Russia’s autocrat has a diabolical and underreported strategy.
My college history professor taught my classmate and me to “follow the money” when looking at some of the most consequential events in history. Unknown to most, Ukraine ranks fourth in the world for the most natural resources. In its Donetsk and Kirovograd regions, Ukraine has one of the world’s largest lithium oxide reserves with over 500,000 tons. The mineral is critical for the production of electric car batteries and clean energy. In short supply, lithium’s price has risen over the past year by almost 600% making oil’s increase seem puny by comparison.
A Chinese company called “Chengxin Lithium” is interested in those lithium rights since it is a mineral necessary for U.S. green energy competitiveness. China voted against the UN resolution condemning Russia’s Ukrainian invasion, and recent reporting has found that Russia is seeking Chinese military and financial assistance in its invasion. There are many reasons that China would assist Russia – such as its intention to subsume Taiwan – but its economic interests are at the forefront.
Aside from lithium, it is also a country containing significant amounts of copper, uranium, titanium, mercury, cobalt, ore, manganese, coal, and nickel. These are minerals that China is interested in obtaining as well.
From Putin’s perspective, the decision to invade Ukraine is not only to revive Soviet boundaries, but also the fact that taking Ukraine has a huge economic boon. To date, Russia has seized two Ukrainian nuclear plants, including one that is Europe’s largest electric energy producer. In total Ukraine has 15 nuclear reactors that produce a large portion of its energy consumption – approximately 23% according to the State Statistics Service of Ukraine.
Ukraine is also a massive European breadbasket. It is the fifth-largest exporter of cereals in the world, and more importantly, it provides Europe with a quarter of its cereal and vegetable oil imports as well as half of its corn. It is of massive agricultural importance.
Putin needs Ukraine’s mineral, energy, and agricultural resources to restore the Soviet empire. To avert this Faustian aspiration, democracies cannot allow Putin to steal trillions with his brazenly hostile takeover.
We’ve been taught this lesson before. In 1939 Hitler invaded Poland after Nazi propagandists accused Poland of persecuting ethnic Germans living there. The Nazis claimed that Poland, Great Britain, France, and other allies were planning to encircle and dismember Germany. As the world dithered, Hitler seized Poland and other seized nations’ sovereignty and resources. Unwittingly, appeasement allowed Hitler to seize assets needed for a world war, abetted human suffering, and prolonged a worldwide conflagration.
In 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Based on the principle that a powerful country could not militarily overtake a smaller one, President George H. W. Bush successfully led a coalition to liberate Kuwait, which Persian Gulf nation the U.S. had no treaty obligation to defend. Kuwait, too, was a nation of massive strategic and economic importance to the region.
Today, we witness massive human suffering and the largest European conflagration since WWII. In the face of the protracted build-up and American intelligence, the U.S. and NATO neither preemptively supplied troops to Ukraine nor kept all options on the table.
While post-invasion economic sanctions, arms shipments, and rhetoric are important and impressive, the democratic order seems cowed by Russia’s threat of using nuclear weapons. The signal to Russia, China, and others is that if you have nuclear weapons, a barbarous nation can seize with impunity a smaller nation’s aspirations and resources. This desultory message puts Taiwan, Russia’s neighbors, and the world in further peril.
Despite no NATO soldiers, the vaunted Russian Goliath has been bloodied by a Ukrainian David. We should remember that in 1948-49, the U.S. boldly led in response to Russian hegemony a humanitarian Berlin Airlift.
The United States and willing allies need to undertake a humanitarian airlift for Ukrainians. Kyiv and its heroic defenders have set aside a two-week supply of food, medicine, and necessities if the city were to be completely blockaded. The most logical option is a UN resolution calling for a humanitarian airlift while ensuring that no military equipment is included that would prevent the West from further escalating the conflict.
The “Kyiv Airlift” would require Putin to decide whether to attack U.N. sanctioned humanitarian flights. With its combined overwhelming military advantage, Putin would risk U.S., NATO, and other allied boots on the ground to force Russia out of Ukraine including Crimea.
To those who assert that a Kyiv Airlift might start WWIII, should Russia emerge victorious Putin will be both enriched and emboldened to undergo a larger invasion of Europe and former Soviet satellite states.
No country’s leader wants to be called in an election or historically remembered as a Neville Chamberlain. This is the time for resolve. Ukraine’s borders and values are non-negotiable and must be defended.