Russia's invasion of Ukraine this week has set off a wave of interest and sympathy in the United States. It has been a very long time since I have seen Americans so invested in a conflict where American troops were not fighting. Some of this has to do with Eurocentrism, some of it has to do with pre-existing dislike of Putin, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that an unprovoked invasion makes it harder to see moral gray areas. The Irish Troubles and the Syrian civil war, for example, did not present such a clear black and white scenario for most Americans. It's harder to choose a side in an internal conflict, easier when the man who helped get Trump elected invades another country after giving an unhinged speech denying the right of former Soviet republics to exist.
In the past few days my students have not only been following the conflict, but have been discussing stories of Ukrainian bravery, like the defenders of Snake Island. My social media is on fire with stories like the Ukrainian woman telling a Russian soldier to put a sunflower seed in his pocket so that his corpse would provide fertilizer for the national flower. President Zelensky has received more praise than I have seen for a foreign leader since the days of Gorbachev. Images of anti-war protests in Russia have circulated too, adding more evidence to the idea that Ukraine is without doubt or reservation on the side of righteousness.
I feel like there is also something deeper at play here. The election of 2016 and the pandemic have blatantly exposed America's deep problems for all to see. Even in the face of an unprecedented threat to everyone in society the United States was unable to find a shred of unity. As the pandemic dawned and people here in Jersey were dying in droves red state conservatives openly showed a lack of sympathy. Trump made my governor grovel in order to get aid. We have been fighting non stop over even the most basic mitigation policies. The vaccines miraculously developed to put a stop to this have been politicized to the point that the anti-vaccination movement has actually gained strength from the pandemic. After our last election a fascist mob took over the Capitol and tried to overturn the results to keep a deranged despot in power. Since that election any hopes for positive political change and escape from dysfunction have been smothered.
Americans are sharing stories of Ukrainian bravery because so they desperately want to be capable of laying claim to such glory. Putin manipulated the 2016 election but conservative broadcasters like Tucker Carlson openly kiss his ass on national television. We can't even get people to wear a mask and ordinary Ukrainians are grabbing rifles and making Molotov cocktails and putting their lives on the line. Our leaders seem to only care about themselves and maintaining power, President Zelensky has stayed in harm's way and seems prepared to die if he has to. The past few years have proven the United States to be an ungovernable mess, a polity so broken that any notion of collective sacrifice is impossible, even in the worst emergency. The Ukrainian response to invasion puts this country to shame.
Seeing this dynamic play out I am also concerned about Americans, safe here from falling bombs and flying bullets, treating Ukrainians as their mascots. The bravery of the Snake Island defenders was tremendous, but their story mostly just makes me sad. Thirteen lives lost because of a cruel tyrant's whim. Instead of cheering from the sidelines, we need to think about what we can materially do to help. Not just sanctions, but taking in refugees. Not just shouting encouragement to Ukrainians fighting for their lives, but also doing the hard work of fixing this broken democracy.