The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The West underestimated Ukraine’s bravery. Now, it’s underestimating Russia’s brutality.

A man holds a Ukrainian flag during the funeral of a fallen soldier in Kyiv on March 8. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

Andriy Yermak is head of the presidential office of Ukraine.

Ukraine’s resistance against Russia’s horrific invasion has exceeded every outside prediction. Many in the West did not understand Ukrainians’ love for their freedom, for their democracy. For us, losing our country would be worse than death. And that’s why we fight — because defeat is not an option.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered this message to a joint session of the U.S. Congress and to parliaments across Europe. He also pleaded for greater military assistance and the establishment of a no-fly zone for humanitarian — not military — purposes. Many countries have stepped up to provide critical military and humanitarian assistance. However, given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s clear intention to ramp up the bloodshed, Ukraine still needs more.

While the United States, Poland and many other freedom-loving countries are standing firm with Ukraine, some states in Europe seem willing to accept a Ukraine partially occupied by Russian invaders — anything so they can keep buying Russian gas and oil and conduct business as usual.

But business as usual now means accepting Russians bombing maternity hospitals and theaters full of civilians taking shelter. These atrocities are part of the Russian siege on the city of Mariupol, which has left hundreds of thousands of residents without food, clean water, electricity and communications. More than 1,200 civilians have been murdered. Russia violated an agreement on a humanitarian corridor almost before it began. This is how it wages wars. It did it in Grozny in 1999 and in Syria in 2015. Now, it is doing it in Ukraine. This is a scorched-earth campaign to wipe Ukraine — its people, its culture, its history — off the map.

Just as many erroneously predicted that Ukraine would fall within 72 hours, many failed to predict the mass atrocities the Russian troops would commit despite their long history of absolute disregard for life, and lust for blood and destruction. Only the establishment of a no-fly zone to protect humanitarian corridors will stop the carnage, just as the United States and its allies and partners did in Iraq in 1991, in Bosnia from 1993 to 1995, and in Libya in 2011. Despite these countries not belonging to NATO, the West intervened to stop the inhumane targeting of civilians and facilitate humanitarian assistance, which saved countless lives.

If the West won’t do it now, then we plead for the proper weapons so we can do it ourselves. If not, the loss of people, infrastructure, businesses, and our historic landmarks and monuments will be on the West’s collective conscience.

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On March 11, President Biden stated that the United States “will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine.” But the truth is that Russia is waging war against the West already, not just Ukraine. Russians are fighting the values Ukraine shares with the West to make the West recognize Moscow’s exclusive right to dictate to other nations how they should live. You may be reluctant to go to war, but the Russian aggressor has made the choice for you.

There is now a new world order. Those who stand with Ukraine and fight for common values will lead it, and the others will lose their political, economic and ideological influence. The United States, Poland and many other countries are forging this new paradigm, but the undisputed leader is President Zelenskyy. He has shown fortitude and resilience to NATO and the European Union, and has rallied the collective West around the need to protect democratic values.

But Ukrainian soldiers are staring down a Russian military that is just getting started. A Russian military that keeps erasing Ukrainian cities with indiscriminate cruise-missile and MLRS barrages. Ukrainians are willing to fight this war for the West as well as for ourselves — but we can’t do it without the necessary military equipment.

We need the defensive lethal assistance President Zelenskyy has requested repeatedly: fighter jets, air and missile defense systems, drones, anti-armor weapons, guns, ammunition, protective equipment. If we don’t get the equipment we need to succeed, Putin won’t stop in Ukraine. He will go for NATO next.

Ukrainian soldiers, citizens and volunteers from around the world are valiantly holding back the Russian invaders, for now. The Ukrainian people have shown they can lead the struggle for democracy against tyranny. We just need more support. To freedom-loving people around the world we say: This is your war, too. Help us win it. If not, the harshest dictatorship since World War II will triumph over Europe.

The West cannot allow this to happen.