The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ukraine’s fight is our fight, too. We are all Ukrainians now.

A Ukrainian service member stands in a tank on the front line near the city of Novoluhanske in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on Feb. 22. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)
5 min

President Biden has done an excellent job of calling out, even preempting, Russian propaganda about Ukraine. The U.S. willingness and ability to respond to Russia’s “war of words” have helped build an impressive facade of Western unity — as seen in Germany’s decision Tuesday to suspend the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia. But even such countermeasures are unlikely to prevent Russian strongman Vladimir Putin from proceeding with an actual, rather than simply an oratorical, war.

Dictators are not dissuaded by having their lies called out; at least this one isn’t. On Monday, Putin went through an elaborate charade of deliberation. He convened his security advisers in an ornate czarist palace and demanded that they give him their views of Ukraine while pretending that he had no idea what they were going to say. It resembled nothing so much as a real-life meeting of Spectre, the international crime organization in the James Bond films. The only thing missing was an electric chair to fry a henchman who failed the boss.

But Sergei Naryshkin, the Russian foreign intelligence chief, looked as if he was afraid that some dire fate was in store for him after he suggested that perhaps Russia could still reach a negotiated solution with Ukraine. “Are you proposing starting the negotiation process, or recognize the [Donetsk and Luhansk] republics’ sovereignty?” Putin demanded. “Speak clearly!” Naryshkin, perhaps conscious of the fate that awaits so many of Bond nemesis Blofeld’s henchmen, began to stutter, “I will support the decision to recognize.”

Once the charade of consultation had finished, Putin proceeded to give an hour-long, scripted harangue denying, yet again, that Ukraine is an actual country whose borders should be respected. He also claimed, once again, notwithstanding all evidence to the contrary, that Ukraine somehow poses a military threat to Russia. The entirely predictable conclusion was Russia’s recognition of two breakaway regions of Ukraine — the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk.

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This was followed by the announcement that Russian “peacekeeping” forces would enter the “republics” to protect them from imaginary threats. The Russian troops are “peacekeepers,” of course, in the same sense that the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was an expression of “legitimate political discourse.” This is another Orwellian use of language by those bent on destroying truth as a means of destroying democracy.

Monday’s absurd spectacle in the Kremlin was an exercise in industrial-strength gaslighting. Biden and others have called out Putin’s lies, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. Dictators and demagogues revel in making their subjects believe the nonsensical: It is a sign of their strength. The same phenomenon is evident in the United States, where former president Donald Trump — Putin’s No. 1 fan — has convinced most of his followers that he actually won the 2020 election.

The difference, of course, is that Trump is still bound, much against his will, to play more or less within the confines of an established constitutional order. Putin long ago erased the last vestiges of legality in Russia and is now bent on destroying the rule of law internationally. His transgressions against Ukraine, by trying to change international borders by force, threaten the entire basis of the post-1945 liberal world order.

President George H.W. Bush fought the 1991 Gulf War because he knew how damaging it would be, not only to the region but to the world, if Saddam Hussein were allowed to annex Kuwait by force. The U.S. victory in that conflict thereby helped establish the principle of territorial integrity as the foundation of the post-Cold War world.

Now Putin seeks to tear down that principle in his quest to reassemble the Russian empire. He wants to show that the strong can do whatever they want to weaker neighbors. If he succeeds, we will be entering a dangerous new world where dictatorships hold sway and democracies cower.

Western resolution in the face of Russia’s threat has never been more important — or more evident. But Putin has calculated the cost of sanctions, and he is not deterred. Ultimately, he knows, the West will not fight for Ukraine. It will be up to Ukrainians to fight for themselves.

The only thing holding back a lawless new phase of world history is the willingness of Ukrainians to defend their country from Russian aggression. With his military superiority, Putin can invade Ukraine and maul its armed forces. He can even install a puppet regime in Kyiv. But he cannot make Ukrainians accept the Russian yoke. He cannot prevent Ukrainians from fighting back, whether with massive “people power” demonstrations (like the ones that toppled a previous pro-Russian ruler in 2014) or with guerrilla attacks (like the ones carried out by Ukrainian fighters against Soviet rule in the 1940s and 1950s).

The West must do whatever it can to support Ukrainian patriots. Ukraine’s fight is our fight, too. As Sen. John McCain said in 2014, during the last Russian invasion of Ukraine, “We are all Ukrainians.”