Ukrainians Are Reminding Us of Who We Are — and It Changes Everything
We owe Ukrainians our future.
I have been transfixed watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine over the last few days; I cannot look away. Ukraine has about 44 million citizens compared to Russia’s 144 million. It does not have decades of military build-up and experience. It gave up its nuclear weapons. It is a David to Russia’s Goliath.
Ukrainians did not blink in the face of unprecedented, unprovoked, and overwhelming aggression. They rose up to fight. 100,000 citizens signed up to be auxiliary soldiers. Ordinary people are having (Molitove) Cocktail parties to create make-shift weapons, soldering iron together to make vehicle obstacles, standing in front of tanks, and volunteering at checkpoints.
As the unbelievable unfolded, America offered President Zelensky help to safely get out of the country. He replied “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.” President Zelensky rallied Ukrainians to fight and defend their country. He has stayed in Kyiv and is posting video updates to ensure his countrymen know he is committed and still there. He gave an impassioned plea to the EU leaders to help.
President Zelensky has emboldened and inspired Ukrainians who have risen up and done the unbelievable in defense of their country. For us in democracies around the world, Zelensky has done something even more profound; he has reminded us of who we are and who we want to be.
Russian Might Had Replaced Democratic Right
In the United States for a long, long time we have paid lip service to doing the ‘right’ thing while completely avoiding the pain required to achieve it and resting on our laurels. I see this in our politics; we put all the responsibility and all of the blame on our President but then vote for representatives that are not committed to collaboration, which is the only way democracies work. I see it in commercial organizations; we blame CEOs for not doing the right thing but then we buy stocks based on short-term profits. I see it in the work I have done over the years; companies want the benefit that comes from doing things differently but they don’t want to invest in what’s required to make that happen. We want the trophy without doing the work. It’s insidious and corrosive. We want something for nothing. This is exactly what Putin wants and has had a hand in creating. It keeps us reactive, complacent, and divided. It allows him to muck around and manipulate so many of our systems with impunity and it eats away their core.
If we in the US were attacked, would we gather our neighbors to make Molotov cocktails or would we gripe about how the military abandoned us? We have gotten used to blaming others and taking little responsibility ourselves. We bicker. We have let Russia do this to us and in doing it determine the scope of the game, which has locked us in reacting to Russia for decades rather than focusing on our aspirations and dreams.
We all feel gross and mean as a result but can’t pinpoint why. We have ceded strategy to Putin. He has been our puppetmaster, disemboweling us of our values. We no longer feel like our participation or effort matters. Cynicism has taken hold.
We are everything Ukrainians are not.
This is Not Who We Want to Be
While cynical, we soothe ourselves with old tropes about who we were. We really do want to be free and democratic but our cynicism has deflated us and robbed us of our hope. I have had a long-running argument with myself about why I am not more engaged in politics and civic organizations. I obviously care but I see no joy in participating; there is no over-arching esprit de corps that keeps people aligned on goals even when we disagree on approaches. This is what things like (Russian-fueled) GOP effort to disrupt school board meetings ensure; that the good people of America don’t get involved because we don’t see the point. So many of us — MOST of us — don’t want things to be this way. The extremists have taken over. Democracy does not thrive in extremes. Where is President Eisenhower? He would not be elected today.
President Biden is from a generation that still remembers a period before this division. He knows that America does not have to be the way it is and he knows how things operated then, which gives him belief and optimism that we can get back there again. He knows that democratic leadership is about relationships and compromise, not promises and rhetoric. This leadership approach gets attacked because people no longer understand it; we have forgotten why it matters. President Biden collaborates rather than dominates. He is a (small d) democrat and he understands who we want to be as a country, as confused as we are about how to do that.
Seizing Leadership and Changing the Narrative
Like President Zelensky in Ukraine, President Biden is the leader for the moment we are in. His approach has led to unprecedented international agreement and bold action in ways I never even thought possible.
Biden did something miraculous in the lead up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; he neutered Putin’s disinformation machine. This is something that all of the money and professionals in the private sector have not been able to accomplish. By publicly releasing U.S. intelligence on Putin’s misinformation plans before they were public, it exposed the manipulation and the lies. Biden’s goal was likely not to change Putin’s plans, although that would have been nice, but to ensure that the international community was not confused or in doubt. Biden managed to align around the truth in a world that we so often think is ‘post-truth’ — and in a matter of hours and days. That alignment across NATO, the UN, and the G7 about what was happening and why enabled swift, decisive action. Critically however, while Biden coordinated alignment he let others lead on decisions and communications. By using the U.S. leadership to validate but not dominate the action, Biden made space for the leadership of other nations. As a result, international decisions were joint decisions, which dramatically decreased the perception of a US vs Russian fight. Those joint decisions increased their validity, force, and impact and led to a compounding scope that I do not think would have happened if the US had led.
President Biden, rather than waiting to react to Putin’s moves, took action by aligning and coordinating the leaders of the democratic world and inspiring their action as well. Instead of playing in the box of smoke and mirrors that Putin has kept the world in, Biden acted to on the future that the United States and its allies want, forcing Putin to play that game instead.
The boldness of Ukrainians, led by President Zelensky combined with the strategic action by the United States, led by President Biden, changed the narrative of what was possible. The shift in narrative opened up possibilities that we had never considered and in doing so, shifted the balance of power around the globe.
The shift to actively defining the future was also an enormous relief. After decades of reacting to Russia, it painted a path toward something much, much better. It sparked hope; the hope we as a world can move past the tyranny of Putin. It changed the story we told ourselves about who we are and what is possible.
I feel sheepish that I spent most of the weekend glued to what was going on. However, it was so out of the realm of what I ever imagined would happen that I was metaphorically slack-jawed watching events play out. The balance of power in the world shifted more in two days than it has in the five decades I have been alive. For the first time in my life, it felt like maybe we could actually pursue big things — at a time when we really, really need to address big things. There were so many astonishing things that happened in the last three days that I cannot even remember them all but among them:
- Ukrainians rose up and defended their country in a way no one expected; holding off an invasion on four sides and holding cities and airports while inflicting a huge amount of damage to Russian forces. The world, no matter how this invasion ends, owes Ukrainians a great debt. My request? Whenever you meet a Ukrainian in the future, thank them. Buy them a drink or dinner. Make them feel your appreciation. They have shown us who we want to be — and who we can be. There are no words to effectively articulate how inspiring it has been to watch.
- Sanctions, which started with limiting the movement of some oligarchs and Russian money escalated to cutting off the biggest Russian banks — and unbelievably the Russian Central Bank — from accessing or exchanging money with a huge collection of countries beyond just NATO and the EU. It is an unprecedented financial isolation of a major nation.
- Countries such as Finland and Sweden, which are not part of NATO, have sent military aid and equipment to Ukraine.
- Germany, which has taken a backseat in military contributions in Europe and NATO, committed €100 billion ($112.7 billion) to defense spending now (twice their current annual defense budget) and 2% of their GDP going forward. That will add incredible strength to NATO and diversify its strength so the perception becomes less about NATO being an instrument of the U.S.
- Switzerland (neutral Switzerland!) froze Russian assets.
- China has stayed relatively neutral, critically leaving Russian mostly on its own.
The world has changed irrevocably and things that could not be imagined a week ago are now a reality. Umair Haque is right; this experience has woken the West up from its decades-long daze. In taking action, it has returned our voice to us and empowered us to pursue the world we want.
Before what comes next, however, Ukraine is still under attack and all eyes and efforts must start there. Ukraine, President Zelensky, and President Biden (and dare I say Russia?) have given us an enormous gift — the reminder of who we are, the things we do not need to accept, and the hope to pursue what we do want. Let’s return the favor.