Mariana Vishegirskaya walks downstairs in of a maternity hospital damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. Vishegirskaya survived the shelling and later delivered a baby girl in another hospital. Credit: Evgeniy Maloletka / AP

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.

Ukraine is different. It won’t be run over.

And it presents a national security challenge to the U.S. and Europe that is downright frustrating.

Most Americans are sympathetic to Ukraine whose main offense seems to be that it exists.  Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks the people there don’t know who they are. They are really Russian, he says, and if they won’t accept that, he’ll make them.

Americans lean toward the idea that the people should decide for themselves whether they’re Russian. And many Americans would like to help give them the chance to make their own choice.

The U.S. is accustomed to being a great world power, able to have its views accepted after a little muscle flexing. Now, it finds its options are limited.

There are two reasons for this problem. Americans are tired of wars to help others which end up being costly in the lives of U.S. service personnel and military spending. And they turn out to be indecisive. Plus, direct involvement in Ukraine could bring confrontation with Putin, a man who seems to have left rationality behind.

Putin has made a thinly veiled  threat to use nuclear weapons if he faces outside opposition. The nuclear threat is itself a weapon that influences actions by other countries. Beyond that, his own manic behavior is a similar weapon. Who knows what will make him go off?

It’s tempting to compare Putin to Adolf Hitler. They both liked to gobble up neighboring countries. But Hitler didn’t have nuclear weapons. Given Putin’s poorly performing armed forces, they are the Russian’s principal asset.

Putin mistakenly thinks he leads one of the world’s great powers. He brushes aside the overwhelming  condemnation of his Ukraine invasion by the U.N. General Assembly’s emergency session. He may see great power precedents.

Twice the U.S. similarly snubbed the U.N. In 1983, after U.S. forces invaded Grenada, a Caribbean country where there were about 600 American medical students, the same kind of  U.N. session gave the U.S. similar treatment. Then, after its 1989 invasion of Panama to topple its drug-dealing dictator, the U.S. again faced  General Assembly censure.

In both cases, the U.S. installed governments more favorable to American interests. In Panama, U.S. forces captured its president and brought him to Miami. After a trial, he was sent to prison. Is that what Putin would like to do with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president?

The domestic constraint on direct American or NATO involvement may have deep roots. In the fury of the moment, leaders may commit the country to a massive show of force to resolve a crisis only to find that what started out as righteous indignation turns into a costly quagmire.

Take the  Gulf of Tonkin Resolution by Congress, adopted in August 1965. Two U.S. destroyers were thought to have been harassed by North Vietnamese gunboats. Congress quickly authorized President Lyndon B. Johnson to take action. He interpreted the resolution as a declaration of war, and the conflict lasted 10 more years, deeply dividing the country.

More recently, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq involved specific causes that led to prolonged wars. The U.S. reasonably went after  Al Qaeda in Afghanistan but stayed in the hopeless effort to create democracy there, an effort that turned out to be America’s longest war.

In 1991, with access to oil at stake, the U.S. efficiently pushed Iraq out of Kuwait. But war hawks wanted more, so in 2003 American forces took on Iraq’s  Saddam Hussein, based on the phony claim that he had weapons of mass destruction.

All of these conflicts have worn down American willingness to police peace. Institutions like the U.N. and NATO were created to provide a unified international barrier to Hitler-style invasions. The EU was supposed to yield a unified European partner in the effort, but nationalism flourishes from London to Warsaw.

Putin has revealed the failure of post-World War II peace plans. But he is not alone. China swept up Tibet. The U.S. propped up South Vietnamese dictators. The world community does nothing to halt a range of Middle East conflicts from Syria to Yemen.

It’s possible that Putin has done more ultimately to reduce future armed conflict than all the post-war initiatives. NATO has come together. Europe is acting with some degree of unity. Russia is highly likely to become China’s satellite after much of the world slashes economic links with it.

But, as in any other war, helping Ukraine comes at a price. It won’t be paid on the battlefield. The cost is already coming at the gas pump and the shopping websites. The American consumer is today’s soldier.

To deny Russia or, for that matter, China the power to dominate world affairs, people will have to pay more to support them less.

Correction: A previous version of this column misidentified the gunboats that were involved in the Gulf Of Tonkin Resolution.

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Gordon Weil, Opinion contributor

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.