Ukraine’s Finest Hour
Lately, there’s been cause to question how committed people in Western countries are to democracy, whether it’s just an empty word to them now, whether they still believe in it.
Ukrainians believe in it. Enough to fight for it, and kill for it, and die for it; outgunned, if needs be, alone, if needs be.
And not just Ukraine’s valiant armed forces, but its civilian leadership, including its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the former-comedian turned war-leader. Captains sometimes vow to go down with their ship, but that’s easy to do when your ship is still afloat. Zelenskyy walks the talk: remaining in Kiev as bombs fall around him (rather than use the privileges of his position to flee to safety, as many others in his situation have done), sharing in his people’s dangers, raising their spirits with messages of encouragement and defiance, shot from his phone.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy with other top Ukrainian government officials in Kiev, 25th February 2022
Most remarkable of all are the ordinary Ukrainian people. Not hard people from hard places, but business managers, and computer programmers, and models, people who, just a week ago, had comfortable lives and comfortable jobs, people probably a lot like me and those of you reading this article, but who are now donning body armor and hefting assault rifles to defend their country against one of the most powerful militaries in the world. It’s notable that, despite the hardship and danger they now face, few of them blame their president, indeed, they overwhelmingly support Zelenskyy and his rejection of Moscow’s demands, for they see those demands for what they are: attempts to fold their country back into the Russian empire, either as a province, or a satellite. Faced with the choice of peace as Russian vassals or war, they chose the latter.
Faced with the choice of peace as Russian vassals or war, the Ukrainian people chose the latter.
The courage of these people in the face of overwhelming odds, in the face of likely death or imprisonment, is humbling: the soldiers on Snake Island who, facing certain death from approaching Russian forces, told them to “go fuck yourself,” President Zelenskyy who told the US when it offered to help him escape that “I need ammunition, not a ride,” the woman in Henichesk who confronted armed Russian soldiers and denounced them as occupiers. Would we do the same in their place? Or would we decide that there’s no cause worth risking our lives for, that nothing matters so much as our own safety, and slink away?
Few of us can truly comprehend such courage; certainly not most of those lucky enough to be living in liberal democracies, where the scariest thing is getting fired, or cancelled, or Twitter-mobbed. Their courage shames us all. It has shamed the US and its NATO allies, who in the past few years did so little to arm Ukraine and deter Russia, and are belatedly trying to do more of both now. It has, of course, also shamed Vladimir Putin, whose invasion it has, against most expectations, managed to stall (for now, anyway). A few days ago, Putin seemed Mephistophelian and terrifying. Now, facing heavy losses, both military and economic, made to look like a fool while Ukrainians look like heroes, with mass protests against his war at home and the free world uniting against him abroad, he fumes and waves his nukes to remind everyone he has them, to remind everyone that if he loses the game he can decide to smash the board. Ukrainian courage has made him small.
Ukrainian courage has made Putin small.
We owe much to this valor, for this conflict was always about more than just Ukraine. If Putin isn’t stopped here, there’s little reason to think he won’t continue pushing his luck – into Georgia or Latvia or Estonia, or any number of other countries, as conquerors have for most of human history. China, too, is watching to see what lessons it can glean for future attempts to seize Taiwan. What this means is that much of the peace and freedom of the world in coming years rests on the fate of this lone, embattled country.
The free world should work to ensure Putin’s invasion fails, that the only lessons aggressors can glean from it are cautionary ones. And those of us lucky enough to never have had to know the kind of courage Ukrainians are now demonstrating daily should hope that we have it in us to do the same.