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A reminder for the fight against despots: Citizens are victims

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to give his annual state of the nation address in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023.
Dmitry Astakhov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via Associated Press
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to give his annual state of the nation address in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023.

In December 1940, as armies shelled cities and civilians in fragile democracies fled, President Franklin Roosevelt saw the threat and the solution

“Democracy’s fight against world conquest is greatly aided, and must be aided still more, by the rearmament of the United States and by sending every ton of ammunition and supplies we possibly can spare to aid the defenders who are on the front lines,” he said. He added: “We must be the great arsenal of democracy.”

Then as now, the current generation is challenged by democracy’s enemies. As before, on the feeblest pretexts, a charismatic dictator has sent soldiers into a neighboring nation. Once again, the dictator imagines his prey is weak because it is a democracy, backed by other democracies. And, as everyone knows, democracies are ruled by the gales of public opinion, which may suddenly shift.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is an attack not only on a peaceful and democratic neighbor but on democracy itself. Putin does not want the Ukrainians to chart their own future; they will not choose his path.

Ukrainians tried being ruled by Russian stooges in the first few decades after the Iron Curtain fell. The result was poverty and corruption. In 1990, Poland and Ukraine had almost identical per-capita national incomes. Poland embraced free elections and freer markets, while Ukraine followed the Russian model. By 2014, Poland’s per-capita income was 3 times larger than Ukraine’s and the citizens in Kyiv protested until the Russian-backed leader left office. New elections and reforms followed.

Since Russia could no longer rule its neighbor with threats or bribes, Putin sent tanks. In all cases, Putin is seeking the erase Ukraine’s democracy and its ability to decide its life for itself. His war has the same aim as his diplomacy once did — conquest.

That’s why President Biden’s surprise trip to Ukraine’s beleaguered capital on Monday is so important. It was unprecedented and brave. Biden may be the first modern U.S. president to visit an active war zone that is not controlled by U.S. troops.

Biden’s visit itself sent a message and his words sent the same message about America’s “unwavering and unflagging commitment to Ukraine’s democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.”

“Putin’s war of choice is a direct threat to European security,” said U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in a November speech in Halifax, Canada. He went on to say “Russian aggression is a clear challenge to our NATO allies,” “Russia’s deliberate cruelty is an attack on our common values” and that “Russia’s invasion tears at the rules-based international order that keeps us all secure.” 

“Our support for Ukraine’s self-defense is an investment in our own security and prosperity,” Austin said

And he’s right. Putin’s war against a democracy in the heart of Europe is an existential war.

If the Europeans want to live in both peace and freedom, they must extend their support to Ukraine. That means more weapons, more medicine and more money for refugees, both internally displaced and those scattered across NATO nations.

Putin’s draft army, reinforced by mercenaries, is waging a savage war, targeting civilian families who are guilty of nothing except trying to live peacefully in their own country. His rockets are directed against power plantshospitals and schools and his artillery shells rain down on once-sleepy suburbs. He hopes to terrorize enough Ukrainians that their support for democracy and independence will wither and die.

President Biden has made U.S. support for Ukraine the centerpiece of his case for a revitalized alliance in Europe. He wanted to mark the first anniversary of the invasion to reassure his allies that his administration remained engaged.

He kept this promise by demonstrating once again that the United States remains the defender of freedom and democracy in the world.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has said China may begin sending military aid to Russia. Chinese military support would give Russia two things that it is desperately short of: soldiers and supplies.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken let China’s rulers know, that if they aid Russia now, they will then face the same economic isolation as Russia suffers now.

Despite China’s frantic acts of decoupling and self-sufficiency, the regime knows that it still has trillions of dollars in banks across the Western world. Plus, its economy relies on inputs from abroad and needs foreign markets to recover its investments. Finally, many of the Chinese Communist Party’s top officials own beach houses, apartment blocks and even cattle ranches in the United States. The personal is political when the purse is involved.

As Ukraine fights for the survival of its democracy and as the U.S. plays its historic role as the “arsenal of democracy,” let’s remember that democracies fight other governments, not other people. The Russian and Chinese peoples have a long and storied past, a rich culture that has enlivened the world for centuries.

The people of Russia and China are not our enemies. Dictatorship is, after all, a form of a civil war with rulers against the ruled. Let’s not punish people for the evils of systems or dictators.

As before, when America rose to defend democracy, it went on to triumph and then had to rebuild. It will be easier to rebuild in Europe if we do not hate Russian individuals, only Russian atrocities.

Ahmed Charai is a Moroccan publisher. He’s on the board of directors for the Atlantic Council and the board of Trustees for The International Crisis Group in Washington.

Tags Antony Blinken China–United States relations Franklin Roosevelt Joe Biden Lloyd Austin Politics of the United States Reactions to the 2021–2022 Russo-Ukrainian crisis Russia-Ukraine invasion Russo-Ukrainian War US aid to Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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