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What Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine Reminds Us

Two weeks ago, the world changed irrevocably. On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a massive, unprovoked invasion of its neighbor, Ukraine. With millions of people displaced, thousands killed and Ukraine’s cities under indiscriminate shelling by Russian forces, Putin is well on his way to carrying out the complete destruction of Ukraine in much the same fashion he has in Syria. This heinous attack has not only brought terror and ruin to Ukraine, but has also reminded the world of lessons it seemed to have forgotten. With the forces of authoritarianism and repression once again on the march in a manner not seen since the 20th century, the ramifications of recent events are hard to overstate. 

To be clear, responsibility for the current war lies squarely at the feet of Russia’s dictator, Vladimir Putin. A mixture of paranoia and hunger for glory has driven Putin to take increasingly aggressive actions against the U.S. led democratic order and against Russia’s neighbors. Despite the claims of some analysts, the expansion of the NATO alliance is not the primary cause of Putin’s regional aggression. Putin and his “useful idiots” around the world love to focus on the non-official verbal offers made to the Russian leaders about halting NATO expansion in the 1990s, yet conveniently overlook the official Budapest Memorandum signed by Russia, the U.S. and the U.K. guaranteeing Ukrainian sovereignty in exchange for relinquishing its nuclear weapons arsenal. While Putin denounces NATO, he has made his true reasons for aggression clear, bemoaning the collapse of the Soviet Union, denouncing democratic movements and elections in former Soviet Republics as U.S.-backed coups, declaring that Ukraine is not a separate country but an integral part of Russia and broadly disputing the right of any former territory of the Russian Empire to be independent. He has further justified his current actions by claiming Russia has to “demilitarize” and “denazify” Ukraine, despite the fact that the country is led by a democratically-elected, Jewish president.

What neither Putin nor many other world leaders and experts predicted in the run-up to the invasion was the exceptional leadership which Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, would exhibit or the bravery and fortitude with which the Ukrainian people would meet the crisis. As Ukrainians valiantly fight to protect their country and their lives, so too do they fight for democracy more broadly. As Putin’s rhetoric and actions make clear, his goals of conquest are not just limited to Ukraine but also encompass all that he believes Russia has lost since the fall of the USSR.  

Repression is the only tool Putin knows, whether that be against Ukrainians or against his own people. By violently silencing dissent to his regime, Putin has revealed that his real motivations for regional aggression derive not just from a deeply held imperialist worldview, but also from a fear of democratic revival which he believes could spread to Russia itself. In the last two weeks, Putin’s repression of the Russian people has worsened as the country’s independent media and social media have been shut down. While Putin still enjoys massive support at home, thousands of Russians have courageously taken to the streets to protest his unjustified war only to be arrested and faced with the possibility of decades in prison. As what feels like a new Iron Curtain descends between the free world and those living under the thumb of authoritarianism, the necessity of the U.S. led order has once again become clear. 

Although America might have often been seen as maddeningly self-destructive and without purpose throughout the post-9/11 years, it is once again proving itself to be imperative to protecting democracy and holding back the forces of authoritarianism. Without American diplomatic, economic and military power, along with the alliance system the U.S. built and maintains, Putin’s aggression cannot be contained. While the U.S. can and must do more to support the Ukrainians in their fight, the response to date by the U.S. and its allies has been remarkable. Although these efforts may not be enough to save Ukraine from Putin’s destructive machinations, they have allowed Ukrainians to hold off a far superior force and ensure Putin pays a high price for his miscalculation. The forceful response of the U.S. and its partners is essential to ensuring Putin’s conquest is stopped. While this lesson has been largely forgotten over the past thirty years, it is once again abundantly clear that tyrants do not stop unless they are stopped

I encourage everyone reading this piece to donate to reputable Ukrainian organizations or charities working in Ukraine that support the war effort and the protection of civilians. We must stop Putin and show tyrants everywhere that we will stand up to them.

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