Who cannot be inspired by what is happening in Ukraine? How do we measure the bravery and the perseverance of a people under brutal attack by a dictator who has twisted history to support his merciless assault on a people he 1.) claims are part of Russia and 2.) dismisses as mindless Nazis under foreign influence?
For those of us beyond the Ukrainian border, it is extraordinary to witness the courage and self-sacrifice or Ukrainian citizens, led by their Churchillian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Under withering bombardment by a military with the power to annihilate their land, their families, their communities and their entire country, they have been steadfast.
The heroic, even romantic stories emerging from Ukraine are the stuff that inspire poets and playwrights to craft inspirational music, reminiscent of Les Mis, perhaps, or Hamilton or popular singers like Andra Day or John Legend. Indeed, I can imagine songs emerging from this historical moment with their lilting melodies, inspirational lyrics and swelling arrangements that evoke awe and inspire action. The David and Goliath saga has come alive in real time.
But I must also be wary of the epic ballad of hero-resisters that has been forming in in my head. As I cheer on Ukrainian courage, I stand in awe of the outpouring of solidarity it has fostered, not only within its borders but also among the international community where countries as far-flung as Finland and South Korea have joined the effort to sabotage Russia’s military advance.
As we witness these unfolding events, we must be mindful of the inevitable downside to come. There is no way to predict Putin’s next moves, but recent reports show increasing indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets. The Russian opposition is massive. Scenes of brave Ukrainians armed with hunting rifles and Molotov cocktails are no match for tanks and missiles and a Russian army that vastly outnumbers the Ukrainians. As such, it is important that we not be seduced by the ballad in our heads (and hearts) that is calling us, siren-like, to expect a happy ending—that the brave souls in Ukraine will rise up and defeat Putin’s puppets and all will be well.
It is important that we prepare ourselves for what to do when (not “if,” sadly, but “when”) Ukrainian resistance falters. The emotional letdown we will experience will lead to unprecedented collective trauma in our already traumatized society. The Western world, so desperately in need of positive news, will have their hopes dashed. We must be resolved to stay the course, to continue to call out Putin for the maniac that he has revealed himself to be.
Practically, how do we carry on? What are concrete actions that can be undertaken to deepen the cause of democracy and offer relief and assistance to the Ukrainian people and others who face autocratic leaders willing to cast aside the well-being of their people to continue in power? What are pragmatic steps that organizations like the European Union, NATO or the United Nations can take to effectively safeguard peace and security for individual citizens and the sovereignty of nations from those who would impose their will across national borders, backed by modern weaponry and cyber technology?
As we cheer on those who proudly and defiantly risk death in defense of freedom, we must not to be seduced by the ballads in our head. As the facts on the ground shift, we must guard against crashing emotionally and move forward with sensible—and equally courageous—actions in the struggle for peace, justice and human dignity, even in the face of brutal threats and cold-blooded actions by unelected, unaccountable and increasingly deranged demagogues. Ultimately, I believe Putin will be defeated. When he finally receives his comeuppance, we must resolve to “man the barricades”—politically, economically, diplomatically and physically, if we must—to defend peace, justice and freedom for all.