Whatever the outcome of the moment may be, history will remember Volodymyr Zelensky as a hero. Facing the ultimate test, the Ukrainian president has chosen loyalty to his people. He and his family could have fled and ruled from exile. As a Jew, he would have been justified – Ukrainian hordes brutally turned on their Jewish neighbors in World War II, butchering them en masse and proudly boasting of their venomous Jew-hatred.
But despite the past, he is a ruler of the present, and Zelensky has elected to stay in Kyiv. “This might be the last time you see me alive,” he said in a call to the European Union last week. Compare such a leader to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who bolted at the first sound of honking trucks. Imagine if those horns were bullets.
The United States president would likely have hightailed it as well. If there remained any doubt, President Joe Biden has proven himself to be an ineffective bureaucrat whose weak leadership has had and continues to have deadly consequences. Last summer, critics predicted that Biden’s disastrous withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan would have a global ripple effect, giving the green light to Russia and China to respectively invade Ukraine and Taiwan. And so, the prediction begins to manifest.
It remains to be seen what China will do, but Beijing has already made seminal threats against the tiny island nation. The perception of an impotent US is further compounded by the Iran nuclear deal on Biden’s desk, which Israel has determined to be spectacularly worse than its disastrous predecessor signed by former President Barack Obama.
The world’s dictators always poke America and Europe to test the consequences of their actions. They play the long game, accepting slaps on the wrist while expanding the reaches of their thuggery and abuse.
These malefactors in the new axis of evil – Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea – are surely taking note. They chuckle to themselves as Biden brazenly lies to the public, telling the press that his sanctions of Russian banks amount to a heavy punishment when, in fact, one of those banks had already been sanctioned for years.
40% of Russia’s GDP comes from oil and natural gas, neither of which has been embargoed, and their massive lumber industry is holding strong. So, despite the bluster of America and the European Union, the sanctions placed on the reckless tyrant are unlikely to curtail him.
But the real absurdity of the American response is that it is arming both sides of this war. Refusing to turn our own pipelines back on, we are still buying more than 500,000 barrels of Russian oil a day, allowing Putin to fund his murderous campaign.
We then go and arm the Ukrainian people with the weapons to defend themselves from the predator we empower, pouring hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into humanitarian aid. Such an internal contradiction is beyond sinister.
Though there is much support for Ukraine, most notably in Russia, where scores have gathered in protest and roughly 6000 have already been arrested, the sad truth is that NATO and the West have failed the young country.
We failed them two decades ago when we pressured the newly independent nation to abandon its nuclear weapons on the promise that Russia would never attack. If Ukraine had a nuclear arsenal, Putin would never have taken this risk.
But Putin is smart, savvy, and seizing the day. Now is his chance. in an age when liberal democracies are governed, not by the principles of their founding, but by vainglory, profiteering, and a toxic ideology based on cultural narcissism. Such an ideology would see the West upon its knees.
NATO countries must start living up to their obligations. The goal of NATO should not be world governance, but the insurance that member states and allies will be protected and be able to protect themselves against invasion. The new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has taken a step in this direction, at last bringing Germany's military expenditure to the 2% of GDP that the treaty mandates.
While Germany has committed to sending heavy armaments to Ukraine – including 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles, it is also signaling its realization that it must protect its own borders, earmarking 100 billion euros to bolster its military.
As we await an outcome, one thing is certain: Putin has greatly underestimated the Ukrainians. Recent reports show more than 4,000 Russian soldiers killed or injured and God knows the autocrat can’t take many more. He has also underestimated his own people and their will to oppose his imperial dreams. But unfortunately, he has not underestimated the feebleness of the Biden White House.
Karys Rhea and Keren Toledano are both writers and artists living in New York City. You can find Rhea on Twitter @RheaKarys.