A Moment for Courage and Unity
The battle of President Volodymyr Zelensky and his fellow Ukrainians is motivating the global determination to stop Vladimir Putin's violent imperialism
The roads between Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city, and Kryvyi Rih, an industrial province dotted with iron ore mines and steel factories, are said to be so poor that it can take seven hours to drive the 200 miles. Yet Volodymyr Zelensky—with laughter, wit and grit—would ultimately find his way to the capital from his hometown. He was not a straight A student in high school, his physics teacher said, but he “always knew how to stand out.”
He gained massive fame starring in the comedy satire “Servant of the People,” a hit TV show which he created, produced and starred in, playing a deeply honest high school teacher who becomes president of Ukraine after his rant against government corruption goes viral. In 2019, he faced off against the real-life president, Petro Poroshenko, who dismissed him as a “bright candy wrapper.” The comedian turned politician—who had earned a law degree from Kyiv National Economic University before pursuing a career in comedy—won the presidency with 73 percent of the vote.
Poroshenko had warned his fellow citizens during the campaign that Zelensky was too inexperienced to deal with Vladimir Putin, insisting, “An actor cannot fight the aggressor.” He didn’t know then what his successor would face less than three years later—or imagine that Zelensky’s remarkable courage and resolve would make him a Ukrainian folk hero or even a world historical figure.
Zelensky himself is not immune to the irony and coincidence that has defined his life, including being Jewish in a country where more than a million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. He talks about his grandfather, Semyon Ivanovich Zelensky, who fought the Nazis in the Soviet Red Army during World War II. Semyon was one of four brothers, a story he shared in 2020 with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
“Three of them, their parents and their families became victims of the Holocaust. All of them were shot by German occupiers who invaded Ukraine. The fourth brother survived…Two years after the war, he had a son, and in 31 years, he had a grandson. In 40 more years, that grandson became president, and he is standing before you today, Mr. Prime Minister.”
It’s hard to quantify the impact of Zelensky’s decision thus far to stay in Kyiv and fight with his countrymen against the invading Russians. But his rejection of the US offer to evacuate—“The fight is here,” he reportedly told the Americans. “I need ammunition, not a ride.”—is already the stuff of legend. I wouldn’t underestimate how meaningful his courage is in sustaining morale and motivating Ukrainians, be they trained soldiers operating sophisticated weapons or even college students and grandmothers producing home-made Molotov cocktails to fend off their attackers.
Yesterday Zelensky’s call for support extended beyond Ukraine’s own population to foreign nationals, an outreach that took on added weight given his demonstrated courage and resilience in these early days. “Anyone who wants to join the defence of Ukraine, Europe and the world can come and fight side by side with the Ukrainians against the Russian war criminals,” the statement posted on the president’s website said. “This is the beginning of a war against Europe, against European structures, against democracy, against basic human rights, against a global order of law, rules and peaceful coexistence ”
A unified response was clearly not what Putin anticipated, especially after being lulled into an assumption of NATO’s weakness and the depth of liberal democracy’s fractures exacerbated by the former US president. We are quickly witnessing what President Joe Biden and his able foreign policy team have shaped in anticipation of Putin’s assault.
“The United States is not doing this alone,” Biden said after the invasion started. “For months, we’ve been building a coalition of partners representing well more than half of the global economy…We will limit Russia’s ability to do business in dollars, euros, pounds and yen to be part of the global economy. We will limit their ability to do that. We are going to stunt their ability to finance and grow the Russian military.”
In the days ahead, we will see how the effort to bring together the 30 NATO allies, the 27 members of the European Union and the G7 countries (including the UK and Japan)—with sanctions targeting wealthy Russians, including Putin, as well as cutting off Russian banks’ and other business’ access to the global financial system—may build pressure for Putin to rethink his plan.
His cruel intransigence, combined with the reluctance of both the US and Europe to take the toughest measure by cutting off Russian exports of oil and gas, will likely keep him going. Even a collapsing ruble and expanding protests are unlikely to change his fervor to reassemble the broken Russian empire.
Still, I never assumed it would take a military invasion by an aggrieved, belligerent dictator to bring the world together. I admit that, in the early days of the coronavirus, I hoped that that deadly danger would convince people there was more that unites us than divides us. I also had that vain hope in the early aftermath of January 6.
But I’ve never lost hope that courage and unity—and resolve and reason—could win out, even though the adoration of Putin among far too many Republicans and their media mouthpieces has given reason for worry and doubt. The tectonic shifting in recent days—regardless of how the battle in Ukraine plays out in the days and weeks ahead—demonstrates that there really are limits which reasonable people will not cross. As Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin wryly noted in a tweet: Who would have thought that “Germany would start spending big time on defense, Swiss would freeze assets, the world’s biggest hero is a Jewish comedian and Russians are protesting in the street?”
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