Thanksgiving is an American holiday; arguably, the American holiday. But there is no reason that the objects of our gratitude have to be American. This year, I am grateful, above all, to the brave people of Ukraine for all their sacrifices and successes in the battle for freedom. They are fighting not just for the right to determine their own future. They are fighting for the universal principles embodied in our own Declaration of Independence.
Many people have become jaded about the prospects of democracy, which has been in decline around the world for the past 16 years. Freedom House reported in its 2022 “Freedom in the World” survey: “A total of 60 countries suffered declines over the past year, while only 25 improved. As of today, some 38 percent of the global population live in Not Free countries, the highest proportion since 1997. Only about 20 percent now live in Free countries”.
Those are depressing statistics. They show not only how effective tyrants can be in consolidating power but also how indifferent so many people can be to the loss of freedom. Many people value economic well-being over the freedom to speak their own minds and choose their own leaders. Even those of us who have kept faith in democracy have to admit it’s a highly imperfect instrument: Our political system produced, after all, the invasion of Iraq, the Great Recession and the Trump presidency. Other democracies, from Brazil to the Philippines, have fared worse. Little wonder that so many people are so indifferent to the loss of freedom.
Not the Ukrainians. Twice in the recent past — in the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution and the 2013-2014 Maidan Uprising — they took to the streets to show their refusal to allow their country to be dragged back into the Kremlin’s odious orbit. After pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country in 2014, his patron, Vladimir Putin, retaliated by seizing Crimea and launching a proxy war in Donbas. On Feb. 24, 2022 — a date that deserves to live in infamy — Putin expanded his invasion of Ukraine in the expectation that Kyiv would fall within days.
How wrong he was. The Russian president had not counted on the transformation of the Ukrainian military wrought with the help of Western advisers and weapons. Even more importantly, he had not counted on the willingness of Ukrainians to fight for their freedom rather than submit to the Russian yoke.
Ukrainians are animated by the spirit of nationalism — the most powerful force in the world for the past two centuries — but it is not a xenophobic, illiberal nationalism of the sort that Putin espouses. Ukrainians are fighting for an old-fashioned, liberal nationalism that harks back to George Washington, Simón Bolívar and Giuseppe Garibaldi. Their nationalism is expansive enough to include both Russian and Ukrainian speakers, heterosexuals and the LGBTQ community, men and women, Orthodox and Catholics, Muslims and Jews. It is little short of a miracle that Ukraine, which saw at least 1.5 million Jews die during the Holocaust, now has a Jewish president and defense minister — and both provide inspirational leadership in the midst of a terrible struggle.
It grieves me to report the price that Ukraine has paid for defending itself. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently that roughly 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed or injured along with 40,000 Ukrainian civilians. Altogether, 7.8 million Ukrainians have fled to Europe, 6.5 million have been internally displaced and 2.8 million have gone to Russia, many against their will. That’s more than 17 million refugees out of a prewar population of about 43 million.
Those who remain face growing privation as Russian airstrikes target electrical, heating and water systems to make life unbearable this winter. The Ukrainian economy has been devastated. Gross domestic product fell this year by almost 32 percent — more than U.S. GDP fell during the Great Depression.
Through it all, Ukraine’s will to fight has not flagged, any more than Britain’s did during the Blitz in 1940-1941. A Gallup poll in September found that 70 percent of Ukrainians want to fight until they win the war. More than 90 percent said victory would entail liberating all of their territory, including Crimea.
I am ashamed that a growing number of Americans — Republican, mostly — say we are doing too much to help Ukraine. Since the Russian invasion, Congress has approved $65.9 billion in assistance for Ukraine. That’s a lot of money, but it’s a paltry 0.3 percent of U.S. GDP.
Most Americans aren’t making any real sacrifice to support Ukraine; in fact, we are making a small but invaluable investment in our own security and that of our allies. It is the Ukrainians who are sacrificing everything to fight for the liberal democratic values that we hold dear. If they win — and, make no mistake, they are winning — Ukrainians will strike a mighty blow for freedom that will resonate across the world. Liberal democrats will cheer; dictators will cower.
The Ukrainians are showing how precious freedom is. For that I am immensely grateful.
Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam”.