Russian forces bombard Ukraine, ignoring calls for a cease-fire during the Orthodox Easter holiday.

Smoke hung over the gray streets that day in Kyiv, where protesters had piled tires, furniture and barbed wire to barricade themselves from security forces. Torn blue and yellow Ukrainian flags whipped in the wind, and candles left on sidewalks marked where people had been gunned down. A drawing of a reviled president depicted as a pig was tacked to a lamp post.

And yet there was a feeling of hope in Kyiv in March 2014, as Secretary of State John F. Kerry met with survivors of a violent crackdown on demonstrations. He commended the Ukrainians for their bravery in confronting a Kremlin-backed leader and promised that the United States would support the new government.

But Russian forces had moved into Crimea, Ukraine’s peninsula on the Black Sea, and Mr. Kerry warned: “It is clear that Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further.”

Eight years later, with Russian troops obliterating Ukrainian cities and towns, Mr. Kerry’s words seem eerily prescient.

Through the administrations of three American presidents, the United States has sent mixed signals about its commitment to Ukraine. All the while, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia watched Washington’s moves, biding his time.

“We’ve been all over the place on Ukraine,” said Fiona Hill, a Russia and Eurasia expert who advised the three administrations before President Biden. “Our own frames have shifted over time, and our own policies have shifted.”

“I think we need to re-articulate why Ukraine matters,” she said.

A funeral for three Ukrainian soldiers in March in Lviv.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Now, two months into Mr. Putin’s war, the United States is at the center of an extraordinary campaign to foil him, casting the military conflict as a broader battle between democratic values and authoritarian might.

“It’s nothing less than a direct challenge to the rule-based international order established since the end of World War II,” Mr. Biden said in Warsaw last month. “And it threatens to return to decades of war that ravaged Europe before the international rule-based order was put in place. We cannot go back to that.”

The United…

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