Today, Russia in Ukraine is the focus, but the aspirations of China and Iran must not be ignored. Pictured: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and then Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attend a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on June 14, 2019. (Photo by Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP via Getty Images)
The world is seeing Vladimir Putin's clear plan to reestablish the Russian Empire. It also is hearing rumblings from Asia about restoration of a Chinese dynasty, and in the Middle East, a return to when Persia -- now an extremely different Iran -- dominated the region.
For any of these empires to expand, they need to take control of other states or groups of people. Those states can either be overrun and annexed, or they can be controlled and remain smaller, more manageable political units. Today, Russia in Ukraine is the focus, but the aspirations of China and Iran must not be ignored.
Russia, China and Iran are all totalitarian regimes with authoritarian leaders. Russia by its actions in Syria and Ukraine, as well as Iran for its actions in the Middle East, easily can be identified as terrorist states. China -- with its genocide against the Uyghurs, its illegal seizure of Hong Kong, and its continuing threats against Taiwan -- should also be designated that way.
Russia under Putin is acting most aggressively on the vision of regaining stature as an empire with its invasion of Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, and now Ukraine in 2022 -- all well documented in the public domain. While all eyes are on Ukraine, however, the world also should take notice of Russia's recent actions in Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan, part of the former Soviet Union, is rich in titanium, oil, gas, and uranium, and it borders Russia, China, and Iran. That is a tough neighborhood in which to coexist.
Earlier this year, Kazakhstan was folded back into the Russian Empire without much international reaction. As Kazakhstan's government faced significant internal dissent, major protests threatened to topple the regime. Putin, apparently not standing on ceremony for an invitation, sent troops into Kazakhstan at the time to "help."
When Kazakhstan declared it had been attacked by terrorist gangs that had been trained abroad, the door flew open. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), composed of former Soviet Republics and evidently meant to take the place of the Warsaw Pact, was asked to assist. Russia, Armenia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus all sent troops. The protests were stopped, and the status quo was maintained. By propping up the Kazakhstan's strongman government against popular dissent, Russia effectively pulled Kazakhstan back under its umbrella, and the CSTO was put forward as an effective force.
That is how former empires attempt to regain their status. Through either outright invasions or through the back door, both are strategies used by aspiring empires to fulfill their visions.
Just because these former empires again seek to reclaim their former status, however, does not mean that they will be successful -- unless they are allowed to. People who truly cherish freedom -- perhaps, as in Ukraine, where they know what it is like not to be free -- resist.
The Ukrainian people and their president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have proven to be worthy adversaries. Together, they are inspiring the world with their passion and conviction for the freedom and independence of their homeland. The Ukrainian people and Zelenskyy are fighting for a different outcome: not to be consumed by a Russia currently led by a serial war criminal. Even though most Americans do not want to fight a war with Russia over Ukraine, polls show they hope that Ukrainians will receive sufficient support from the world community to prevail.
The US must -- in the best interests of the United States -- immediately deliver the weapons Ukraine needs to forestall future predators such as China, Iran and North Korea. What happens in Ukraine does not stay in Ukraine.
The longer the US shilly-shallies, the longer urgently needed weapons fail to reach Ukraine, the more it invites other predators. As the chess grandmaster and Russian dissident Garry Kasparov noted, "the weapons Ukraine needs to stop long-range artillery, missile attacks and aerial bombing are still being held back by the U.S. and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations."
Ukraine must have -- now -- not only the weapons it needs to combat Russia's carnage, weapons to "close the skies," such as S-300s and S-400s and MiGs that the Ukrainians could pull over the border; it must also have heavy weapons such as tanks and long-range anti-ship munitions that Zelenskyy is requesting to repel Russia's assault to sever Ukraine from the Black Sea, and landlocking the country to suffocate all means of commerce.
"Everything I hear from other NATO members is that the U.S. has become the obstacle, and an explanation is required. Allowing Mr. Putin to keep an inch of Ukrainian soil after bombing civilians should be unimaginable. Conceding large areas of eastern Ukraine to the invader in exchange for a cease-fire would only give Mr. Putin time to consolidate and rearm for next time—and there will always be a next time."
Kazakhstan, too, had an inspirational leader, Serikzhan Bilash, willing to fight for freedom. Many in the media and the Biden administration have completely ignored him and the struggle of the people of Kazakhstan. Some have called him the Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel of Kazakhstan. Each day millions of people view his podcasts promoting a freer, more independent Kazakhstan.
Bilash was one of the first to identify the suffering and genocide of the Uyghurs and Kazakhs in China. He has sacrificed and risked his family's safety for speaking "truth to power" to the governments of Kazakhstan, China and Russia. His family and he were driven from their country. He was arrested, pled guilty in exchange for his freedom, and today is living in a different country.
When Zelenskyy was offered a plane ride out of Ukraine by the U.S., he said, "I need ammunition, not a ride." Bilash is still waiting for his claim of asylum to be processed and approved in the U.S. This approval would be the first step in reuniting with his family, who are now living an ocean away in the Netherlands.
Another rising voice of freedom is that of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the opposition in Belarus, who is fighting to keep her country on the side of freedom. She, along with Zelenskyy and Bilash, represent the dreams and aspirations of thousands, likely millions, of people within their homelands. They are risking everything for the ideals that America and the West claim to hold dear.
While defining exactly what military and humanitarian aid the U.S. and others are willing to provide to those fighting against these want-to-be empires is an important question that requires considerable debate, supporting those leaders who are out front should be easy. Why is America not supporting them further? Why are Russia's generals and military leaders not being threatened? Why are America's attempts at sanctioning Russian energy and all of Russia's oligarchs, their families and their businesses so incomplete and half-hearted?
Russia guaranteed the Budapest Memorandum to safeguard Ukraine's sovereignty in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons. Putin guaranteed safe passage so Ukrainians could leave their cities, only to open fire on them when they emerged. Putin does not keep his word. There is no diplomatic way out of this war.
It is important to recognize the heroes for freedom -- Zelenskyy, Bilash and Tsikhanouskaya as well as, with far clearer eyes, the long-term predatory plans of totalitarian states such as Russia, China and Iran. As the world is witnessing the courageous struggle by Ukrainian people, the West should take pride that, as totalitarian regimes seek to expand their empires, voices and expressions of freedom can rise up in defiance. "The U.S. can restore its leadership of the free world, or it can lead from behind while democracy continues to lose ground," Kasparov concluded. The U.S. not only needs to recognize the power of these defiant leaders, but do more -- much, much more -- to help them. That is what is in the strategic interests of the United States.
Peter Hoekstra was US Ambassador to the Netherlands during the Trump administration. He served 18 years in the U.S. House of Representatives representing the second district of Michigan and served as Chairman and Ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. He is currently Chairman of the Center for Security Policy Board of Advisors, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.