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The free world has watched in horror and shame for over a month as the Russian army has pushed into Ukrainian territory, committing war crimes with tacit international permission. For the past eight years, the United States has slowly abandoned its vaunted role as leader of the free world. Since 2014, Ukraine has been the only democratic state making any genuine efforts or sacrifice to stave off the impending demise of Western and democratic hegemony. 

When Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, it was more than clear its ambitions didn’t end there. But the United States has spent the last eight years in a cycle of hand-wringing and abject denial, utterly refusing to confront the existential threat Russia has long posed to the world order. “They eat McDonald’s now! They’re in EuroVision! They’re just like us,” our government wailed, while Russia razed the Chechen city of Grozny to the ground. That’s still better than the Western response to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s brutal campaign against Aleppo, Syria, which amounted to a few hundred jets in the air, some minor confrontation with Russian mercenaries and a collective “if only the victims were white” shrug.

In response to Russian war crimes — and, yes, they are war crimes — American leaders have vacillated between vociferous tablebanging and open refusal to commit U.S. troops to defending Ukraine. It’s no wonder Putin felt he could invade Ukraine with minimal military pushback. And for all of the talk about how this war has been such a catastrophe for Putin (and it absolutely has been), the West looks weaker now than it has since 1939. 

It bears asking: Why has the U.S. avoided a larger role in ensuring the safety of a sovereign, democratic nation that has practically been beating down the doors of NATO and the European Union for more than 10 years? Why has the entire Western world been so hesitant to embrace Ukraine as one of its own? Post-Soviet stigma is pervasive, but our refusal to engage Russia militarily isn’t derived from some bush-league post-Cold War animus — this is deeper. 

The American government’s mindset, which amounts to avoiding direct conflict with Russia no matter how direct the provocation or how disgusting the atrocities perpetrated against Ukraine, abdicates the U.S. moral authority to claim itself as a defender of democracy. The Biden administration — not to mention the United Nations — has quietly refused to characterize Russia’s blatant, televised terror campaign as a genocide against the Ukrainian people, while still acknowledging the evil of the Russian occupiers’ acts of violence against innocents. The war in Ukraine is a genocide. Not maybe, not if this or that happens. 

They’re shelling maternity hospitals and kindergartens to rubble. They’re firing indiscriminately at civilian targets. They’re carpet bombing evacuation routes. They’re holding nuclear facilities hostage and risking irradiating half a continent. Civilians in the Russian-occupied city of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov in Donetsk Oblast, have been massacred en masse, cut off from resources and living largely without reliable food sources, heating, plumbing or electricity for a month. So why won’t the U.S., U.N. or any other prominent defender of democracy call it what it obviously is? 

What exactly, then, is going to motivate the U.S., NATO and/or the EU to act? Emmanuel Macron has spent weeks making token phone calls to Putin, demanding ceasefires he knows won’t come and a withdrawal from Ukraine he knows Putin can’t contemplate if he wants to keep his grip on power. Germany, Slovakia, The Czech Republic, Poland and Bulgaria have so far been unable to muster the collective will to reinforce the Ukrainian Air Force for fear of being seen as escalating the conflict by the Russian government. Germany’s economy and climate minister said it would take a minimum of two years for his country to ease its dependence on Russian oil. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is rumored to have urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to surrender to Russia — the most egregious sign of fecklessness yet from a Western ally. 

Worst of all, the United States has bent over backwards to avoid instituting a no-fly zone over Ukraine, fearing Putin’s empty threats of nuclear armageddon. Of course, that’s only the latest American abandonment of democracy in Ukraine. Lest we forget, this comes after former President Donald J. Trump was impeached for attempting to extort Zelenskyy by holding up the sale of American-made Javelin anti-tank systems, which have proven indispensable to Ukrainian success against the Russian invading force. 

It looks like there’s only one democratic country truly interested in deterring Russia from lowering a second Iron Curtain: Ukraine itself. As Biden leaves us wondering what U.S. policy on Russia even is, and the Germans kindly ask Putin to keep their power grids running, the leader of the free world is Volodymyr Zelenskyy. You read that right — an alliance which includes a seasoned statesman with 50 years’ experience (Biden) and a civil servant educated at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Macron) is being led most effectively by a former Ukrainian “Dancing with the Stars” contestant. Nobody is mocking Zelenskyy. When the history of the 21st century is written, Zelenskyy will be its first true hero. He has galvanized his people with one-liners that will echo through time as wartime cries for democracy. By refusing to leave Kyiv at grave risk to himself and pushing the slumbering West to its feet as best he can, President Zelenskyy has proven himself to be a leader. This is more a commentary on how unfortunate it is that Zelenskyy, who had no prior political experience when elected in 2019, is the one forced to drive this bus when the world leaders sitting behind him have centuries of combined experience and soft power that they have chosen to not to use. Zelenskyy has proven more than up to the challenge — a galvanizing wartime leader and a fierce defender of democracy and national sovereignty around the world. But that wasn’t supposed to be his job. It should be our job. We’re not avoiding a bigger role because we can’t meet the challenge. We’re avoiding it because it sounds hard.

Jack Roshco is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at jroshco@umich.edu.