On Feb. 25, 2022, one day after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, released a cell phone video, vowing that his government would stay in the capital of Kyiv: “We’re all here. Our military is here. Citizens in society are here. We’re all here defending our independence, our country, and it will stay this way.” This is not what Russian President Vladimir Putin expected. He had repeatedly denied the existence of Ukraine in the lead-up to his brazen act of aggression, claiming that the state was an artificial creation of his Communist predecessors. He presumed that the use of naked military force would compel a weak Kyiv to submit to Russia’s will and Ukrainians would come out in the streets to welcome a liberating army. The sham of Ukraine would be exposed. A vilified, generic West of Putin’s construction would protest and impose sanctions but would ultimately have to accept a fait accompli.
This is not what occurred. Ukrainian citizens of varied ethnic, religious and linguistic backgrounds rallied to defend their homeland. Although Putin and his apologists are fond of presenting Russia as the victim of American hegemonic aspirations, Russia’s war against Ukraine is in fact an imperialist grab. Putin seeks to subject a former colonial possession of the Russian Empire. In his view and that of many of his compatriots, ethnic Ukrainians and Russians are “one people.” Despite Putin’s claims of a NATO threat to its security, Russia did not act because of fear of prospective Ukrainian membership in the alliance — NATO countries have bordered the Russian Federation for over two decades without consequence. Russia intends to terrorize, control and subsume Ukrainians.
As part of an absurdly false campaign of “de-Nazification,” the Russian government is pursuing an ostensibly genocidal policy in Ukraine. One of Putin’s closest advisers has advocated “de-Ukrainization,” the physical elimination and re-education of those who refuse to submit. Russian occupying authorities have kidnapped thousands of Ukrainian children for forced indoctrination, a war crime that the International Criminal Court recognized as the basis for its recent indictment of Putin. The Russian army has targeted Ukrainian cultural institutions for destruction, and Moscow-appointed authorities have removed Ukrainian-language literature from libraries and schools in occupied portions of Ukraine.
Ukrainians are united on the question of their country’s defense and sovereignty. According to a recent poll by the widely respected Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, the overwhelming majority (87%) of Ukrainians are opposed to any territorial concessions to Russia. They understand what they are fighting for and the cost of failure. Russia first began its war on Ukraine in 2014 in response to a democratic revolution — organized and led by hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians — that succeeded in ousting a corrupt, pro-Russian president. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and sponsored a separatist campaign in the Donbas. Since then, Ukraine’s commitment to pluralistic democracy has been tested and further honed. Most Ukrainians perceive their country to be the opposite of Putin’s autocratic and kleptocratic state. The Putin government has ruthlessly suppressed LBGTQ+ rights, restricted independent labor union activity and silenced dissent. This is the system that Russian rule promises Ukraine.
And as evidence of heinous atrocities committed by Russian troops has emerged in the formerly occupied cities of Irpin, Bucha, Izyum and Kherson, Ukrainian resolve has only stiffened. Putin claimed he was acting in defense of “Russian” Ukrainians who cried for his help. Instead, his soldiers have killed, raped and tortured countless such citizens and faced the guns of Russian-speaking and ethnic Russian fighters in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Contrary to the blunder of Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, Moscow’s aggression against the country is not a “territorial dispute.” It is also not the “proxy war” that some on the American left have claimed. The war resulted from a direct Russian attack on a sovereign state, whose defenders are collectively and independently committed to victory over the invader.
This determination is worthy of sustained American support, despite the expense of providing military and humanitarian aid. It is a price that pales in comparison to that borne by Ukrainian citizens. Russian victory in this war would be catastrophic for the United States and the world. It would mean the definitive end of a rules-based international order, which promises the best chance for sustained peace, however imperfect. And a Russian occupation of Ukraine would further threaten global stability and commerce. Above all, Ukrainians would suffer. This is not time for a return to American isolationism, a foreign policy orientation with roots in 1930s Michigan. Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest based in Royal Oak, openly promoted isolationism in addition to spouting anti-Semitic, fascist views. One of his favored political slogans, “less care for internationalism and more concern for national prosperity,” is disturbingly echoed today in the rhetoric of U.S. skeptics of multilateralism and support for Ukraine.
The Capital Area has already responded to Ukraine’s urgent need. The Greater Lansing Jewish Federation, Urban Beat, Rotary clubs and other local foundations and private businesses have donated desperately needed supplies to Ukrainian hospitals and hosted successful fundraisers. The U.S. government needs to stay the course and ensure that America remains “here,” on Zelensky’s side and that of the Ukrainian people, in their fight for freedom and for the well-being of us all.
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