War in Ukraine demands that all of us pick a side — democracy or decadence
They dress like students, or dress like housewives, or in a suit and a tie. Life during wartime in Ukraine — the kind of conflict that Europe thought it would never see in the 21st century — is less than a week old, and producing some shocking images that practically no one expected. Certainly not the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, who almost surely thought that a westward-looking democracy sated by McDonald's and KFC would instantly melt under the shock and awe of his powerful armed forces.
Instead, a generation raised in relative comfort and prosperity is making the same existential choice their grandparents made during World War II.
Freedom is worth fighting for. And dying for, if necessary.
And so the grim carnage in Eastern Europe has been interrupted by heroic scenes of resistance. We've seen the stylish 20-something Kyiv couple of Yarina Arieva and Svyatoslav Fursinb — who moved up their wedding and took a honeymoon photo toting the rifles each had been issued to defend their home city from Russian invaders. And the videos of architects and accountants and teachers forming armed patrols, or mixing deadly Molotov cocktails — to toss at armored vehicles in an attack — with the techniques they learned on YouTube.
In the northern Ukraine village of Bakhmach, a column of Russian tanks — one of the convoys that Putin had hoped would crush Russia's western neighbor in a few days if not hours — had to pause when an elderly man tried to climb aboard the lead vehicle, then kneeled in front of it. It was a callback to the legendary Tank Man in China's Tiananmen Square in 1989, except some 33 years later this didn't feel like a symbolic gesture against the irresistible power of a modern authoritarian state. This time, it feels like freedom has a fighting chance.
Resistance: It’s been only a handful of days since Putin’s Russia did the unthinkable that has been months if not years in the making, and invaded Ukraine. The fate of the war is clearly up in the air — Russia’s military superiority and the ability of a massive nation to wreak havoc with brute force is clear, but Putin’s generals clearly didn’t calculate on large-scale resistance either from Ukrainians on the ground or from a global community that has rallied on their behalf. Team Putin expected the largest cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv to fall overnight — and that didn’t happen, not yet.
But this much is clear: The war in Ukraine has become a time for choosing — not just for its combatants and for the 144 million citizens of Putin's Russia, but for people all around the world, including here in the United States. The first two decades of the 21st century have been marked by declining faith in democracy and a rising authoritarianism that's played out from Beijing to Belarus to Bakersfield — sometimes as tragedy but often as farce.
Today, some of the silliness of our cultural wars over the fake banning of hamburgers or the "canceling of Dr. Seuss" is melting away as an honest-to-goodness war demands that people pick a side. Do you support the messiness of democracy as embodied, however imperfectly, by Ukraine and its courageous people, or will some folks continue to support the decadence embodied by weak "strongmen" like Putin, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump, whose last resort in defending ancient systems of repression is the barrel of a tank?
The starkness of that choice is embodied by two remarkable men at the center of the world stage. In unleashing his tanks and missiles against the 44 million peaceful people of Ukraine as they were merely trying to live their best lives, Putin has revealed himself for once and for all not as a crafty practitioner of realpolitik but rather as a monster willing to mine the moral depths of an Adolf Hitler or a Josef Stalin to keep himself in power. Just as Trump proved to the American people on Jan. 6 that all egomaniacal "strongmen" finally turn to violence against the free will of people, Putin's descent into isolation and incoherence is showing us where that bloody road ultimately leads on a world map.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy — a former TV comedian who once competed on Ukraine’s version of “Dancing with the Stars” and whose unlikely political rise began when he played an everyday citizen elected president after a viral video — has emerged as democracy’s first true icon of a new, troubled millennium. The 44-year-old Zelenskyy is showing that his unfairly maligned Generation X can fight with the courage and resolve of World War II’s so-called Greatest Generation when everything is truly on the line.
The Ukrainian president is using the tools of today's technology — shooting a cellphone selfie video of himself and his Cabinet standing strong in the streets of Kyiv as the capital city was bombarded by Russian forces — to reinvent himself as a Winston Churchill for the 21st century. Zelenskyy is doing this not with "blood, sweat, toil and tears" bombast but with a movingly simple, and-I-am-telling-you-I'm-not-going courage, reportedly responding to an American offer to evacuate him from Kyiv by saying, "I need ammunition, not a ride." The Ukrainians and their leader are winning the battle for world opinion in a rout.
'No war please': Even in the streets of Moscow and in Putin's native St. Petersburg, thousands of everyday Russians have taken to the streets and risked their own freedom in calling for peace and decrying the insanity of their own leader. Each day brings new instances of prominent Russians saying "no" to Putin's leadership, from tennis star Andrey Rublev writing "No war please" on a TV camera to the head of a state-run theater in Moscow resigning because she refuses to work for "a killer."
Support for Ukraine has come from spontaneous anti-Russian demonstrations in cities as big as London and as small as Harrisburg, and from everyday people in free European nations like Poland opening their arms and even their homes to the first wave of Ukrainian refugees, to the world's democratic leaders from Washington to Berlin who normally bicker about everything finding near unanimity in tough sanctions against Russia, Putin, and his billionaire cronies.
This reaffirmation of faith in democracy hasn't only bolstered the Ukrainian spirit of resistance. It's also made the world's anti-democracy naysayers — from Beijing to the inner councils of the Republican National Committee — look remarkably small. Suddenly, the Americans who praised Putin and his dictatorial maneuvers as "genius" — the most prominent cases being Trump and Fox News' prime-time star Tucker Carlson — are looking as historically wrong as Charles Lindbergh and his America First-ers did in 1941. The tectonic plates of world opinion are shifting powerfully under their feet, and they are unable to gain their footing.
From the far left to the far right, this dramatic weekend has seen a seemingly heartfelt apology from the journalist Matt Taibbi for his descent into the Putin-apologizing "dirtbag left" and some attempts at pro-democracy reinvention from GOPers like Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who famously spent July 4, 2018, in Moscow with some of his colleagues. But others on the wrong side of current history — including the America First PAC conference backed by two sitting members of Congress on the extreme white-supremacist right — dug in. Meanwhile, the House Republicans — who tweeted a picture of President Joe Biden walking away from a podium and called him "weak" (what was he supposed to do, moonwalk like Michael Jackson?) — made a mockery of Americans "rallying 'round the flag" in a global crisis.
Morally bankrupt apologist: Trump, the West's Putin-apologist-in-chief, whose 2016 election was openly backed by the Kremlin chief with the goal of destabilizing democracy, tried to have it every which way when he addressed the Conservative Political Action Committee, or CPAC, on Saturday night in Orlando. The 45th president was forced by events to acknowledge that Russia's invasion is "an outrage" and that Zelenskyy is "a brave man," while he also contended against all evidence that Putin is "smart, but the real problem is that our leaders are dumb." The moral emptiness of Trump's posturing was made clear when Fox News asked him in an interview if he had a message for Putin.
“I have no message,” responded Trump. Ditto for Carlson and the GOP’s ascendant right wing. The nakedness of their worldview has been exposed.
Today, the issue is the survival of Ukraine itself. But once this immediate crisis is resolved, the broader fight to shore up democracy begins, and nowhere will that battle take on greater importance than right here in the United States. This is what that looks like: Real justice against the coup plotters of Jan. 6, making sure the rights of citizens to vote are expanded and not further shrunk, standing up for free speech in our classrooms and in the public square, and isolating and scorning the appeasers and the apologists like Trump and Carlson.
The late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that "a man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right." Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine are not just standing up for what is right, they are risking their lives to do so. The rest of the world must support them. This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no fooling around. The time for choosing has arrived. Which side are you on?
— Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.