The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Character is contagious. Look what Ukraine has inspired.

Demonstrators hold up posters and Ukrainian flags atop a monument in central Lisbon on Feb. 27 during a protest against the Russian invasion and in solidarity with the Ukrainian people. (Ana Brigida/AP)
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The Ukrainian flag is everywhere — held aloft by thousands marching in U.S. and European cities, draped from the stands at soccer matches and displayed in light designs on public buildings. Not since we saw spontaneous demonstrations of solidarity with the United States after 9/11 has there been such a unified outpouring of emotion and righteous anger around the globe. If we have been looking for something that might unify polarized, divided democracies, defending Ukraine (and by extension, freedom) from Russian shock troops might fit the bill.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday sat yards away from his advisers in his marble fortress. He seemed both unhinged and diminished, a menacing, soulless figure dwarfed by a giant table. We also witnessed the polar opposite sort of leader in the gritty, heroic Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, out on the streets of Kyiv with his people and defying pleas for his safety. (“I need ammunition, not a ride,” he replied when the United States offered to evacuate him from the besieged city.) We have the perfect distillation of good and evil. Freedom and repression. Kindness and cruelty. The authoritarians don’t look “smart” or strong; they look scared and befuddled.

On one side, brutal invaders engage in possible war crimes (e.g., assaults on residential buildings). On the other, Ukrainians’ bravery moves us to tears and fills us with admiration. Their irreverent and contemptuous reactions to Russian troops bring smiles to our faces. When mothers and old men line up to get rifles to defend their homes, and civilians decide to clear mines, cynical, self-absorbed Westerners find themselves teary-eyed.

Ukrainians have surprised themselves but also the rest of us. Germany, which until last week had strict prohibitions on the transfer of arms, is now sending 1,000 antitank and 500 Stinger missiles to Ukraine. More important, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a new commitment to spend more than 2 percent (the NATO-targeted percentage) on defense. Ukraine has essentially embarrassed Western Europe into taking action and making sacrifices (e.g., ending the Nord Stream 2 pipeline) that were unimaginable a few weeks ago.

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“The moves were part of an astonishing — and sudden — reversal to decades of German foreign policy that have come as European nations join to oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” the New York Times reports. “Mr. Scholz described the Russian military action as having ‘created a new reality’ that ‘requires a clear response.’” Ukrainian bravery and Russian mendacity have lit a fire under previously complacent democracies.

The media is having trouble keeping up with the avalanche of sanctions (e.g., kicking some Russian banks out of the SWIFT financial communication system). Switzerland, renowned for its unyielding neutrality, is on the verge of imposing sanctions and freezing Russian holdings. Switzerland.

It’s as if we woke up from a slumber not to a dystopian nightmare where selfishness, indifference and moral obtuseness dominate but to an energized atmosphere where collective decency, seriousness and sacrifice can flower. Long overdue self-reflection and readjustment in our politics have arrived.

Insightful leaders have a unique opportunity. Perhaps now is the time that contented, materialistic citizens are ready to make sacrifices. Gosh, if people are dying for their country, maybe Americans really should pay more for gas to squeeze Russia. We could even commit to systematically weaning ourselves from Russian energy. (Set a goal of reducing by 20 percent a year?)

If Ukrainians are willing to assemble molotov cocktails and die for their country, maybe Americans can bestir themselves to vote — and insist that every legal voter gets access to the polls and every ballot gets counted. American voters might even rethink their priorities, putting defense of democracy at the top.

If Europe can take in hundreds of thousands of refugees, we cannot allow xenophobes and America Firsters to demonize immigrants seeking a better, freer life. We can make a moral statement and increase our own economic vibrancy by expanding the opening for legal immigrants, and perhaps even induce a brain drain from Russia and China.

Isolationism shouldn’t be our goal; it’s something we should force on our enemies. We solidify alliances not out of charitable instincts but because, properly organized, they become a massive force multiplier for us.

Our leaders have asked too little of us, racing to catch up to the mob’s prejudices and fearing to confront them with necessary trade-offs and reasonable sacrifices. We have asked too little of ourselves. We can be more generous, disciplined, empathetic and morally serious. The age of nonsensical cultural meme-creation, fear-mongering and racial resentment must end. We need to be worthy of Ukrainians’ respect.