putin aware that the U.S. is firmly committed to providing an ample and continuing supply of lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine with a focus on countering Russian air and armor advantages. The best way to make that impression stick is to provide plenty of weapons in advance of the invasion. And should the U.S. acquire intelligence that Putin has made the decision to invade, McCain would argue to share it with Ukraine. I can hear McCain insisting that anything the U.S. can do to strengthen Ukraine’s capability to exact from Russia the highest price possible for its aggression, we ought to do, short of deploying U.S. forces to the conflict. Let Putin explain to the Russian people why they should suffer grave losses for his reckless ambitions.

The Obama administration deferred to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s concern that lethal-arms assistance to Ukraine would only prolong a war that that country was bound to lose, and it refused to provide such support. McCain was infuriated by that decision, which he thought put NATO’s security interests at risk. It aided Putin’s attack on the principles upon which European security rests, principles agreed to by the Soviet Union in Helsinki and Paris and by Russia in the Budapest Memorandum, including the territorial integrity of states with internationally recognized borders and the sovereign independence of their government. That those principles matter to U.S. security is best illustrated by the many wars, including world wars, that occurred at a time when borders in Europe were regularly changed by force.

I most miss McCain’s voice, and I believe the world misses it most, in the moral argument he would have joined, hoping to rally the West to embrace its obligation to advance the cause of freedom and justice in the world. These values are threatened in Ukraine and elsewhere by Putin’s ambitions. McCain spoke frequently of how proud he was of his country for so often coming to the aid of people in small, faraway countries, about whom Americans knew little, for the sake of every human being’s right to have their dignity respected.

Again and again, McCain argued that America’s ideals are its greatest cause, that our interests are best protected by their global advance, and that we should assist countries who believe the same. He would not have argued to send American soldiers as combatants to Ukraine. But, as he and Senator Bob Dole did when opposing the Bosnian arms embargo, he would strenuously insist that denying the victims of aggression the means to protect themselves is morally indefensible.

McCain was an outspoken champion of Ukrainians when they first threw off the shackles of their corrupt, Kremlin-subservient leaders and during their valiant, now-nearly-eight-year struggle with Russian invaders. He visited the country regularly. He was present at the Maidan protests, which he remembered as one of the most moving experiences of his life. He spent a New Year’s Eve with Ukrainian marines on the front lines in Donbas. When he watched the Ukrainian president give a weeping mother the medal her fallen son had earned, he wept too.

When McCain died, the Kyiv Post published an editorial that called the senator one of Ukraine’s “best friends”:

When Ukraine faced some of its darkest and most dangerous times, it was often not the voice of a Ukrainian politician who lifted the spirits of the nation. It was the voice of U.S. Sen. John McCain.

That voice was distinctive, emphatic, and humane, and I hope not irreplaceable. It’s worth listening to again in difficult situations like this, when doing the right thing is hard, if for no other reason than to be clear about what the right thing really is.

Reflecting on his visit to the Maidan protests in 2013, McCain observed:

The fervent political movements of our age seem so often to be the workings of religious fanaticism or injured ethnic pride or dehumanizing ideologies of one kind or another, and the power seekers who profit from them. That night I witnessed a fervent mass movement for the universal ideas of freedom and justice. That’s what a European identity meant to those people. It was humankind I saw in that square, in all its impossibly resilient dignity, known to God, and striving to be recognized and answered to by the powerful forces who had set themselves above them.