By Reed Galen
A year ago, Vladimir Putin, to the astonishment of the world, invaded the sovereign nation of Ukraine. Calling their leadership Nazis, drug dealers, and Banderites, Putin expected to defeat his neighbor in three days. He didn’t. He hasn’t. If we do what we need to, he won’t.
Instead of achieving the rapid victory he predicted, Putin and his murderous circle have sent hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers, civilians, conscripts, and convicts to their death in a cause that is lost morally and is losing militarily. When the Ukrainians saw their neighbors coming, they didn’t attempt to negotiate because they knew it would do no good. Instead, they dug their trenches, loaded their weapons, and fought with the ferocity their people are known for.
Every Ukrainian has been affected by this war, but that hasn’t stopped them from participating however they can. As Russian shells and missiles landed, women of all ages and backgrounds sat in a bomb shelter singing, surrounded by freshly made Molotov cocktails. Putin underestimated his opponents. It was a mistake he may not live to regret.
When Putin looked south toward Kyiv, he saw a young president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Not a soldier, or a long-time politician, Zelenskyy was an entertainer in his past life. When he ran for president under the banner of the Servant of the People party, Zelenskyy did so out of an abiding understanding that his young country wanted free of the Russian bear, free of endemic corruption, greater openness, and an orientation toward the West.
This is anathema to Russia. With Ukraine, Putin can reimagine the Soviet Union of his youth, a global super-power with real military, political, and economic might. Without Ukraine, we see what Russia is: A giant, nuclear-armed gas station. Despite Russia’s longstanding paranoia that the West is out to get it, mostly, their European neighbors just wanted cheap energy and to be left alone. Putin couldn’t allow that.
Now he is paying for it. As Zelenskyy rallies the world to his banner and to his people’s fight, Putin sits in the Kremlin, further clamping down his own people, believing only the propaganda he allows to air, and rattling a saber he knows rings hollow to much of the world.
Putin’s underestimation didn’t stop with the Ukrainian people or their president. He also misread (to be polite) the resolve of President Joe Biden, NATO, and Europeans. The little tsar believed that there would be no unity. Time and again – in 2014 after the seizure of Crimea, in the wake of Brexit in 2016, and in a divided America, Putin counted on self-interest to overtake his comfortable western neighbors.
Immediately after the invasion, European leaders looked back across the Atlantic and saw Biden. He said, “I’m here. We’re here, and we’re not going anywhere.” This simple yet decisive move ensured that Russia would find itself all but cut off from the rest of the world. Putin’s oligarchs watched from their dachas as their bank accounts were frozen and their yachts were seized. They’d made a deal with the devil, and their souls were ready for delivery.
In just a year, hundreds of billions of dollars in aid, equipment, and weaponry have helped sustain the Ukrainian military and push Russia back. While this is all good, now is the time to step up that support. Yes, Ukraine can win this war, but it will need to do so decisively. When the last Red Army soldier scuttles back across the border, he needs to know he won’t ever return to Ukraine as the aggressor.
Here in the United States, the last year has drawn yet another distinction between those that believe in democracy and those who don’t. Many of MAGA’s top spokespeople, such as Tucker Carlson, Steve Bannon, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, have decried our assistance to Ukraine. They see Putin not as a butcher but as an icon to emulate. He represents the alpha-male: A religious nationalist, bigoted, take-no-prisoners (literally) leader whose chauvinism for Caucasians is a path to be followed, not a worldview destined for the ash heap of history.
Which begs a question: If you’re a Republican, either a politician or an individual voter, which side do you line up with? Do you side with Zelenskyy and a new vision for democracy and freedom, not just for his country but for the world? Do you side with the Ukrainian people who are fighting and dying for their homeland, their families, and an ideal?
Or do you side with Trump’s version of the Republican Party? Do you stand with those for whom genocide and war crimes are acceptable? Do you stand with a regime that launches missiles into schools, theaters, shopping malls, and apartment buildings? Do you stand with those whose words are parroted by Russian propaganda every evening? If you do, you’ve lost the thread on what it means to be an American.
For those of us who believe that Ukraine’s fight is part of a larger global battle against authoritarianism, we should take heart from Zelenskyy and his people. They fight and die – with guns, bullets, and missiles. We fight with words and political campaigns. If they lose their fight, we’ll lose ours. If we lose our battle, we’ll end up fighting as they do.
Look over the horizon at a country trying to climb out of its past and chart its own new path forward. Then look around here at home and commit to fight like a Ukrainian.