As Russia Invades Ukraine, the West May Be Getting Serious
Even Germany commits to a major increase in defense spending and weaning itself off Russian energy.
By Gerard Baker
Feb. 28, 2022 1:28 pm ET
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech to the press in Moscow, Feb. 22.
PHOTO: DMITRY AZAROV/SIPA/AP IMAGES
Suddenly, when our political debate is characterized by so much moral posturing, manufactured outrage and sanctimonious preening, it’s illuminating to see what real honor in the face of real adversity looks like.
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Our polarized and angry domestic politics are dominated by virtue-signaling egoists. In Ukraine, the virtue doesn’t need to be signaled.
While privileged young people in America express their outrage at microaggressions in the workplace because someone used the wrong pronoun, the youth of Kyiv are gathering in bunkers to make Molotov cocktails in a last, desperate act to defend their beleaguered city—street by street if necessary—against the most violently macro of aggressions.
While our multimillionaire sports and entertainment stars courageously take to social media to denounce “the continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police,” a former television comedian and a former boxing champion in Kyiv are staring down missile strikes and aerial bombardment from the world’s third-largest military to save their country from literal annihilation.
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Ideological fanatics here, on both sides, claim America is a moral pariah, grotesquely distorting the story of its past or wildly exaggerating the flaws of its present. Meanwhile, a true pariah state over there is trying to murder a population on a set of pretexts as grotesque as any in history.
And while a self-obsessed failed leader here continues to sell fictions about a supposedly stolen election, a democratically elected government there fights to avoid being physically extinguished by a brutal oppressor.
There’s nothing wrong with impassioned debate. It’s essential to democracy. There’s nothing wrong with thinking your country is headed in the wrong direction—which, it’s fair to say, the U.S. clearly is right now.
But Ukraine’s fight for survival ought to give us some pause from the hysterical tenor of our domestic political debate. It’s a reminder that freedom isn’t something we can take for granted. Whatever legitimate beefs we may have with the state of our democratic liberties, we can see that brave people in the world are fighting and dying to have those freedoms, and maybe ask ourselves—we who are so disenchanted with our condition—why that might be.
This is a clarifying moment for the world as we ponder with increasing anxiety the merits of our system of government and various others.
We know that Ukraine is far from a model democracy. Its politics are marred by corruption on a vast scale; its judiciary is not very independent; its political institutions are fragile and pliable.
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But it isn’t a client state of America, as some in the West dismiss it. It isn’t a debauched kleptocracy. It isn’t run by “drug addicts and neo-Nazis,” as Mr. Putin describes it. (His promised de-Nazification of a country led by a Jew must rank as one of his least successful propaganda efforts.) It is a free and sovereign state, and its people are demonstrating with moving clarity that they want the right to determine their future. It isn’t Ukraine’s corrupt institutions that are defying Russian aggression, but its ordinary citizens, desperate to defend their way of life. If they believe it’s worth defending, who are we to differ?
The fierce fight Ukrainians are putting up is the ultimate rebuke to all those Putin apologists in the West who said Russia’s insecurity was somehow all our fault for pressing to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. We can surely see now that this always overlooked one important thing: the aspirations of the people who lived under the Russian yoke for so long. There’s no surer way to vindicate the fears of those people that led them to seek NATO membership than to witness their country being overrun by the Russian military.
There are signs that the West is finally understanding the stakes. It’s hard to recall a time when such an evident act of infamy was met with such unified and pragmatic condemnation.
The Europeans, whose governments like to preach about the evils of fossil fuels and immigration restrictions, have at last been roused to defend one of their own. They finally seem to have gotten the message that Russian fuel isn’t worth sacrificing their freedom for.
Over the past week Germany, the perennial foot-dragger, has done what the U.S. has spent decades politely asking it to do: begin to disconnect its energy sector from the Russian grid and commit to spending seriously on its own defense.
As we rush to channel funds and arms to Kyiv and cut Russia adrift from the global economy, and as the Ukrainians continue to resist bravely, it still seems probable that Mr. Putin will achieve at least his immediate goal: the subjugation of Ukraine to his own authority.
But the price for him—crippling economic sanctions, Europe and North America in a rare show of unity, the strengthening of NATO, and the weakening of the pro-Russian forces in the West—will be high.
If we draw the right lesson, the biggest price he may pay is a renewed appreciation in the West of what our civilization has achieved—and a renewed determination to defend and nourish it.