New recruits of the Aidar Battalion train in Donbas, Ukraine, on Feb. 5, 2024.

New recruits of the Aidar Battalion train in Donbas, Ukraine, on Feb. 5, 2024. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)

This weekend marks the two-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The ensuing conflict has ravaged large stretches of the Eastern European state, killed tens of thousands, displaced millions of Ukraine’s population and roiled global politics. It led to Russia’s geopolitical isolation from the West as well as the most significant display of transatlantic solidarity in the 21st century: A U.S.-led effort to arm and sustain Ukraine’s defense that has depleted arsenals on both sides of the pond and required dozens of billions of dollars in Western taxpayer money.

To many European leaders and U.S. officials, the value of backing Ukraine is priceless. A fledgling democracy must not be snuffed out by autocratic bully, they argue. And that bully in the Kremlin - Russian President Vladimir Putin - must not be allowed to rewrite the rules of the road and dismiss Ukraine’s rights as a sovereign nation, redraw borders and flout international law.

The war in Ukraine, President Biden argued a month after Russia launched its invasion, is “a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.”

That rhetoric has not faded almost two years later, with Ukraine’s leaders and backers championing Kyiv as a bulwark for the free world against a tyrannical menace that knows no bounds. If “Ukraine is left alone, Russia will destroy us,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told dignitaries at the Munich Security Conference last weekend, warning that “there is no one for whom the ongoing war in Europe does not pose a threat.”

“If we don’t act now, Putin will succeed in turning the next few years into a catastrophe - not only for Ukraine but for others as well,” he added.

But these warnings are starting to ring a little hollow. Ukraine fatigue is becoming a reality, especially in the United States, where Republican lawmakers have stymied new funding for Kyiv’s war effort. The war has bogged down along a front that has barely shifted over the past year, no matter the hideous cost of lives, arms and funds. Some analysts and policymakers are starting to question whether the marshy trenches carving up the battlefields of southeastern Ukraine represent the civilizational fault-line many Western leaders claim they do.

That was already the view of many outside the West in the wake of Russia’s invasion, and it has only deepened amid the explosion of the parallel war in Gaza.

For many onlookers, the Israeli military campaign that followed the deadly Hamas terrorist attack on Oct. 7 has served as a reminder of long-standing double standards on the world stage. Israel, traumatized by what was the single deadliest day in Jewish history since the Holocaust, has destroyed much of Gaza, killed tens of thousands of civilians and sparked a staggering humanitarian crisis that may only get worse. U.N. agencies and aid workers warn that mounting disease and malnutrition may claim tens of thousands more Gazan lives in the coming months.

Perceived Western complicity in Palestinian suffering is hamstringing U.S. diplomacy. This week, at ministerial meetings for the Group of 20 major economies in Rio de Janeiro, Secretary of State Antony Blinken weathered complaints from his counterparts on the latest instance of the United States vetoing Security Council calls for an immediate cease-fire over Gaza. The U.S.’s seeming isolation on the matter was a contrast to last year’s Group of 20 summit in India, where the Biden administration secured widespread condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“At the time, Blinken found a more receptive audience when he invoked the United Nations Charter and the principles of sovereignty to criticize Moscow’s land grab,” noted my colleague John Hudson, who was traveling with Blinken. “But in Brazil, diplomats invoked those same principles to criticize the ongoing war in Gaza, where the United States has provided Israel political cover and billions of dollars’ worth of bombs and military equipment.”

The U.N. Security Council has arguably failed in the instance of both conflicts, with U.S. and Russian vetoes separately stymying collective international action. On Thursday, Brazilian foreign minister Mauro Vieira lamented the “unacceptable paralysis” on show at the United Nations, and said existing “multilateral institutions are not properly equipped to deal with current challenges.”

“The fact that the U.S. is repeatedly using its veto in the Council makes it harder to criticize Russia’s own vetoes,” Richard Gowan, U.N. director for the International Crisis Group think tank, told me. “And while the U.S. argues that the Council should avoid votes on Gaza until it finds consensus, the U.S. has never had any compunction about forcing Russia into vetoes over Ukraine. If the U.S. is allowed to force Russia into vetoes, other countries will do the same to the U.S. over Gaza.”

The Russians, Gowan added, sense an obvious opportunity to point to U.S. hypocrisy. The “rules-based order” is a concept dear to Western leaders, not least Biden, and invoked constantly when they set out their positions on world affairs. They may see in Ukraine the defense of the “rules-based order” against Russian brutishness, but in the ongoing calamity in Gaza, it’s easy to also see its breakdown.

Aid workers and rights groups argue there’s unprecedented crisis on their hands, one that has been enabled by the United States staving off U.N. efforts to force a cease-fire. “The humanitarian response in Gaza today is an illusion - a convenient illusion that perpetuates a narrative that this war is being waged in line with international laws,” Christopher Lockyear, secretary general of Doctors Without Borders, told the U.N. Security Council in a Thursday briefing.

Lockyear added that “the laws and the principles we collectively depend on to enable humanitarian assistance are now eroded to the point of becoming meaningless” and that Israel was waging a “war of collective punishment, a war without rules, a war at all costs” at the expense of Gaza’s entire population.

Israel is already in the dock at the U.N.’s top court over charges that it may be provoking genocide in Gaza. This week, hearings began over a separate inquiry into the legality of Israel’s more-than-half-century of occupation and control over Palestinian territories seized in the wake of the 1967 war. “International law cannot be an a la carte menu,” Lana Nusseibeh, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the U.N., said when making her nation’s presentation to the court. “It must apply equally to all, and it is more essential in the long shadow cast by the Palestinian question and injustice that has persisted for more than seven decades.”

But the emerging reality is that we do live in an increasingly “a la carte” world of waning U.S. clout, shifting alliances and the steady erosion of international law and the universal principles that undergird it.

“The risk of genocide, the gravity of the violations being committed, and the flimsy justifications by elected officials in Western democracies warn of a change of eras,” wrote Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, in an anguished essay in Foreign Affairs. “The rules-based order that has governed international affairs since the end of World War II is on its way out, and there may be no turning back.”

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