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One by one the lines have all been crossed. Patriot missile-defence systems. Bradley armoured fighting vehicles. Leopard and Abrams tanks. Weapons that NATO had previously balked at providing Ukraine, for fear of “provoking” Russia, are now being supplied in abundance, if not in haste. The latest Ukrainian request to give NATO pause is for F-16 fighter jets, though France and Italy are already talking of going ahead with these.

That is in part a measure of Russian weakness. Each new weapons shipment brings forth blood-curdling new threats from the Russian side, up to and including nuclear war. But Western strategists have sized up the Russian threats, and decided they are so much bluff. That does not mean Russia has no red lines, but if the West took seriously every Russian threat it would not even have imposed sanctions. The tactic has been to gradually raise the ante, gauging Russia’s response each time, and thus far it has worked.

But in part NATO’s increasing hawkishness betrays a concern for what Russia might do next. It may not have as much in the way of advanced weaponry, its troops may be badly led and poorly trained, its strategic direction may be incoherent, but Russia has two advantages Ukraine and NATO do not: masses of conscript troops in close proximity to the war zone, and the ruthlessness to sacrifice them. Throw enough manpower at them, and even the gallant Ukrainians might be overwhelmed.

Hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers are reported to be massing for a new assault, possibly as early as this month. This makes the issue more urgent: Ukraine must be supplied with the weaponry it needs as quickly as possible. The gradualist strategy cannot be sustained any longer. Ukraine’s early success in repelling the Russians helped to rally Western support, at a time when many had written it off as a lost cause. Now the risk is complacency, at a moment of great peril.

The reasons Ukraine must be defended – why it must not be defeated – have not changed. It is not only a matter of fellow feeling for a nascent democracy, facing annihilation by a brutal dictatorship – though we have a broad strategic interest in defending democracies. Neither is it solely out of a moral duty to prevent a genocide, though that is plainly the course Vladimir Putin is on: The reports from Ukraine are too numerous and well-researched to discount.

Rather, it is the precedent that will be set, and the lesson that will be learned, that is the critical factor. The invasion and attempted annexation of Ukraine by its neighbour – the first such on the European continent since the Second World War – cannot be viewed in isolation.

If Russia were to succeed, not only against Ukraine but against all the combined might of NATO, it would not only embolden Mr. Putin, who has not been shy in advertising his ambitions of a restored Russian empire, to further conquest. It would send the same message to China, with regard to Taiwan, and to every other expansionist dictatorship around the world. The lesson would be: The West is weak, the democracies have no stomach to defend themselves, the whole international order is a fraud. Then sauve qui peut.

If, on the other hand, Ukraine can be preserved as an independent state, it would not only set the opposite precedent, in every respect. It would deal a crushing blow to Mr. Putin. To have a flourishing democracy on his doorstep has always been his greatest fear, for the example it would offer to disaffected Russians – to the point that he was willing to go to war to extinguish it. But to have tried, and failed, would likely be the end of him – not for the futile waste of so many Russian lives, but because he would have committed the gravest of sins for a Russian leader: to appear weak.

Indeed it is already happening, to some extent. The countries on Russia’s periphery, whom Mr. Putin has worked hard to envelop in a Greater Russian sphere of influence, show signs of increasing independence: Kazakhstan, in particular, though keep your eye on Belarus, whose Putinite dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, looks vulnerable. The outlying regions within Russia must surely follow, once it becomes clear that Moscow lacks the ability to enforce its rule. And around Mr. Putin are men with their own private armies, and the means to recruit returning Russian soldiers after any defeat.

There’s no guarantee that any successor to Mr. Putin would be more congenial, of course. He might even be worse. But whoever it was would inherit all the disastrous accoutrements of defeat: a greatly diminished Russian military, a shrunken Russian economy, pariah status abroad, and chaos and division within. The struggle to replace him might well be resolved by military force: a frightening prospect, especially in a nuclear-armed state. But that should not deter us. The consequences of a Western defeat in Ukraine would be far worse.

For it would be a Western defeat. Let us not kid ourselves. This is our war, nearly as much as it is Ukraine’s. The question on everyone’s lips before the war – should Ukraine be part of NATO – has now been answered: It already is. Whatever obligation NATO might have to come to Ukraine’s defence, Ukraine has clearly been coming to ours. It is not only its own territory it has been defending, but the whole of Europe behind it; were it to be defeated, the front would very quickly shift from the Dnipro River to the border with Poland and other NATO states.

NATO, for its part, is at war in Ukraine in every respect short of putting troops on the ground. Russian propagandists are right: Russia is fighting NATO in Ukraine, de facto if not de jure. Those distinctions are important. It matters, in the grotesque etiquette of war, whether NATO forces are themselves shooting down Russian planes, rather than enabling others to do so. But the distinction on which so many have insisted until now, that Ukraine might be the recipient of NATO support and assistance but could not formally be a member, has ceased to have any relevance.

Indeed, had we let Ukraine into NATO when it first asked, back in 2008, it is indisputable that none of this would have happened; the same applies to Georgia. The reason Ukraine and Georgia were attacked, and the Baltic states were not, is because the latter are in NATO and the former are not: That seems to be the conclusion Sweden and Finland have drawn.

Certainly the line of causation did not run the other way: that Russia attacked Ukraine and Georgia because they applied to join NATO – as if Ukraine posed a threat to Russia, rather than the other way around. That gem of wisdom, for which we are indebted to the “realist” school, might have induced some caution, before Russia invaded, or rather before it invaded a second time, and a third, even as NATO was signalling it had no intent of admitting Ukraine any time soon. But now? What have we got to lose? Even Henry Kissinger now sees a case for Ukraine membership.

As the war has ground on, so NATO’s strategic ambition has shifted, from merely slowing Russia’s advance, to preventing Russia from winning, to outright Ukrainian victory. Russia’s declaration that it had annexed the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, supposedly making them Russian territory (though Russia did not then and does not now control them) and therefore inviolable, came and went without consequence. Even Crimea seems increasingly fair game.

Are those the only two possible outcomes, though: either Ukraine is defeated, or Russia is? Isn’t it possible, anxious voices inquire, for there to be a negotiated solution?

To what end? What is there to negotiate? It’s a zero-sum game. Either Russia is permitted to seize the internationally recognized territory of a sovereign state by force of arms, or it is not. The game, moreover, is not singular, but iterative. Even if it were possible for a Ukrainian government to concede Ukrainian territory to Russian control – after all that has gone before, and knowing the horrors that were to come for its Ukrainian inhabitants – and even if you were not concerned by the precedent this set, and even if that bought a temporary ceasefire, it would not put an end to the conflict, or the threat that underlies it. The ransom might have been paid, but Russia would still be there, poised on Ukraine’s border, ready to resume the attack at any time. All you would have done was buy time for Russia’s forces to recuperate.

The mantra, so often repeated, that wars always end in negotiation, is not historically factual. To take the nearest example to mind, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan did not end in a peace treaty. After 10 years of trying unsuccessfully to subjugate the country, the Soviets simply gave up and pulled out. (That’s more or less what the West did, though we made more effort to cover it with a fig leaf of negotiations.)

There is no prima facie reason why the same could not apply here. It will be a hard slog to get to that point, one that will cost many lives, Ukrainian and Russian. But if the Ukrainians are willing to endure the hardships required to liberate their land – to which resolve the Russians, by the barbarism of their rule, have made a singular contribution – we should at least be willing to support them.

No doubt, too, that Mr. Putin will have to endure a great deal of pain before he would be willing to relax his grip, knowing what will likely befall him if he does. Very well: The pain will have to be administered.