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The Ukrainian Year

Ukraine has been instrumental in restoring a focus on what matters to the people and elected leaders of the West.

· 5 min read
The Ukrainian Year
A man looks out of the window of a damaged apartment in a residential block hit by an early morning missile strike on February 25, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. The day before, Russia began a large-scale attack on Ukraine, with Russian troops invading the country from the north, east and south, accompanied by air strikes and shelling. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

The momentous shifts of history often come from the unlikeliest of sources. World War I is memorably described by a character in the series 1923 as a “war about nothing that changed everything.” The causal chain of events that sired the Great War can scarcely be grasped by many modern citizens, but the outgrowth was World War II less than 20 years later. That second global conflict was the last to nearly obliterate Western civilization but it birthed what is commonly referred to as the “international liberal order.” For over 70 years, that order presided over the greatest period of international peace, stability, and prosperity humanity has ever known. Although its cracks and dysfunction have become more apparent in recent years, there were clear warning signs of the brewing disorder and reversions to feral destructiveness lurking beneath the surface.

I was born in 1991, the year the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics finally collapsed. Suddenly, it seemed as if human beings had reached the “end of history” proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama—henceforth, liberal democracy would be the final and lasting form of human government, and capitalism would be the world’s triumphant economic system. But this development did not spell the end of global violence or disorder. In 1990, Iraq’s Ba’athist dictator, Saddam Hussein, had invaded and annexed all of neighboring Kuwait and would have to be forcibly expelled by an international military coalition led by the United States. The following year, the Bosnian War kickstarted the gory breakup of Yugoslavia. For much of the decade, Serbian nationalists unleashed a horrific campaign of violence as they sought to establish a greater nation for themselves, ethnically purged of anyone who was not a Serbian Orthodox Christian.

Two years later, a fanatical government in the little-noticed African country of Rwanda headed by one tribal group embarked upon a savage genocide against the despised other tribe. Throughout the 1990s, the jihadi terrorist organization al-Qaeda escalated attacks against the US across the world, a campaign of violence that reached its spectacular apex with the attacks of September 11th, 2001. These, in turn, became the nexus for America’s fixation on combating Islamic fundamentalism for the next 20 years. And while America was bogged down in the Middle East chasing al-Qaeda and its slicker mutant offspring in the Islamic State, the revanchism and hegemonic ambitions of Russia under Vladimir Putin were deepening. Meanwhile, China, one of the few single-party communist dictatorships to survive and thrive after the Cold War, rose to become a major world power once again, nursing historical grievances and imperial designs of its own.

With the benefit of hindsight, these apparently disparate developments can be understood as at once unique to their respective settings but also connected by a desire to challenge the prevailing global order upheld by the Western bloc. The butchering theocratic Islamic madmen of the Islamic State, the imperialist gangsters of Russia, and the Communist Party bureaucrats of China all shared a rejection of the West’s political, military, and economic project. And though the elected leaders of the West were slow to connect these dots or react in the face of escalating aggression and militarism from Russia and China, Putin’s war in Ukraine marks the culmination of the incompatible coexistence of these divergent world trends. The countries that value a stable rules-based order are faced by those who wish to effect its demolition.

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and had since worked to foment conflict in Ukraine’s far eastern Donbas region. However, few Western observers and policymakers believed that Ukraine would soon become a war theatre of possibly planetary significance. Fewer still would have been tempted to compare the new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a former comedian and actor, to inspiring wartime leaders like Lincoln or Churchill. But unexpected people and places have their purpose thrust upon them by the abrupt lurches of history. The tone of the ensuing year’s pitiless war—against Ukraine’s people, against its system of government, against the audacity of its pursuit of self-determination—was established almost immediately when Zelenskyy refused to abandon his country to Russia’s invading army, famously remarking, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”

A year on, the allied political, economic, and military supporters of Ukraine bullishly insist that peace requires not simply helping Ukraine to “defend itself,” but supplying the country with the materials and weaponry it needs to reclaim all its territory occupied by Russia. Zelenskyy has spent part of the last year hosting partner heads of state in Kyiv even as wailing air-raid sirens warn of Russian missile strikes. In return, he has been raucously welcomed as the guest of partner governments and treated to standing ovations by those saluting Ukrainian bravery and ferocity. More and more Western leaders now recognize that Ukraine’s military and economic integration into the Western bloc is both morally just and strategically desirable. This extraordinary year in the history of human events may therefore have produced a profound debt of gratitude owed to the people of Ukraine for reawakening the West’s fighting spirit. The inspiring sight of Ukrainians fighting and dying in defense of freedom and democracy has reminded Westerners that these are indeed things worth fighting and dying for.

The shameless appeasers of Russian totalitarianism hysterically demand “peace talks” and “concessions” and accuse Ukraine’s supporters of “warmongering.” They ought to look back on the 20 years of untenable cohabitation with Vladimir Putin for evidence of the only kind of “peace” in which the Russian dictator has shown any interest. And as Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party flirtatiously humor the Russian war machine, Ukraine’s supporters must ceaselessly call attention to the link between the fate of that country and its implications for the larger geopolitical competition with China.

Those who wish to see Ukraine prevail are not supporters of war—they simply understand the dangers of surrendering to Russia’s fear and hatred of the democratic idea—an antipathy shared by the Chinese communists with equally rapacious zeal. Ukraine has been instrumental in restoring a focus on what matters to the people and elected leaders of the West. Far from being warmongers, Ukraine and its supporters are most assuredly the ones who appreciate and understand the causes of security and an indestructible peace.

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